The terrorist attacks in Paris, on the night of Friday, 13 November, have shaken France, the rest of Europe and beyond. Although not the first major attack on the French capital in the course of this year, with the Charlie Hebdo massacre only some ten months earlier, this took terrorism to another level, in terms of audacity and coordination on the part of the perpetrators, and number of victims. With more than 120 people dead and almost one hundred more fighting for their lives, several suicide bombers and indiscriminate killings, this was a scene of Baghdad or Beirut enacted in the heart of Europe, like never before.
In response, France is now under lockdown, in a total state of emergency that reportedly has not been imposed since World War II, and with its borders closed, as allowed by the Schengen rules in exceptional circumstances. At the same time, the cross-border dimensions of the attacks are becoming increasingly clear. The perpetrators included French nationals but also a person with a Syrian passport that had recently passed through Greece as a refugee, residents of Belgium and possibly a German connection. Obviously those bent on terrorizing Europe and the world are well coordinated and working in tandem across borders, unlike Europe itself, it seems.
The long-term effect of these attacks, once the initial shock and the pain have been moderated by time, may be that France and Europe as a whole may become more closed, suspicious, and security-conscious. It may lead to measures against the Muslim populations, which are significant in numbers in countries like France, Belgium, Germany and the UK. It may also lead to restrictions on the freedom of movement and even the freedom of expression of citizens across Europe. This would be a major mistake, and a victory for the forces of darkness that the so-called Islamic State’s masterminds have unleashed against civilization and humanity.
More than anything, this is a battle of ideas and narratives. The Islamic State apparently sees itself as the agent of change, of a new world order that reverses whatever has been achieved in terms of human rights, equality and freedom. A perverted version of Islam that serves a God full of hatred and bent on evil. This may well reflect the state of mind of the Islamic State’s leaders and followers. Scarred by collective and personal memories of persecution and discrimination, they apparently see themselves as angels of revenge, fear and death.
However, no new order can be built on such negative foundations. The mistakes committed by Europe, the West and others around the world may be many over the centuries: colonialism, slavery, unjustified interventions for profit, plundering of natural resources. What saves Europe, though, and the West, is the internal state of freedom, democracy and rule of law that still prevails. Without justifying external bad behaviour, this recognized freedom of each and every individual human being is of paramount value and the basis of Western civilization. This is not a claim to supremacy, and can and should be strengthened further, to embrace more wholeheartedly and equally individuals and communities of different cultural, ethnic and religious origins, for whom Europe is their home too. The basis is there, though, and it is no small achievement either, fought and gained through the Middle Ages and countless religious and other wars.
We cannot accept to be drawn back to the Middle Ages, by the horror inflicted upon us by ISIS or through possible measures in response to that. The wake up call for our societies, Europe as a whole and the broader world is clear: freedom and rights cannot be taken for granted, and complacency can only lead to their gradual loss. We need to be active again, unite our strengths, fight the evil for what it is but keeping our humanity and values, in fact strengthening them in theory and practice. The positive narrative we have forgotten has to come back, and the indulgence in materialism has to be checked – that way we can be sure that terrorism will not prevail.