#BrusselsAttacks: 'Don’t Fall Into The Trap!’

MO* contacted commentators in Afghanistan, India, Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan. Countries where the caravan of hate struck long before it came to Brussels. Their answers to our questions are quite relevant for the changes facing Belgium and Brussels.

  • Solidair E (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  Solidair E (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What is noticeable straight away: also the wider Arab world watched the events in Brussels unfold with disgust. Aljazeera put the focus on the following question: ‘Why do young people do this? Don’t they have in Europe what they would’ve never been able to have in their home countries?’. The American channel Al-Hourra devoted an entire hour to the issue, led by the central question: ‘What is Islam’s, or rather the terrorist’s Islam’s, problem?’

The answers hinged primarily on the position that the [social, geopolitical, and historical] context is more important than the [Jihadi] ideas, ‘as those gain attention only when they are given attention’. On Twitter, a famous Egyptian activist, retweets #Jesuissickoftheshit, while the Tunisian Wajd accepts no excuses for terrorism anywhere in the world. 

Shocked responses

‘I have been to Belgium and Europe in general and it has always struck me, as a visitor, as a relaxed place. But that is bound to change. My only concern would be if this increases harsh police and security measures on common, innocent people who just want to be left alone to run their lives’, Sidarth Bhatia, editor-in-chief of The Wire, reports from Mumbai. ‘The balance between the need for security and the importance of normal, day to day living has to be maintained. Knee jerk hardline action never pays off in the long run. Better intelligence may be one answer, but at the same time the social fabric should remain intact..’

‘The terror’s moving across the entire world, and that frightens us.’

Editor-in-chief of the Afghan news agency Pajhwok, Danish Karokhel, tells us from Kabul that Afghanistan’s social media were buzzing with messages of sympathy for Brussels. ‘We’ve by now become used to forty years of hatred and violence’, says Karokhel, ‘but we find it unusual to see this happening in your countries. The terror’s moving across the entire world, and that frightens us.’

The Pakistani nuclear expert and prominent civil activist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, knows more than he cares for about Islamic militancy and violent terror: ‘With Pakistan having seen countless attacks - over 60,000 dead over a period of ten years - I have some very definite feelings about religious terrorism. This kind of terrorism does not come from lack of opportunity, poverty, or lack of education. These may be enabling factors, but don’t lie at the core. Instead a vicious ideology has become rampant and captured the minds of millions of Muslims. Whether or not it is rooted in “real Islam” can be eternally debated without arriving at any conclusion.’

The Jordanian activist Majdi Khalil holds a very different view. He firmly asserts that IS is by no means a religious group, but a revenge machine, brought to life by young men who were persecuted by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East despite the fact that they had never broken any laws. ‘They are deranged murder machines, not an Islamic movement!’, Khalid almost shouts at us through the messaging smartphone. According to him, they do not only take revenge on those in power, but on all of the West for handing them over to the dictatorial regimes, and for tearing apart the Middle East by waging aggressive wars against it, like they did in Iraq.

Which policy measures did have real impact?

‘Security measures are omnipresent and have become relatively commonplace’, says Sidarth Bhatia about the measures that were taken in the Indian metropolis Mumbai. The city’s been repeatedly hit by attacks and has, in 2008, become the blueprint for the type of Jihadi attacks that IS has since launched in, among others, Paris and Brussels. ‘We have seen several changes in our environment —security at public places has increased. Almost all offices, hotels, malls, etc have security checks both physical and electronic. Bags are opened, and frisking is common. In residential buildings, especially in large complexes, there are several layers of security. People have come to accept them. Close circuit cameras have been installed all over the city and citizens are happy about that.’

The Pakistani journalist and author of substantial books on armed extremism, Zahid Hussain, states that the most important step for the authorities of Pakistan was to face the problem and recognize it for what it is. ‘Thousands of people have fallen victim to terrorism and violent extremism in Pakistan over the past ten years. More than 5000 soldiers have laid their lives in fighting militant insurgents in Northwest of the country bordering Afghanistan. After living in a state of denial the country has now woken up to the existentialist threat. Though the actions by the security agencies have succeeded  bringing down the incident of violence, there is still need for a more comprehensive strategy to root out the sources of militancy and radicalization. For sure use of force is needed to restore the writ of the state, but there also need to address the issues that give rise to violent extremism.’

