“We are at war!’ This is how the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described his feelings after the terrorist attacks in the Belgian capital Brussels last Tuesday morning. By noontime it seemed that most European leaders and commentators had adopted his analysis by sticking the war label on the tragic event. However, saying that Europe is at war unleashes many questions. What kind of war? And, against whom?
Some commentators have re-heated the cold dish of “war of civilizations” in the microwave oven of headlines. That, in turn, has led to an even thornier question: which civilizations are at war against one another?
The “we-are-at-war” analysis causes other difficulties. For, war has a universally agreed legal definition, and a code acknowledged if not always respected by combatants everywhere. When a combatant violates that code he faces charges of committing war crimes. In war, even the enemy retains rights that one would ignore at one’s peril.
Then, it is also possible that while we may not want to be at war with others, others may desperately want to be at war with us. Trying to refine what is a defective analysis, some commentators have come out with the theory that it is the Islamic civilization that, full of grievances against the West, has declared war against it.
That theory is so weak that it doesn’t even have the merit of being wrong. To start with, Islam is a religion, not a civilization. Nor is Islam, which has attracted adepts from virtually every “race” and ethnic group under the sun, a race or an ethnic identity.
The “cultural” version of the theory isn’t convincing either. For Islam, being a religion as we have already noted, cannot be considered to be a culture, although it has contributed to numerous cultures especially in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
If the information given by Belgian authorities is correct, the perpetrators of the Brussels attacks belonged to the same group as the gang that attacked Paris last November. In other words they were all born and bred European citizens of North African origin supposedly linked to the Islamic State (Da’esh in Arabic) or the Caliphate based in Raqqah, Syria.
However, this new breed of terrorists has killed more Muslims in Syria and Iraq, not to mention a dozen or so other Muslim-majority countries, than they did in Paris or Brussels. Almost one-third of ISIS’s fighters are European citizens, according to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazneuve. Therefore, the Syrians and the Iraqis who are massacred by them could claim to be victims of “European terrorists.”
Regardless of where they were born and what nationality they had, these “suicide-killers” had one thing in common: they all belonged to a trend which the Arabs call “ta’aslum” (faking being a Muslim) that aims at reducing religion to the level of a political ideology in pursuit of power.
That trend comes in several versions. The Khomeini sect in Iran and Lebanon, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Qaeda and its offshoots in several Arab countries, and, of course, Da’esh, all belong to it.
Even then, the fact that all those groups have ideologized religion to further political stratagems does not mean that they could or should all be dealt with in the same way.
Inside Europe, or rather the Western democratic world in general, the multicultural tradition as developed in the post-colonial era has provided the space for such groups to form, grow and attack.
One key tenet of multiculturalism is the “Imperialism of guilt” which means blaming the West for whatever goes wrong in the rest of the world. That kind of thinking leaves the Western democracies unarmed against determined enemies who believe or pretend to believe that they and they alone are the holders of the One and Only Truth. But, unarmed good is always in a bad posture facing armed evil.
So, how should we identify the people who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks and its smaller versions in numerous other places including Bamako, Beirut, Mumbai, London, Madrid, Nairobi and, more recently Paris and Brussels? Would the term “terrorist” do? I don’t think so.
The primary aim of the terrorist is to terrorize not to kill at random as these people do. Princeton Professor Bernard Lewis saw these people as latter day “Assassins” or “Hashesheen”. However, that designation, too, is problematic.
The “Hashasheen” went for the targeted killing of specific ideological or political enemies, often high-ranking political and/or military officials. In the Crusades they murdered leading Frankish knights in their sleep but never killed ordinary Franks at random.
Unless we know how to identify these enemies exactly, we would risk drowning the fish in a rhetorical swamp. Over a year ago I suggested that we revive an old Latin phrase used by Roman law in classical times. It is “hostis generis humanis” which means “enemy of the humankind”. The phrase has the merit of containing no reference to the racial, ethnic, national or religious backgrounds of the persons thus identified.
The ethno-religious profile of people who kill at random in the four corners of the globe is of interest in scientific studies but not in devising practical strategies to defang, defeat and ultimately destroy them.
The post-Roman, that is to say Renaissance, version of the phrase, popularized through the Napoleonic Code, is “public enemy.” In the old Socialist countries, the term was further edited to read “enemy of the people.” Islamic law has its own version: “corrupter on earth” (mufsid fil-ardh), a phrase that steers clear of ethnic, national and/or religious specifications in designating someone whose deeds, or misdeeds, harm the whole of mankind.
Getting stuck with religious, ethnic and even political identification of the killers could lead us into a maze of fantasies about reforming Islam or waiting for an Islamic Martin Luther to appear, as the late French Islamologist Maxim Rodinson hoped.
French Islamologist Gilles Kepel says what we need is “a return to Andalusia” where Muslims, Christians and Jews supposedly lived in peace under a Caliph. The late Jacques Berque invited the west to help encourage Muslims to reform Islam. The European ultra-Right, presaging Donald Trump in the United Sates, dreams of shipping Muslim minorities back to their “homeland” although most were born in Europe. US President Barack Obama wants the west to “address the grievances of Muslims” which he never spells out.
All those positions may be laudable and may even produce useful results but only in the very long term, if ever. But until we have reformed Islam, revived Andalusia, found a Martin Luther, cured Muslim grievances or even shipped 35 million European Muslims out of Europe, we would have to name the enemy who wants to kill us all regardless of race, ethnic background, religion, political position, indeed our very humanity. Well, what about “enemies of humankind”?