AFTER the horrors of Paris, Europe should welcome, not shun, more refugees, writes Lesley Riddoch
Is it too late to reshape the hawkish international response developing in the wake of the Paris shootings? Is it too late to avoid a backlash against Muslims and refugees and demands to abandon Europe’s border-free Schengen system? Because these actions would threaten the idea of Europe more profoundly than the banking crisis or even the shootings themselves.
Speaking on TV in the aftermath of the bloodbath, France’s president Francois Hollande said the murder of 129 people was “an act of war” organised from abroad by the Islamic State (IS) with internal help. He continued: “Faced with war, the country must take appropriate action. So France will be merciless in its response to the Islamic State militants [and will] use all means within the law, on every battleground here and abroad with our allies.”
Tough talking is understandable. But in days to come, French feelings of anger and grief will only intensify as the grim statistics of those killed are transformed by name and detail into a sea of once smiling faces whose life stories are delivered by grieving parents, brothers, sisters and friends. It will only get harder to step back from fury and retribution. But step back France must. So must we all.
The dangers of over-reaction became apparent when a Syrian passport was found near the body of an attacker at the Stade de France. It was apparently used to travel through the Greek island of Leros last month. Within hours, Ukip candidate John Bickley had tweeted: “Ukip predicted this & was vilified: Paris Terrorist Was Migrant Who Registered As A Refugee In Greece.”
Mr Bickley presumed too much and spoke far too soon.
It’s entirely possible the passport belonged to a dead hostage, not a terrorist, or was stolen or even planted. Doesn’t it seem strange a suicide bomber took his passport on jihad? And wouldn’t it suit Islamist extremists to watch Europe’s humanitarian response to Mediterranean refugees crumble?
Iyad El-Baghdadi, a jihadi-watcher, commented on Twitter that “watching [Europe’s] very humane, moral response to the refugee crisis” has infuriated IS. Isn’t it likely they want to reinforce the divide between east and west, and Christians and Muslims – to persuade Syrians that Islamic State is their best hope of protection? Aaron Zelin, an analyst of jihad, commented that IS “loathes individuals fleeing Syria for Europe. It undermines the message that its self-styled caliphate is a refuge”. So why would jihadis pose as refugees? More matter-of-factly, CBS News has quoted a US intelligence official who says the “refugee” passport is probably fake because it doesn’t contain the proper detail for a Syrian document and the name doesn’t match the photograph. Whatever the truth, though, the reaction of politicians and governments matters more in the long term.
Society takes strength from the way its leaders deal with threat. President Hollande’s talk of war may sound bullish now but won’t help French citizens in the vital task of recapturing a sense of optimism and belief in mankind.
There is another model. European politicians can ask their citizens to “meet this attack on democracy with more democracy” – as Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg memorably did in 2011 after Anders Breivik killed 69 youngsters on Utoya and eight in a bomb explosion in Oslo. In the aftermath of that horrific attack, it would have been easy to lead a chorus blaming Islamist extremists, but the Norwegian premier didn’t. Indeed, he and his fellow political leaders appeared together and unguarded outside Oslo’s main cathedral to demonstrate their determination that Norway’s relaxed, trusting society would not change. Of course, the Paris attacks are different. Once Breivik was captured, the threat was effectively removed. The same is not true in Paris or any other world capital today. But that only argues for greater effort to support “more democracy” – not less.
This point was picked up by Mona Siddiqui, a British Muslim academic and Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at Edinburgh University. Speaking on Radio Scotland yesterday, she said “There is no alternative to co-existence. Redemptive violence doesn’t work. The killing was just a medium for the real goal – to create fear and suspicion.” She’s right. That potent combination will destroy the fabric of western society quicker than any terrorist acts.
Indeed, Paul Rodgers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, believes the killers actually hope the Paris killings and the downing of the Russian jetliner will prompt a violent backlash by western powers which will bolster their own position as the self-proclaimed protectors of Islam. Every act of unwarranted hostility by western governments or agencies may trigger such a reflex now – whether it seems right or wrong to “the home crowd”. Refugees will start arriving in Britain this week – grudging acceptance or bad treatment will only feed the IS narrative and their supply of new jihadis.
So Scots should follow the example of 300 folk in Colchester who took to the streets on Sunday with “Refugees Welcome” banners. Perhaps schools receiving refugees can teach Scottish pupils something about the language, culture and geography of their new classmates before they arrive. There is a cycle of violence at work in the world. We cannot hide away – we can only choose to break or fuel it.
Of course breaking the cycle of grief isn’t easy.
Six out of ten parents of the youngsters shot on Utoya are still struggling with intense grief. Three years after the killings, 51 per cent are still completely or partially unable to work. Still Norway stands firm in its determination not to be changed. This summer, Anders Breivik was accepted by Oslo University to study political science from his prison cell – part of Norway’s policy to try to rehabilitate offenders, however appalling their crimes. And the Utoya summer camp reopened for the first time with a record number of participants.
So it’s decision time. Will Britain revert to shunning refugees? Will personal surveillance tighten? Will European travel become slower and harder? Or do European leaders and citizens have the will to create an organised system of mass-resettlement from the Middle East to give dignity to refugees and greater security to western nations?
In short, will our response to the Paris atrocities reveal a Europe worth fighting for or a defensive, visionless rich man’s club worth quitting? The stakes could not be higher.