Jihadist Populism

9/11 is never far away. Schaerbeek, December 2015.

Despite the Islamic rhetoric fused with their actions, the mujahideen in Brussels, like those in Paris before them, are less a threat to Europe than a product of it. As details are released about the attackers, it will be crucial to remember that in nearly every case, their sense of societal exclusion, and willingness to organise violently to assert themselves, is distinctly European. 

Security experts agree that the bombings were not a surprise. The BBC’s Frank Gardner has argued that Belgian intelligence agencies have been struggling to organise themselves in response to events in Paris, anticipating such an event taking place in Belgium. But, he points out, security forces did not adequately prepare themselves for what might follow their arrest of French national Salah Abdelsalam. Yet, missing, as usual, from Gardner’s otherwise correct analysis, is an appreciation of the social dimensional of the violence.

For all their difficulties in treating Belgium’s Muslim community as equals, the country’s political echelon has shown more sensitivity than the punditocracy. A good example are the recent exchanges that have taken place between members of the Belgian government, and their French counterparts.

When French Finance Minister Michel Sapin accused “certain leaders” of “naiveté” in hesitating from carrying out security crackdowns on the Muslim community, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders “retorted that each country should look to its own social problems, saying France too had rough high-rise suburbs in which militants had become radicalised.”

It may seem obvious, but the retort acknowledges more than anything uttered by France’s leadership since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. They are not likely to be culturally significant and influential, however they beg to be understood. After all, these are conservative politicians running a highly bureaucratised country. They are not known for their warmth, or openness to such analysis.

Equally surprising to this clarity has been a lack of appreciation of the role of the financial crisis in accelerating the implosion of Belgium’s North African community. The same forces associated with European austerity policies, which help nurture fascist populism, also cultivate its Islamist variants. Essentially, it’s the same response, in Muslim religious vernacular. This shouldn’t be a revelation. But understanding it is the first step in accepting that people like Abdelsalam are not foreigners. They are European, along with their politics.

Mainstream analyses tend to crudely assume that there is something “foreign” about the mujahideen operating in European countries like France and Belgium. This is usually because of their Muslim identities, which more than any links to al-Qaeda or Islamic State, is the point of contention for anxious European conservatives. It is also appealing to call these militants foreign because it coalesces misgivings about immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers more generally.

It is critical to push against this narrative of the foreigner jihadist, and that requires an understanding of its logic. European institutions are irrationally comfortable with designating someone living in Europe as “foreign” despite the fact that they were born in one of the member states, and spent much of their lives within its accepted boundaries. This is because the term foreigner is not meant to be factually accurate. Rather, it is an expression of the contempt that conservatives have towards certain populations in their midst, which in France and Belgium, is a result of the state’s perceived ethnic character.

Populations that experience that contempt must navigate immense everyday racism and structural discrimination, a situation which has worsened since the 2007 financial crisis. Inevitably, some begin to feel an intense amount of bitterness and despair, directed against the countries that have excluded them. One of its possible modes of expression is violence, which asserts the restrained sovereignty of the European mujahid subject. This is not the only way that these populations express their discontent (statistically only a small fraction of European Muslims actually do it), but it has the potential of resulting in events like the bombings in Brussels.

European mujahideen are just one of the many signs of Europe’s decline in the post-Cold War era. Rather than building participatory, ethnically neutral liberal democracies, EU member states have become increasingly conservative, frequently conjuring up memories of 20th century fascism. They remain nominally democratic, however their rising intolerance is a new social model, equally reflected in minorities. Islamic conservatism is not just an alienated response to racism. Rather, it is clearly inspired by it, and its ‘will to power’ is a sign of the degree of Muslim powerlessness in neoliberal European societies.

Will European Muslims ever achieve the level of ‘normalcy’ they aspire to, that they witness other ethnic groups benefiting from? It’s hard to tell. Contemporary European racism is true to its populist character: it is a mix of left and right, reconciling intolerance with a defense of the welfare state. In an era of austerity, this mix attracts an increasing number of converts with various articulations. In such a scenario, it’s hard to imagine there will ever be break with the decline in civility that has become commonplace in Europe. One can only imagine it producing more terrorism, and more repression, in return.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit.