2015 has started with a tremendous series of terrorist attacks, in Nigeria, Yemen, and of course Paris. After these events, many have wondered whether the ghost of a ‘clash of civilizations’ is again upon us. We reject this idea and think that, if anything, in the last decades there have been clashes within Islam, in particular between Sunni and Shi’a; and such clashes had to do with sheer power more than religious doctrines.
In addition, many of the causes of Islamist violence lie in the West and Europe, rather than in the Middle East. The ISIS provides a brand which is attractive to hundreds of European youth, who often feel frustrated, angered, and disaffected at a time of devastating economic crisis and are sometimes drawn into militant Islamism by a range of reasons, including the lack of a sense of belonging and material rewards.
In a country like France, colonial legacies (the Algerian war, 1954-62) and constant tensions with its large Muslim communities have brought about anger and resentment. Unfortunately, despite efforts and claims to the contrary, the Muslim population feels hardly integrated in France, and this is of course a source of conflict and violence. At a time of crisis, anti-Islamic feelings have risen also in other countries, e.g. Germany, where the movement Pegida has organised marches on Monday evenings since last October.
Another cause of Islamist violence is then rooted in recent Western history. It is an ‘open secret’ that Jihadism was boosted by the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan in the 1980s; it has later boomed again since the failure of the ‘Arab Spring’, the rise of militant Islam in Syria (and its offspring, the ISIS) and Libya, where the end of Gadhafi’s regime has engendered chaos and Islamist violence in most of sub-Saharan Africa. The West has roused monsters, which are now turning against it.
What is to be done? It would be time to have a proper EU intelligence agency. In fact there is an EU intelligence body, the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (EU INTCEN), which is attached to the EU External Action Service and has rather limited powers. As is usual with most EU institutions, it looks like ‘too little, too late’. As the EU’s ‘spymaster’, the Finnish, Ilkka Salmi, explains (see: http://www.mo.be/node/37891), in 2013, after the NSA case, the former EU Commissioner, Ms Reding, came out with the idea of a European CIA. Yet we have not heard further news about it and the establishment of a pan-European intelligence agency would require a change in the overall political landscape. Truly pan-EU intelligence would make sense in a democratic EU state – a United States of Europe. If there is no political will, such an agency cannot be founded. This is a shame, because it would bring other benefits as well; not only would it allow the EU to better fight terrorism, but also to save money on national security and intelligence services. So far, however, the issue of an EU intelligence agency has remained dead letter.
Another way by which the West could better fight terrorism would be by changing its policy in the Middle East. At the moment, the West mainly relies on two countries: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s case is of course highly complex from many points of view, cultural, religious, historical; in a more ‘materialistic’ sense, Tel Aviv provides the West with technology and intelligence on the region. Saudi Arabia, whose ‘privileged relations’ with the USA date back to the meeting between President Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud in 1945, is a major oil supplier and a major recipient of US and Western (in particular, British and French) weapons; a country with slightly more than 30 million people, the Kingdom is the fourth biggest military spender in the world, as of 2013 (see: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/04/saudi-leads-middle-east-military-spending-201441411547583667.html). Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy controlled by the royal dynasty, and by all means has a very poor record in terms of democracy and human rights. For how long will its alliance with the West resist to changing times?
In contrast, the West should think about re-gaining the trust of two other big regional players: Turkey and Iran. Turkey has become an economic middle power and could exercise a stabilising role in both Europe and Asia. However, the EU has to an extent ‘lost’ it, in particular because of France’s firm opposition to its EU accession. Now Turkey looks to new partners, such as resource-rich Russia, China, and other Asian countries; at the moment, it is the EU which has little to offer.
Iran represents a bigger problem. Despite decades of sanctions, Tehran is still standing on its feet, and is ranked by the World Bank as an ‘upper-middle income economy’. The new president, Hassan Rouhani, has expressed the intention to talk to the USA, and Barack Obama has partly attempted a rapprochement, although in a rather shy and half-hearted way.
Stability in the Middle East region cannot be achieved without engaging with two big and traditionally important players such as Turkey and Iran. But how can the West re-gain their trust? The USA, amongst other issues, has contributed to the current and horrific chaos by pushing for the ‘Arab Spring’ when the time was not ripe. The EU as an autonomous entity is barely existent; when it exists, it follows Washington’s guidelines.
Once again, instead of blaming Paris’s atrocities on rather ‘fictional’ clashes of civilizations, the West should reflect on its own responsibilities and the ways it has more or less directly bred terrorism in the latest decades. Only thinking this way will help us find a way out.