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Harry Hagopian

The Boomerang Syndrome

An ecumenical scholar reflects on the increasing violence and uncertainty gripping Europe

A French soldier patrols in front of the Notre-Dame cathedral on July 26, 2016 in Paris, before a mass in memory of a priest killed earlier today in the Normandy city of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. (AFP/Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt)

Over the past few months, and perhaps more pointedly ever since the terrorist attacks in Paris on the night of November 13, 2015, I have regularly been expressing feelings of sadness, anger, solidarity and even distress at the savage attacks that have targeted innocent men, women and children across France, Belgium and Germany. Every single incident, no matter how finite, has made me realize that Europe today is a continent undergoing tectonic changes on different levels in its perception of itself and therefore in its relationships with others.

 

Mind you, I make no excuses about my critical positions either! After all, this Europe - warts and all, Brexits or otherwise - is my home and I cannot stand idly by while some deranged ideologues with sociopathic or homicidal tendencies decide to kill, maim and destroy what was at best a tenuous project for roughly 508 million peoples.

 

However, Einstein is supposedly credited for saying that “stupidity is doing the same thing, over and over again, expecting different results”. So based on that argument, let me also share some observations with my readers. This is not because I am a clever expert since those have been proven time and again to get it wrong, but because I have luckily spent just under half my life in the MENA region and just over the other half in Europe. As such, perhaps I have learnt a thing or two during those years about the varying cultures of those countries.

 

It is only normal that we in Europe should respond to the attacks against what I deem are our values. However, we should not also forget that solidarity cannot be monochromatic or exclusive. I only need to look at Iraq - take the Karrada outrage that was one of the biggest examples of terrorism in the country since 2003 - to realize that men, women and children there are also bleeding daily and that they too have families and hopes that are being crushed cruelly. Moving further into Syria, I take note of the relentless and criminal bombings of hospitals, blood banks and dispensaries in Aleppo and elsewhere. Is this any more conscionable? Slitting the throat of Father Jacques Hamel is a barbarous example of depravity, but is it any more repugnant than those being murdered in droves also in Iraq, Syria, Libya or elsewhere? I understand that empathy cannot humanly be boundless but it can surely be more inclusive.

 

I agree that the brand of Islam - an ism of sorts - responsible for such heinous crimes cannot be tolerated and should be challenged with all our might and by all our institutions. However, perhaps it makes sense also to exercise some further soul-searching to realize that our Western commissions in Iraq or the series of omissions in Syria have contributed to the creation of this terrorist specter that has now come to haunt us. We did not act judiciously - we were arrogant in some cases, complicit or duplicitous in others - and our attempts to know better than ‘the other’ is now boomeranging in our faces.

 

Al-Qaeda was distinctive in that it had by and large a central command that directed its terror-driven activities. This made it slightly easier to predict and infiltrate their cells. Then came Daesh and its various permutations or shifting alliances and they decided that their intent to recreate a caliphate went hand-in-hand with inhumane attacks meant to coerce us to lose our nerve and cave in to fear. But we are now witnessing the ‘lone wolves’ whereby solitary individuals go on their rampages. No matter the intelligence services and security readiness of the agencies protecting us, it is almost a Sisyphean task to predict let alone manage every single terror act. This is perhaps where true grit kicks in.

 

Whether we admit it or not, Islam - and Muslims - are very much under the microscope in the West today. Some of us are doing it more subtly than others, but it is a sad fact that the wonderful praise to the Almighty - Allahu Akbar or God is Great - has been hijacked by deviants and this peroration is now willy-nilly viewed not as a praise to the Maker but as a shrill battle cry. Whether European leaders and citizens are politically correct or outrageously incorrect, there is a huge monsoon of distrust coalescing against peace-loving Muslim men and women who are being viewed suspiciously because of their beliefs, their complexions, their demeanors or even their dress codes. In themselves, those factors would not have affected most Europeans so visibly, but graft to them a sense of insecurity or fear and the social cohesion which defines civilized societies begins to crumble precipitately.

 

Moreover, this hint at an unraveling of our social cohesion is not solely due to the MENA refugees (roughly 1.3 million of them) who fled into Europe over the past 12 to 18 months. After all, many of those terrorists are born and bred in the EU countries and are either Muslims or converts. Hence, the problem is as much within our borders as it is outside them. Our answer therefore cannot simply be the odd denunciation hither thither by a mufti or a cleric - whether interreligious or confessional, as those have become so humdrum and - dare I add - casuistic. What is long overdue is a concerted and brave process of education by Muslim leaders to ostracize those elements within their ranks and to undertake the necessary jurisprudential reforms that bring Islam in touch with modernity and rolls back the growing sense of erratic and illiterate jihadist pathologies. Parallel with those long overdue efforts, though, must be a willingness by the political parties to foster a stronger sense of unity within society rather than encourage fragmentation for the sake of their own political agendas.

 

Finally, and no matter what we in Europe understand by democracy, and no matter also how hard and painful it is, our best weapon to counter such terrorism is to anchor ourselves firmly in our values and to defend the rule of law as much as the pursuit of due process. We ramp up our security measures, ineluctably, but we also realize that if we slide down the road of totalitarianism as a reaction to such brutal terror, we would lose the qualitative edge that has marked us over the past few centuries.

 

As I pen down those few incipient thoughts, I am acutely aware that many readers - Arab intellectuals (and even Western ones such as Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy whose own divergences are so public) as much as religious or academic scholars - would drive a coach and horses through some of my arguments. However, nobody - least of all self-assigned experts assuming the role of prophets - have discovered any sure-fire way of countering our predicaments. Hence, the need to act prudently lest the future becomes a landmine of unknown unknowns and inevitably boomerangs in our faces with even nastier outcomes.

 

Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, political analyst and ecumenical advisor based in London.

A French soldier patrols in front of the Notre-Dame cathedral on July 26, 2016 in Paris, before a mass in memory of a priest killed earlier today in the Normandy city of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. (AFP/Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt)

No matter what we in Europe understand by democracy, and no matter also how hard and painful it is, our best weapon to counter such terrorism is to anchor ourselves firmly in our values and to defend the rule of law as much as the pursuit of due process.