We tend to notice Europe when it explodes. Our understanding of this continent of 500 million is built on a sequence of pinhole visions lit by flashes of violence, not on the slow-developing trends that shape it between them.
At the moment, Europe faces three crises. One is a crisis of security and extremism, as we witnessed on Tuesday in the horrors inflicted on Brussels. The second is a crisis of human movement – hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees entering the continent from the south – and a debate over the means by which to manage them. And the third is a political crisis in many countries, in which the conventional parties of centre-left and centre-right are being challenged by more extreme and intolerant parties.
Viewed through bloodied lenses, this appears to be a single, unified crisis. The terrorism, the migrants and the politics all become one, caused by and feeding off one another. But they are not connected.
First, the extremism crisis is not the migration crisis.
None of the extremists behind the Belgian attacks have been refugees, migrants or recent immigrants; as with almost all perpetrators of major attacks in Paris and London during the past decade, they are Europeans, raised in Europe by generally secular families and generally quite well integrated into the cultural and social life of the continent.
What has always struck me in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighbourhood that has produced most of Europe’s jihadists since 2014, has been how little knowledge or interest these violent men have in the Moroccan culture of their grandparents: They are a fully European phenomenon, petty criminals with little education who are drawn to extremism through prison, not through culture. Not only are Syrian refugees highly unlikely to be attracted to extremism, but the extremists are not connected to, and in fact are deeply opposed to, the refugees.
Second, the terrorism crisis is not generally a product of any political or cultural trends within Europe.
It’s worth studying the period, from about 2006 to 2012, when jihadi terrorism in Western countries dropped to historically low levels, with zero incidents in most countries during each of those years. Terrorism was a significant Western phenomenon from the beginning of the Iraq war, in 2003, through 2005, then largely vanished. Then it exploded again, especially after 2014.
What this tells us is that the terrorism is not being propelled or motivated by forces or demographics within Europe. It occurs when a foreign extremist movement – al-Qaeda or the Islamic State or their affiliates – views Western countries as obstacles to its territorial ambitions abroad, and recruits violent and vulnerable people to try to terrorize those countries into withdrawing.
As the terrorism analyst Will McCants wrote this week: “As long as Western nations are involved in wars fought by jihadists, jihadists will be warring in Western nations. That’s not a reason to change policy so much as it is a grim recognition that the halcyon days of Western Europe as a subprime target are long gone.”
It’s worth trying to remove the barriers to inclusion that cause young men to become extremists. But it’s also worth recognizing that the motive forces that drive them are not to be found within Europe or its cultural communities.
Third, the political crisis is not a reflection or plausible response to any of these developments in Europe.
Far-right, anti-immigration parties have become third-place fixtures in many countries. They feed on fears that the continent is being overrun with Muslims, Jews, Slavs and other groups they see as civilizational threats, and feed on violent events such as this week’s attacks.
Yet they are untethered from any actual population developments. Their voters live almost entirely in districts that have few immigrants, Muslims or foreigners; people who live among these populations don’t vote for them. Their popularity has slowly risen over 40 years, unrelated to any actual developments other than the decline of big centrist parties.
And their founding myth is based on an illusion. Europe’s Muslim population, of 19 million, is small and not growing very fast (the refugee and migrant waves are too small to make a statistical difference), but because they are urban and thus visible, and their crime and extremism problems make headlines, voters believe that Muslims are five times more populous than they are. The bright flashes are obscuring voters’ vision, like ours, and allowing them to see a picture of connectedness that doesn’t exist.Report Typo/Error