In the meantime, the first impressions of our Brussels workshop have been posted online by our funders… Thank you all for a very rewarding experience.
In the meantime, the first impressions of our Brussels workshop have been posted online by our funders… Thank you all for a very rewarding experience.
Further to my previous post about Brussels some days ago, two apparently unrelated analyses appear to confirm my observations about the reasons behind IS expansion. According to terrorism expert Hassan Hassan, the strategy of hitting targets in Europe, far removed from their operational bases in the Middle East and Northern Africa, is increasingly unrelated to the loss of terrain they are experiencing in the latter. On the contrary, the attacks in Paris and Brussels show how IS is trying to take control over former Al Qaeda networks by aligning and associating themselves with the latter’s militants.
In an unrelated analysis, Scott Atran -an anthropologist working in France and the UK- warns not to underestimate the ideological traction of the IS Caliphate. In the poor neighbourhoods of Casablanca and Tetuan, as in the Parisian banlieus, he and his colleagues encountered a widespread acceptance, if not a sharing, of IS values as well as the brutal violence committed in its name. Despite some of the factual mistakes in Atran’s text (which are discussed in part on the Aeon forum) the key message is valid and lays in what Edmund Burke, in a different context, calls the attraction for the sublime -or the fascination to fight for a glorious and unifying cause.
Far from being miserable paupers, or a rejected Lumpenproletariat (as Diego Gambetta showed for other historical examples), IS suicide bombers not only share this fascination, but they are also ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in favour of this greater good as well as for their group of companions with whom they share intimate relationships (Atran talks about a fusion of identity in this regard). In this sense it does not come as a big surprise that the large majority of IS recruits are mobilised through their proper families, the French centre against religious radicalisation (or CPDSI) reveals. Rather than more police and camouflage on the streets, therefore, what might be needed instead are closer contacts with such families at risk as well as community leaders. In their unwillingness to also address the socio-psychological causes of this terrorist (or, as Atran provocatively says, “revolutionary”) struggle, European leaders continue to play into the cards of the IS military leadership, which is becoming increasingly apt in exploiting this diminishing grey zone between the sovereign life of post-modern (neo)liberal democracies, and the killing of this life in the name of revolutionary sacrifice…
I’ve been willing to write something about Brussels for a while now, but somehow I missed the words. Other than the tragic loss of 32 lives, the wounding of many others, as well as the fact that the attack took place in Belgium, where I was born, in an airport where I’ve passed dozens of times, a metro I regularly took, perhaps the most sobering aspect of the 22 March attacks has been the widespread resignation with which they have been received. Contrarily to Paris and New York, there were no patriotic speeches on the rubble of crumbled buildings; and few were the propositions to ‘smoke out the terrorists’ from their ‘caves’ and hideouts.
One reason might be the awareness that the neuralgic centre of the attacks lay a few miles from where they took place this time. In that respect, it’s been ironic how Brussels, and Belgium by extension, has quickly acquired the epithet of the ‘failed state’ in quite similar ways Afghanistan or Somalia continue to be described by some conservative think-tanks like the Fund for Peace. Driven by almost revanchist undertones (for example in these reflections by Tim King and former war reporter Teun Voeten for Politico), Belgium’s dysfunctional federalism is taken as a mirror for the ‘lawlessness’ and rising radicalism in the Brussels neighbourhood known as the terrorists’ headquarters. Such analysis not only glosses over the systematic institutional hypocrisy with regard to the city’s, admittedly, major problems (which are confronted with the usual mix of militarisation and social neglect) but it also mistakes such wider social unrest for the jihadi’s personal motivations. Besides the fact that Belgium still produces more foreign fighters than any other European country, one must not forget that none of the attackers (neither of Paris nor of Brussels) were interested in radical Islam until very late before they decided to dedicate themselves to the armed struggle. Observers, like Olivier Roy and Fabio Merone, who know the wider recruitment basis of ISIS in Europe a bit, all agree that the religious extremism of these young people is nothing more than anger dressed as Islam. Otherwise how do you explain that Abdelsalam Salah was “drinking beer and smoking joints” a few weeks from the attacks of the Bataclan, as some of his friends recalled in front of the cameras…
In that respect I much more preferred a report by l’Espresso (unfortunately not translated into English) which places the reasons for this rage in the socio-cultural divide between first and second generation immigrants, and the fact that immigrant youth risk to see their host country and their parents as traitors of a failed life project (or, as one foreign fighter explained to his mother shortly before he left: “If I had blond hair and be called Jacques I would most likely be sitting at my comfortable job at the commune, but with my Arab name I can’t even find work as a street-sweeper”). Even if this sounds absurd for the majority of muslim youth in Belgium, ISIS has become very apt at exploiting the projects of revenge that germinate in a life enmeshed with boredom, frustration and petty criminality for a minority of them in very similar ways as the Camorra has taken grip over its strongholds of Scampia or Castelvolturno in the Italian de-industrialized South. With the only difference that ISIS does not (just) promise money and power but also paradise. Feeling rejected by their homes, organised violence provides for these youngsters a new family in many respects -awkward as it is.
