Islamist terror: the new normal?

Sunday 29 October, 17:3018:45, Pit TheatreEye on the World

London mayor Sadiq Khan has called the threat of terrorism ‘part and parcel’ of living in a big city. Numerous commentators have pointed out that living in open societies that allow people to travel and mingle freely means that it is almost impossible to stop terrorists from attacking people once they have chosen to do so. While explosives and automatic weapons were used in attacks on Manchester and Paris, offering a greater possibility of detecting perpetrators in advance, other recent attacks in London and Barcelona have reminded us that no sophisticated knowledge or materials are required to launch an attack – vans and knives are quite enough.

But there is concern that suggesting we must get used to a constant threat and be prepared for attacks at any time may also create complacency and a degree of fatalism in regard to tackling Islamist terror, which rarely touched the West 20 years ago, but now occurs with depressing frequency. Though Muslims remain the biggest victims of Islamic extremism, Western nations are increasingly being targeted by homegrown jihadis. We sometimes seem to have become desensitised to Islamist suicide bombings and mass killings in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Egypt and Nigeria, which are now so commonplace that they rarely make the headlines. Is that going to be same in Europe, especially if we shrug our shoulders as though little can be done to tackle Islamism, beyond security clampdowns that affect our own liberties?

Of course, terrorism in Europe has been through other periods when bombings and shootings were relatively common, from the Red Brigades in Italy and Germany’s Red Army Faction to IRA activity associated with the longstanding conflict in Northern Ireland. Is the ‘new normal’ simply the ‘old normal’, or is there something different about today’s attacks? This latest wave of attacks seems different, if only because they are united by an assault on European values and free society per se and also in how we respond to them. Whereas in the past terror attacks might have inspired police, military and even community action, and certainly extensive political debate, now once-exceptional events follow a familiar pattern. Today we have outpourings of prayers and declarations of solidarity, constantly given official approval. While such a response may make us feel better in the short term, there are worries that perhaps they do little to address the root cause of this horror: Islamism.

Changing your online profile picture to the flag of the latest country attacked or starting a hashtag campaign won’t stop the next incidence of terror. British physician Anthony Daniels, writing under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple, has argued that this response gives terrorists ‘the impression of living in a weak society that will be easy to destroy, so that their acts are not in the least nihilistic or pointless, as is often claimed. They perceive ours as a candle-and-teddy-bear society (albeit mysteriously endowed with technological prowess): We kill, you light candles.’ But perhaps such a dismissal of people’s wish to show their camaraderie, to come together and prove that we are resilient, as shown in the impressive and inspiring #ManchesterOneLove concert, is too harsh.

However, while calls for unity may be well-intentioned, there seems more resistance to discussing what values we should unify around or who those values are opposed by and why; to asking why people have died, or rage against their dying. For example, raising critical comments about Islamism’s hostility to Western values is regularly denounced as a form of ‘Islamophobia’, even if the speaker or writer is keen to distinguish between law-abiding Muslims and extremists. Warnings of racist backlashes and intensified policing of speech on social media can leave people tongue-tied and nervous even about asking difficult questions, let alone exploring possible solutions.

What is the right response to these terrorist attacks? As the impact of terrorism is determined far more by society’s response to it than by the actual barbarities themselves, might a full and frank debate about the gravity of the threat create a heightened sense of panic and flatter the pretensions of the terrorists as a conquering foe? Should we emphasise peace and solidarity in the hope of dissuading or isolating potential assailants? Do we need a more authoritarian crackdown, even if it means giving up some of our liberties? How can we tackle the root causes of Islamist terror or do we have to accept that it is here to stay?