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Terrorism questions European tolerance and stamina

One wonders whether the EU will stay true to its core democratic values of tolerance and diversity

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

When the Berlin Wall came down back in 1989 and soon thereafter the Cold War came to an end, it was widely believed that Europe’s long-term peace, stability and prosperity were finally ensured. From the ashes of the Second World War emerged the idea of an enlightened and democratic continent that harnessed its energy towards collaborative economic development for the benefit of everyone, instead of the constant and devastating wars of the past.

In the post-Cold War era with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the fall of communism, the door opened for the European experiment to expand. The cooperation of the two former historical archenemies, Germany and France, was at the heart of the emerging socio-political-economic union and therefore carried a great deal of practical and symbolical significance. It attracted other countries to join, and seemingly appeared, at least for a while, to unite its ever-growing membership in terms of values and common aims.

However, what was in recent times widely believed to be a triumph for neo-liberalism and for human nature in its struggle to overcome its demonic tendency for war and aggression, is presently at a crucial watershed. In the face of mounting fears from Islamist extremism and uncontrolled migration, combined with a protracted economic slowdown, strong elements of old Europe have resurfaced along with its strong xenophobic and nationalistic tendencies.

It leaves many to wonder whether this union will be able ride out this storm and stay true to its core democratic values of tolerance and diversity.

What was in recent times widely believed to be a triumph for neo-liberalism and for human nature in its struggle to overcome its demonic tendency for war and aggression, is presently at a crucial watershed

Yossi Mekelberg

Fear psychosis

In the wake of fear of terrorism, the German government is reported to have adopted a policy, which instructs its citizens to stockpile enough food for ten days and clean drinking water for five days. France’s National Assembly voted last month to extend the state of emergency, following the terrorist attack in Nice, for another six months and countries such as the UK and Belgium are on high terror alert.

Only a fool would be complacent in the face of the high risk of terrorism and extremism Europe is facing at present. There is also no denial that those who have perpetrated some heinous murderous acts claimed they were carried out on behalf of the religion of Islam. However, it would be equally foolish and irresponsible for Europe to associate an entire religion and its followers with violence and the harboring of extreme ideas.

It would end in the sacrifice of the very foundations of the European Union and hand a victory to the terrorists and those within European societies who never believed in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Europe. Terrorism and extremism win only by causing a rupture between those who would otherwise coexist peacefully with one another.

Decision makers frequently face the danger of either overreacting or not doing enough when confronted with crisis and danger. Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the European idea, warned back in 1950 that “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.” The EU was from the outset an experimental project, which had no single plan, but was a journey of rebuilding postwar Europe to provide its citizens with economic and social benefits in an ever changing circumstances.

Enthusiasm to skepticism

From the height of Euro-enthusiasm of the 1990s and early 2000s, we now face a growing scepticism of the viability of the EU. The leaders of the eurozone’s three largest countries met last week on a small southern Italian island to discuss Europe beyond Brexit. The main topic of discussion was the increase in euroskepticism throughout the EU, as a consequence of the ongoing migration crisis, terrorist threats and the protracted economic stagnation.

Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande and Prime Minister Renzi, could not escape the reality that many across the bloc see these issues as interwoven and exploited by nationalist movements. The danger lies that in the combating of terrorism and extremism it may unintentionally lead to a cultural-religious war. In response to current security threats European secular-liberalism is becoming intolerant towards anyone that does not conform to its social norms.

The rather absurd attempt to ban of the full body burkini swimsuit from seaside resorts in France epitomizes this intolerance, which needlessly aggravates inter-communal relations. The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls asserted that the burkini was “not compatible with the values of France,” while the deputy mayor of Nice claimed that “hiding the face or wearing a full-body costume to go to the beach is not keeping with our ideal of social relations.”

Indeed the French Riviera is known for minimal clothing on its beaches, however, unless those who oppose the burkini, in their ignorance, correlate it with extremism and even terrorism, why would it be banned? This is a pointless battle with no winners, only losers. The road to totalitarianism is paved with using the legal system to enforce particular social and individual preferences, even on those who cause no harm, but only have different customs and beliefs.

It is not only French liberté, égalité, fraternité that is under threat. Brexit and the rise of extreme right wing movements in Central and Eastern Europe are chilling reminders that nationalism in on the march again and if not stopped the future of the continent is bleak. It is actually by intelligently dissecting the challenges that Europe is facing, and by remaining true to its tolerant foundations, that European societies and the European Union can avoid further deterioration in inter-communal relations across the continent and social implosion.

Obviously security threats must be dealt with adequately and competently, but alienating large segments of society will inadvertently push at least some into the arms of radical and opportunistic clerics. Instead inclusiveness and integration will benefit the vast majority of those who live in Europe, as long as everyone adheres to the principles of tolerance and non-violence. When burkini becomes perceived as a national threat it’s definitely time to reconsider our priorities.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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