But BXL22M also forces us to consider more seriously the changing geography of global warfare these days. Besides the risk of urban conflict strategic think thanks warn for (of which Brussels has been another prominent example the last few days), global jihad cannot be limited to a war ‘in the borderlands’, but it also comprises a wider structural basis in the many de-industrialized cities of the North that continue to germinate frustration and revenge. How to connect these dots will be an important task for the future, as will be the challenge to avenge right-wing extremism that is rising at equal pace.
The many predictions. The fear. The waiting. And then, the blast.
It is ironic that among the victims of the Paris Attacks last Friday, there was a volunteer of the humanitarian aid organization Emergency, whose members operate in Syria and Afghanistan to assist victims of war. Commenting her death, Gino Strada, the founder of Emergency, summarized this irony by paraphrasing the German poet Bertold Brecht:
Years of destruction and “strategic foreign policy blunders” –starting with the ill-conceived transition of post-Saddam Iraq and continuing with a series of haphazardly planned interventions in North Africa and the Middle East led by an axis of French, British and US forces, are presenting their bloody bill to populations in Syria, in Iraq, in Turkey, in Libya and Lebanon…
–and now, also, in Europe.
Even more so than the previous one in January, the Paris attack of 13 November shows that there can be no more far-away wars for Europeans. After 50 years of relative ‘peace’, which was, in hindsight, no less hard-lived than it was illusory and fragile, the Old Continent is once more caught in the eye of the storm. That in itself may already be a rather hard lesson to swallow for some of its inhabitants: as intelligence services across the Atlantic are warning more attacks may be coming ahead soon, we might actually be seeing the first war refugees moving across Europe as a result of persistent terror threats in some countries (one friend of mine, who lives at 200 meters from one of the attack sites, admitted she had wanted to leave France for some time: ‘you can literally feel the tension in the streets,’ she said. I imagine she is not the only one).
A second fundamental insight, I think, is that Europe is increasingly waging a war on itself. By this I mean not only the eroding rights of secondary and aspiring citizens who are living their increasingly secluded lives. But also the very idea of unity in diversity –one of the fundamental values the European project and the ‘no-more-war’ credo it once pretended to stand for, is falling flat on its face. In that sense, the contrast between the mixture of nationals sipping their drinks before gracelessly being gunned to the ground by ISIS attackers at the Carillon and Petit Cambodge bar and restaurant last Friday, and the recruiting grounds of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh a few miles away from there in the Parisian banlieus (‘banned spaces’) and in the Belgian communes of Molenbeek and Verviers could not have been more telling. Has ‘the problem of the banlieu’ –as one bourgeois gallery owner loathingly uttered in the movie La Haine after the 2005 riots gone global? Ironically, 2005 was the second time France declared a state of emergency after the Algerian war of independence, but not on a national-wide scale. After the Paris attacks, President Francois Hollande felt the need to do so once more.
