After the Paris Attacks: The Battle for Europe’s Soul

Days after the Paris attacks, Europe is only slowly awakening from a state of shock. The events served as a painful reminder of our vulnerabilities from within and the daunting threats we face from abroad. A reflection on seven challenges looming on Europe’s horizon.

1. A balancing act between a firm commitment to our values and a nationalist backlash:  One of the most touching videos released on Friday evening showed a crowd of soccer fans singing the French national anthem while leaving the Stade de France. This had nothing to do with blind nationalism. It symbolized a firm and vocal commitment to a shared political identity based on the founding principles of the Grande Nation. It was a spirited affirmation of our democratic values, and of our free societies. Yes, our liberal democracies are far from perfect, and we need a self-critical assessment of our failure to prevent home-grown radicalization within our midst. At the same time, we’re blessed to live in the one of the freest and most democratic corners of this world. As much as this is a time of mourning and self-reflection, it is also the time of cherishing the values we aspire to live by to this day: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.  

2. Do not let the bigots win: In this dark hour, we need a broad political coalition of moderates to prevent a scenario in which the Front National and other bigots will become the winners of this painful Friday night. This is not the time for political bickering and opportune skirmishes between the governing parties and the opposition, or amongst different parties in the political center. In particular, Europe’s democrats need to join forces in rejecting the false connection between the Paris attacks and the refugee crisis made by populist politicians. The vast majority of refugees coming to Europe are themselves fleeing violence and arbitrary persecution. The refugee crisis has very little to do with the Paris attacks, and we should carefully separate the two issues. The vast majority of attackers were in fact European citizens. Those now trying to capitalize on the attacks by demanding to close our borders to refugees should be ashamed to instrumentalize this tragedy for their political agenda.

3. A level-headed debate on the balance between privacy and security: The myth of absolute security exists only in a police state. Our open societies are inherently vulnerable, and there’s a certain price we choose to pay for our civil liberties. This mustn’t change in the aftermath of Paris. Now as much as ever, we need to prevent a backlash that swings the pendulum too far in the direction of unrestrained state control and surveillance (the US Patriot Act after 9/11 serves as a warning example). But it is equally true that our civil liberties depend on a basic sense of personal security. We therefore must acknowledge the need for strong and resourceful security agencies and cross-national cooperation on data and intelligence sharing. While democratic oversight and parliamentary control of our security agencies are of utmost importance, we shouldn’t pretend that the European or US security agencies are our biggest enemies. Paris reminds us that we need to engage in a level-headed and sober debate on the balance between security and privacy. 

4. Call a spade a spade: Many European commentators were quick to point out that terrorism has no religion. In fact, in most cases it does. To be clear: Islamic extremists pervert and distort Islam as the vast majority of Muslims interpret it today. But we cannot ignore the fact that nearly all terrorists today base their hateful actions on religious grounds. Ignoring this religious element will certainly prevent us to from waging and winning the war over the hearts and minds of those at risk of radicalization. Lastly, to state the obvious: we are not at war with Islam, or with the vast majority of Muslims distancing themselves from Islamic extremists. Just take a look at the make-up of the French security forces securing the streets after the Paris attacks: a large number of them were Parisians Muslims of North African descent.

5. Hiding is not an answer: Some commentators were quick to suggest that ISIS didn't declare war on the West or on Christianity, but that its attacks on Paris were carried out in retaliation for France's air strike against ISIS in Syria. Does that mean that we could live in peace with ISIS if we just left them alone? How much havoc is Europe prepared to tolerate in its neighborhood? What is our response to the system of sex slavery ISIS has established; and the merciless persecution of minorities, such as the Yazidis in Iraq? Just a few days ago the Kurdish Peshmerga discovered mass graves after taking back Sinjar. We cannot simply bury our heads in the sand and wait for this evil to pass. This concerns each and every one of us, not just because our refugee centers are overflowing. There are no easy answers for how to respond to ISIS’ carnage, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan post 9/11 serve as a daunting example. But simply letting ISIS rage in Syria and Iraq is not a viable option. Like it or not, we are in this for the long haul.

6. Do not believe Assad’s propaganda: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, much like the commentators mentioned above, suggested that the bombings in Paris were a direct result of France’s intervention in Syria. Interestingly enough, he did not publically draw the same conclusion when the Russian plane came down over Sinai a few weeks ago. So while Assad aims to delegitimize the French intervention against ISIS in Syria, he simultaneously brands himself as the only viable bulwark against Islamic terror. Something doesn’t add up here, right?  Which brings me to the seventh and final point.

7. Be cautious of alliances of convenience: This argument has been made over and over again, but it is worth repeating: Assad and ISIS are two sides of the same coin, and fighting ISIS alone will not succeed as long as Assad remains in power. A similarly cautious approach should be applied with regard to an alliance of convenience with President Putin, who has invested a lot of political capital and military resources to shore up the Assad regime over the past four years. Granted, a certain degree of cooperation with Russia might be necessary in order to de-escalate the situation in Syria and to coordinate the international fight against ISIS. But we should not bow to their agenda. Let’s not kid ourselves about Putin’s goals and his knee-deep support for the person bearing the bulk of responsibility for the Syrian nightmare.