Burqa and burkini bans in Europe give the impression of real action when, in truth, they leave the core issue unaddressed — to strike at the roots of terror.
A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate
Europe is under pressure. Integrating asylum-seekers and other migrants — 1.1 million in Germany alone in 2015 — into European society poses a major challenge, one that has been complicated by a spike in crimes committed by new arrivals. Making matters worse, many European Muslims have become radicalized, with some heading to Iraq and Syria to fight under the banner of the so-called Islamic State, and others carrying out terror attacks at home. Add to that the often-incendiary nativist rhetoric of populist political leaders, and the dominant narrative in Europe is increasingly one of growing insecurity.
Many European countries are moving to strengthen internal security. But their approach is incomplete, at best.
Germany and others have introduced new measures, including an increase in police personnel, accelerated deportation of migrants who have committed crimes, and the authority to strip German citizenship from those who join foreign “terror militias.” Other steps include enhanced surveillance of public places and the creation of new units focused on identifying potential terrorists through their Internet activities.
The pressure to reassure the public has driven Belgium, Bulgaria, France, and the Netherlands, as well as the Swiss region of Ticino and the Italian region of Lombardy, to ban the burqa (the full-body covering worn by ultraconservative Muslim women) and other face-covering veils in some or all public places. Several French coastal cities have also banned the burkini, the full-body swimsuit some Muslim women wear to the beach.
Even Germany, whose Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière initially rejected such a ban, has succumbed to pressure from allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel and proposed a ban on face-covering veils in public places where identification is required. Such clothing, the logic goes, is not conducive to integration.
But no internal security measures, much less clothing requirements, can guarantee Europe’s safety. To find a real solution, European leaders must address the ideological roots of the security challenges they face.
The problem is not Islam, as many populists claim (and as the burqa and burkini bans suggest). Muslims have long been part of European society, accounting for about 4% of Europe’s total population in 1990 and 6% in 2010. And previous waves of immigration from Muslim countries have not brought surges in terrorist activity within Europe’s borders. For example, beginning in the 1960s, roughly three million migrants from Turkey settled in Germany to meet the booming economy’s demand for labor, without posing any internal security threat.
Today, that threat results from radical Islamism — a fundamentalist vision of society reordered according to Sharia law. Beyond enduring untold suffering and violence, many of today’s refugees, from war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria, have imbibed radical Islamist ideology and, specifically, calls to jihad. Some might be Islamic State fighters who have disguised themselves as asylum-seekers, in order to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe. US intelligence officials have repeatedly warned of this possibility.
Even for the majority of asylum-seekers, who are genuinely seeking safety, the violence and Islamist rhetoric to which they have been exposed may have had a powerful psychological impact. After living for so long in a conflict zone, assimilating to a peaceful society governed by the rule of law requires the newcomers to develop a new mindset, one that enables them to face genuine challenges without resorting to criminality.
And this does not even account for the deep psychological scars that will afflict many of the refugees. Research indicates that more than 50% of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience at least partial posttraumatic stress disorder, which is associated with an increased risk of violence.
To many in Europe, these factors suggest that the key to keeping Europe safe is controlling the flow of refugees, including through improved vetting procedures. (Such procedures have often been lacking, owing to the sheer number of refugees pouring in.) And there is a case for keeping the refugees in the Middle East, though a key mechanism for doing that — the European Union’s deal with Turkey — is now at risk, owing to political turmoil following last month’s failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
But not even constructing a Fortress Europe would eliminate the terrorist threat. After all, some attacks, including in Brussels and Paris, have been carried out by Muslim European citizens who became radicalized in their own bedrooms. According to Rob Wainwright, who heads Europol, some 5,000 European jihadists have been to Syria and Iraq, and “several hundred” are likely plotting further attacks in Europe after returning home.
The only way to address the threat of terrorism effectively is to tackle the radical Islamist ideology that underpins it. This means working to stop the religious-industrial complexes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and elsewhere in the Gulf from using their abundant petrodollars to fund the spread of extremist ideology.
It also means launching a concerted information campaign to discredit that ideology, much like the West discredited communism during the Cold War — a critical component of its eventual triumph. This is a job for all major powers, but it is a particularly urgent task for Europe, given its proximity to the Middle East, especially the new jihadist citadels that countries like Syria, Iraq, and Libya represent.
To take down the terrorists requires delegitimizing the belief system that justifies their actions. Burqa bans and other measures by European authorities that target Islam as such are superficial and counter-productive, as they create divisions in European society, while leaving the ideological underpinnings of terrorism unaddressed.