How France Can Defend Itself Against Radical Islam and Right-wing Populism

If right-wing, racist and xenophobic populists come to power, this means that radical Islamist terrorism has achieved its goal and won.

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Flowers and candles at the scene of the terrorist truck attack in Nice, July 18, 2016,
A tribute to victims of the terror attack in Nice. Terrorism is empowering the greatest political danger facing the West, and France in particular: right-wing populism.Credit: Francois Mori/AP

For the past 15 years Europe was hoping that by displaying tolerance and respect for Islam, the Continent would remain on the sidelines of Islamist terrorism. The terror attacks against Charlie Hebdo on January 5, 2015, the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 15 of the same year, and now the horrifying attack in Nice are leading to the difficult realization that Europe in general, and most particularly France, will have to live with terrorism for a long time to come.

I will first try to explain briefly why this wave of terrorism is not about to abate, and then present some thoughts about how France’s culture of liberty can defend itself against both radical Islam and the profound danger of right-wing populism.

Radical Islam’s ideological power

Let me first state the obvious: Islamic State (or ISIS), Al-Qaida, Jamaat-e-Islami and other versions of Islamist radicalism do not represent Islam as a whole, and hence I will use the term “radical Islamism,” “Islamist terrorism” as a reference to these extremist groups only, and will base my analysis on what I have learned from leading terrorism researchers in the World Federation of Scientists in the last 12 years.

There has been an ongoing dispute between two of France’s leading experts on radical Islam, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, over whether radical Islam is a matter of individual psychopathology or is due to a mutation of Islam itself. I would recommend splitting the difference: The leadership of ISIS and other Islamist groups is mostly composed of physicians, engineers and computer scientists that are cool-headed strategists who fiercely believe in their theological doctrine.

As opposed to this, many of the youngsters mobilized are indeed confused and lack focus, identity and self-respect, who find meaning and self-esteem in joining ISIS. As my friend and colleague Scott Atran has shown in detail, ISIS has been highly effective in mobilizing young people throughout the world, including non-Muslims from Europe. It promises glory, participation in cruel fighting, belonging to a group of comrades willing to die for the cause and each other, power and a supply of women, and the grand meaning of the radical Islamist vision.

The goals of radical Islam

What are ISIS' goals? Its theological doctrine divides the world between Islam and non-believers. Its main issue is with what it called the “gray zone” – areas in which Islam and other religions coexist – and ISIS’ goal is double: First the gray zone must be destroyed by creating a deep chasm between Islam and the non-believers. The second goal is the reestablishment of the caliphate, the only political structure radical Islamism considers to be legitimate

The strategy leading to this goal has been described in detail in a document created by a member of Al-Qaida from 2004, circulating the internet and called "The Management of Savagery." It describes in detail how governments and societies, particularly in the West, can be destabilized by acts of murder and cruelty, with spectacular features that sow fear in the hearts of both populations and governments.

This document is the blueprint of ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s strategy, and led to the beheadings, burnings and drownings staged, filmed and edited with ever more sophistications in the first stages of ISIS.

ISIS is now implementing the same strategy with growing numbers of terror attacks on European soil – and when they can, they will also attack in the United States. As their goal is to drive a wedge between the Islamic world and the West, they will continue to do so as long as they can. And since they have a growing number of sleeper cells of young men trained in Iraq and Syria who have returned to Europe with their European passports, the danger is there to stay for a long time.

How to fight ISIS terror

I live in Israel which has lived with terrorism for decades, and has implemented security mechanisms on all levels: You cannot enter a shopping mall, cinema, university or public building without going through a metal detector, having your bags checked, or both; in large events, like the Nice celebration on July 14, the area is cordoned off, and there is massive police and military presence. Intelligence services are strongly coordinated and military units specialized in apprehending terrorists act based on good information.

I know that this sounds like a police state for European ears. But once France realizes that terrorism is there to stay, it will have no choice but to implement similar security measures, in addition to coordinating between the various intelligence agencies and law enforcement groups within France and across Europe much more efficiently.

And yet it must be crystal clear: Even a state like Israel with its highly trained and coordinated security agencies cannot prevent all terror attacks. France will be even less able to do so because of its sheer size, the large Muslim population and the porousness of Europe’s borders, as the Bataclan attacks showed.

Fighting right-wing populism to preserve the spirit of liberty

The question is: How can we fight terrorism without destroying liberty? Indeed, terrorism is empowering the greatest political danger facing the West as a whole and France in particular: right-wing populism, which thrives when fear, confusion and anger reign. Right-wing populists promise that they can “wipe out terrorism”; like Marine le Pen, they call for death sentences to be used against terrorists – a ridiculous proposal when we deal with suicide terrorism – and ramble against the weakness of political moderates, whether slightly left or right of center.

If right-wing, racist and xenophobic populists come to power, this means that radical Islamist terrorism has achieved its goal and won: It will have irretrievably harmed the liberal order of the West with its emphasis on freedom, and they will push us towards illiberalism at best and fascism at worst.

Political moderates, in addition to showing zero tolerance for radical Islamism, must relentlessly attack and expose the lies of right-wing populists. Because when they claim that they can vanquish Islamist terrorism quickly and effectively, they either don’t know what they are talking about, or worse, are willing to lie to the electorate to come to power.

France is moving toward one of the most dangerous attacks on its core values in recent history, and must fight for its core principles without compromise to protect the spirit of liberty.

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