Countering violent extremism: we need political courage

By Michael Privot, ENAR Director

17 March 2016 - How many more European victims will it take before decision makers will decide to tackle the root causes of violent extremism? What is the implicit threshold? 500? 1000 victims?

Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian political philosopher of the 16th century, has taught us that governing is as much about respecting given promises than about pragmatism and cynicism.

From the point of view of civil society organisations working for equality and collective progress, we know too well how this cynicism translates in practice: death.

The same goes for the struggle against violent extremism. How many more European victims will it take before decision makers will decide to tackle the root causes of violent extremism? What is the implicit threshold? 500? 1000 victims? In one place? Scattered in different places? How many kids in a go?

The Paris attacks of November have demonstrated that anybody can be hit. In “old” Europe, so far, schools have been spared by terrorist violence, except for the assassination of three children in a Jewish school by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012. But jihadis have hit much harder elsewhere:
-  In 2004 in Beslan, Ossetia, 186 children murdered,
-  In 2014 in Yobe, Nigeria, 47 children,
-  In 2014 again, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 132 children
-  In 2015, in Garissa, Kenya, 147 students

Not to mention the more than 5000 young people lured by Daesh, manipulated away from their families and turned back as weapons against us and other innocent victims in Syria.

But let’s not forget the other type of violent radicalisation either: Breivik, Norway, in 2011: 74 young people coldly murdered in a youth camp. Without a massive political shift, attacks are extremely likely to happen again in Europe. It’s just a matter of time.

When addressing an assembly such as the Council of Europe, we have to be political. What I want to address is the deafening gap between the thousands of well thought-through recommendations to build human rights based democratic and inclusive societies on the one hand, and the dire reality of our societies on the other hand.

We know what to do. Thousands of good practices have been developed, tested and analysed, in all walks of life: justice, policing, education, employment, health. The Council of Europe, the European Union, the OSCE to name but a few have been spending hundreds of millions of Euros to support the development of those good practices, then drop them, store them in databases and look for other ways to reinvent the wheel – instead of scaling them up to bring the systemic change our societies so badly need.

I could list so many of them, developed by NGOs, by local and regional authorities, ministries. They do some good, doubtlessly, but they are objectively plasters on a wooden leg as they are implemented at the end of the policy and governance tail. What is the lasting impact of a single police station striving to implement human rights compliant policing if the government of that country allows for massive surveillance and discriminatory stops and search at the same time?

Research has shown that radicalisation leading to violent extremism – both from far-right groups and jihadis – is nurtured by a strong feeling of democratic disenfranchisement, of lack of inclusion, of “no future”. And being rich or poor, educated or illiterate has little to do with that. A poll by Opinionway published in November 2013 revealed that one third of all young French aged 20-34 was thinking of leaving France because society was not allowing them to fulfil their dreams and offer them opportunities at the level of their expectations. That’s what we actually find in all narratives of violent radicalisation, including ISIS. But what have Member States done to tackle this beyond securitisation measures?

History has also taught us that political courage is not about retaliating, neither about excluding, pressuring and controlling a specific minority, which only leads to further alienation and, ultimately, violence, when we need them as key allies in a common struggle for peace. No war on terror has been won that way.

On the contrary, courage is about looking at one’s own policy and ideological failures, about challenging what we, our people, our interests have come to consider as sacred. That is what Rabin and Arafat did in their time.

We might keep denying it for many more years, but the point is: (1) our societies have never been so rich as today; and yet (2) economist Thomas Piketty has demonstrated that the wealth gap in our societies is back to what it was in 1914. Of course, there are major differences between our societies at that time and now: for example our fellow citizens have never been so educated and so well aware that they are all individual holders of rights: right to equality, non-discrimination, right to work, right to a dignified life. Yet, we have left that wealth gap go back to its level of one century ago, while we have an unprecedented stock of human and financial resources to lift up every single one of our kids. But the reality is that, in a country like Belgium, 1 child out of 4 lives in poverty. How come?

This is where the political courage will be: turn the tables and redistribute massively to offer a future and a dignified life to all, while rebuilding a common horizon.

There are a number of proposals on the table. For example, take the transition of our societies towards sustainable, low-carbon, non-nuclear, equal societies. This is a technological, scientific and human challenge that has the potential to reinitiate a virtuous circle in our societies, while promising well-paid and quality jobs for most of us. This is just one example of possible ways forward.

Finally, we also need to get the process straight from the start: making “shared values” a prerequisite to build a collective horizon is the best recipe for failure, but that is what we hear all too often. On the contrary, we must agree first on a horizon, a collective project, and then the “shared values” will be hammered along the way, collectively and not only by a bunch of “happy few”. Inclusiveness comes along the path towards a common goal, not as a precondition to work together. It is imperative to abandon this collective illusion of “shared values” and inclusiveness as the indispensable first step towards the design of any solution.

If there is one thing you need to cut down, it’s not the taxes, but the death toll.

Based on my speech at the meeting of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 15 March 2016.


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