Europe is ringing these days with wake-up calls. Voices from the United States, Israel and certain European types are demanding a much tougher line on Islamic Jihadists, Middle Eastern terrorists and radical regimes like Iran. Europeans, these voices charge, is in denial about the deadly threat to Western values and civilization, or even worse, is pursuing a policy of appeasement like Britain and France did toward Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.
These accusations are misleading and, what’s more, devious. Europeans are not sleeping; they are just perplexed, and with good reason. They have no answers — but neither do their alarm clock-toting critics.
“Do not wait anymore. Open your eyes, wake up,” warns the former director of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, Haim Hariri, in the introduction to a recent book on Middle Eastern terrorism. Such warnings are echoed on the opinion pages of American newspapers and in the studios of Fox News and other television stations. They are also to be found on this side of the ocean, in the writings of European neoconservatives like Josef Joffe, publisher of the German weekly Die Zeit, and prominent German-Jewish publicist Henryk Broder, author of the recently released book “Hurray, We Capitulate.”
Joffe, Broder and their counterparts in America and Israel can all cite plenty of anecdotal evidence of a growing threat, such as the absurd decision by a German opera director to cancel a celebrated performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in Berlin because she feared Islamic protests against a scene where the cut-off head of Mohammed is seen on stage together with other great religious leaders.
But listening to all these voices, one must wonder what they actually expect Europeans to do. Anybody reading papers, watching TV news or just talking to people in any European country will quickly realize that nobody is ignoring or even belittling the problems posed by radical Islam. How could they, given that 15 million Muslims live in the European Union, and the signs of radicalization can be seen everywhere?
Truth is, Europeans are getting obsessed with the question of how to face this challenge to their social values, lifestyle and even their personal safety. They are fully aware that alienated and angry second-generation immigrants in their cities and suburbs have become one of the most dangerous breeding grounds for radical terrorists. The bloody attacks on commuter trains in Madrid in 2004 and the London underground in 2005, as well as the recently foiled attempts to bomb German trains and blow up airliners leaving from London’s Heathrow airport, have made it obvious to them that they are more likely to be hurt by Islamic terrorists than most Americans.
European governments have also awoken to the threat, confronting these challenges on several fronts. They have stepped up law enforcement measures to break up the radical cells, intensified surveillance and restricted some civil liberties, and are debating strategies to improve the economic and social integration of Muslim communities. On the international front, they give wholehearted support to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, where German and other European troops play a central role, and are desperately looking for a way to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Most Europeans balk, however, at the American-led war on terrorism and similarly simplistic grand strategies. They regard Islamic terrorism as a complex phenomenon that cannot be defined as a homogenous movement, and certainly not be fought with military means. They oppose the self-fulfilling prophecy of a “clash of civilizations” and reject the neoconservative idea that we are fighting World War IV, a Manichaean metaphor that equates the current war against Islamofascism with the previous battles against Nazism and Communism.
Instead of declaring terrorism as plain evil, Europeans like to analyse the causes of radicalism. They blame their own policies for their failures on the integration of immigrants, but they also point to the persistent Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a source of anger in the Muslim world.
And they are convinced that Bush administration policies, in particular the war in Iraq, have made many of the problems worse — a belief that is in line with the recently leaked assessment of 16 American intelligence services. For eschewing simple answers and using their brains, Europeans are branded as head-in-the-sand appeasers.
It is true that intelligent analysis can become dangerous if it leads to paralysis in the face of a mortal threat. In 1930s Britain and France, a psychological study of German national grievances was no substitute for a solid armament program. And so the critics of the European approach to radical Islam propagate a Churchill-like moment of defiant resistance, preferably before Iranian-built nuclear bombs explode in Western cities.
The wake-up calls intensified last summer when most European leaders condemned Israel’s operation in southern Lebanon. The war’s proponents argued that Israel was not only attacking Hezbollah, but was also battling the militia’s masters Syria and Iran, and more broadly Islamofascism. Most Europeans refused to see it that way, and the frustrating outcome of the Lebanese war, which left Hezbollah politically stronger than ever, appeared to prove them right. Now, even hawkish American analysts agree with European caution against any military moves against Iran.
Perhaps the critics are right that radical Islam is an enormous challenge for Western civilization and has to be confronted head-on. But action alone is not a virtue, even in the face of a mortal threat.
If democracies go to war, they need not only a moral mandate, but also a solid political strategy. America’s and Israel’s recent military campaigns have just demonstrated that hyper-activity may be more dangerous than inertia. “First, do no harm,” the Hippocratic Oath, should apply not only to physicians, but to leaders as well.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.