We must not forget that what are now derogatively called the continent’s seething ghetto’s and hotbeds of criminal marginality have grown to be like that as a result of decades of conscious neglect, marginalization and erosive welfare politics –which at once hardened marginalization while sidestepping the much more difficult task of proper integration -and not just in run-down city neighbourhoods (on this note, see Mustafa Dikec‘s Badlands of the Republic but also, in slight contrast, this paper on Sharia4Belgium by Belgian politologist Rik Coolsaet). The social background of European fundamentalist militants may be another clear sign that at bottom’s length, this war has very little to do with religious values a priori and more with ways to avenge broken dignity: from Nizar Trabelsi to Ibrahim Abdeslam, most European radical Muslim fighters have followed a trepid path of petty crime only to become radicalized after conscious brainwashing and training by a carefully managed collective of military / ideological instigators. Reason why, according to some authors, it might actually be better to compare the organization’s culture to a mafia or organized crime group –a form of de facto power governing a segment of the globe’s borderlands -according to Loretta Napoleoni.
Whatever ISIS/ISIL/Daesh’s future terror strategy might become in terms of instrumentalizing that contrasting reality between Europe’s ‘infidels’ & ‘liberators’, the ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ world, the effects of this attack will likely have an incisive role in the life of European citizens and their rights for years to come. As the fear sets in, harnesses are put on, and knives are being sharpened –needless to say who the losers of that struggle will once more be.
Lots of news on asylum in Europe these days…
While European and African leaders are trying to hammer home an agreement in Malta, including a €1.8bn “trust fund” in an attempt to cajole African governments into taking migrants back and stopping them from leaving the continent in the first place, Europe’s individual states are toughening their stance. Sweden, once considered the haven of social democratic welfare and migrant rights, has announced the introduction of temporary border checks. The controls will come into effect from midday local time on Thursday and will last initially for 10 days, the BBC writes.
In the meantime, German chancellor Angela Merkel feels increasingly battered at home and abroad for lack of vision, and for her unwillingness to apply tougher measures. With Schengen in shatters, the European dream has clearly vanished, the European commissioner for immigration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said. In the meantime, a report from the Brussels based Migration Policy Institute lays bare the huge discrepancies between national immigration procedures. Reception conditions vary greatly from country to country, with some offering the minimum standard of shelter, food and clothes (like Italy and Greece) and others offering services for active integration, including schooling and work permits -which causes migrants to ‘shop around’ for better benefits.
The biggest obstacle, however, appears to be working permits: because European directives only designate the right to work, but not the actual possibility to exercise this right, migrants are sometimes actively pushed back into illegality. Similar perplexities surround the right to housing, on which I’ve written before here: without actual residence permits, migrants are regularly excluded from fundamental rights to health care and other social services, regardless of their paperwork. As long as these rights are not properly defined within a revised Dublin system -which has in any case become ‘obsolete‘ according to Angela Merkel, the European right to asylum will remain largely death letter.
While the European asylum system is disintegrating, photographer Giles Duley reports back from Lesbos as part of his work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He introduces a new series of images documenting the plight of the world’s displaced people: cemetery of souls indeed…
While the corpses of migrants who died during Sunday’s boat disaster are still washing ashore together with few survivors, and a special EU council meeting today debates ever more repressive border controls across the Mediterranean, media reports the arrest of a ruthless racket of human traffickers that is apparently tearing a gaping hole in Europe’s border control policies. An enquiry into the business of migration.
The following post summarizes a concrete rebuffal of the current EU proposal (debated by the EU Council today) to combat ‘illegal’ migration by Italian scholar Fulvio Vasallo Paleologo
After the suspended lives of Berlin and Milan (see previous post), this time a call arises from the more secluded spaces of Europe’s asylum system, as hundreds of people are on hunger strike in over half of the UK’s immigration detention centres – the biggest uprising against Britain’s racist detention system for a decade. Two blogs record their detained voices on this worldpress site and on this Facebook page. They are calling for solidarity protest and international support.
This somewhat longer post involves a reflection on a number of meetings I’ve had over the last months with African refugees in the city of Bologna, while preparing research on migrant labour and urban marginality. Though these meetings took shape in the context of a travelling theatre project (called City ghettos of today), I am thinking of enlarging my questions into a broader comparative agenda on what some people have started to call, first hesitantly, but ever more publicly and consistently, the Black Mediterranean.
I would like to contribute to this discussion by adding a few, loosely related, ideas around material labour conditions (for more on this dimension see here) as well as emerging hybrid identities in the arena of migrant mobilisations on the Afro-European border (primarily in Italy but also in other places). All of this may result in a research paper later this year.