Another important voice from Pakistan comes from Asma Jahangir, one of the most prominent human rights lawyers and advocates of Pakistan. ‘We have suffered several attacks in our city and each attack brings greater fear rather than deeper resolve to challenge it’, she writes right after the attack on a parc in Lahore kills more than 70 children and adults and injures more than 350. ‘This is partly because the government has no clear cut message for the people and no credibility where people can feel safe if they provide information. People like myself strongly condemn the attack in Brussels and fear that it will lead to deeper anti Muslim sentiments.’

How does the population react?

‘Citizens have suffered a lot, but in Mumbai there has been no violent reaction or social reaction after terrorist attacks. Life continues as normal’, Sidarth Bhatia explains. ‘After 2008, there were reports that there had been some community profiling by the police, but in almost all cases of terror attacks, there has been very minimal, almost no involvement by locals; the terrorists came from outside and were either killed, not found or when identified, are known to be in another country.’

‘Belgium needs to react extremely carefully, and only attack those that actually use or preach violence.’

This differs greatly from Pakistan, where the attacks have almost exclusively been committed by Pakistani citizens. And yet, Pervez Hoodbhoy warns against overreacting: ‘Given your large Muslim population, you must be very careful in targeting only those who advocate violence or commit acts of violence. Else you will feed into grievances that bring more recruits into ISIS.’

At the same time, Hoodbhoy says, ‘Western societies must become more aware of the ideas that propagate around in mosques and Muslim gatherings. This entails a certain loss of civil liberties but there may not be an alternative. The success of Islamic extremists in Pakistan - which seems impossible to roll back - has hinged upon the freedom to spread their murderous ideas.’

‘The Brussels attacks underscores the need for a global approach to fight terrorism’, says Zahid Hussain from another corner of the Pakistani capital. ‘While it is imperative to strengthen  intelligence cooperation, there is also a need to take steps to remove the alienation of the Muslim population in Europe that helps then terrorist groups to recruit volunteers.’

Danish Karokhel is also more moderate than Hoodhboy, but even he doesn’t mince his words when speaking of the bombers or suicide terrorists: ‘The militants of IS (or Daesh) and Al-Qaeda think very clearly, but without humanity. We need to prevent them from getting more power and more resources, because they are capable of destroying humanity.’

Zahid Rafiq is Kasjmir-correspondent for the Indian quality paper The Hindu. His region has experienced violence for more than 25 years, sometimes by nationalist rebels, sometimes by international jihadists, but always by the Indian military. This makes it so difficult to compare, Rafiq tells us from Srinagar. But he nonetheless has a message for the citizens and government of Belgium: ‘Don’t fall into the trap! Especially at a critical moment like this, it is a fatal mistake to start thinking and acting mostly in terms of us-versus-them. Extremism feeds off and grows from the extreme reactions it provokes. On the contrary: remain cool and clear-headed, and think very carefully about each step you’re taking.’

Asma Jahangir reacts along a similar line: ‘The government of Belgium should increase engagement with its citizens especially the Muslim population. At the same time such engagement must not compromise strong resistance to radicalization of religion.’

Solve it? Do it yourself!

From Jordan, Majdi Khalil tells us that Belgium already has a bad reputation for the way it treats its Muslim citizens. ‘You must act vigorously against the discrimination of Muslims’, Khalil adds, ‘because it goes against the human rights. Movements and media should, on the contrary, give a maximum of support and visibility to ordinary Muslims. That, to me, seems to be the best way to fight IS.’

Taha Naji, a prominent activist from Tripoli, Lebanon, signals how important it is that the agenda isn’t set by violence. ‘Tripoli has suffered for years from a civil conflict between the citizens supporting the Syrian regime and the citizens supporting the Syrian rebellion. After two bombings in 2013, the weapons of the We Love Tripoli activists were brooms and brushes, to wipe their shattered streets clean and occupy the public space. No military occupation, but a civilian occupation by thousands of citizens who refused to become pawns in a war. Their demonstration of unity, regardless of political, religious, or ethnic conflicts, is a form of resistance against the power of terror to create dissension.’ 

It’s a powerful idea for a conflict zone: to literally and metaphorically “civilize” the public space before militants have time to “militarize” it.

This very same idea also reaches us from Kabul, where the South African culture and conflict expert Jolyon Leslie tells us that in Afghanistan, it’s the people that make a difference rather than the government. ‘Individuals continue to show extraordinary courage and compassion, and the way that friends warn each other of possible threats is often much more effective than blanket ‘alerts’. The tendency to ‘lock-down’, while operationally effective in certain situations, can be counter-productive in how it both frightens civilians and disrupts their lives. Moreover, the reaction of the Afghan security forces in the aftermath of attacks can be as terrifying and dangerous as the event itself, as they tend to panic and threaten everyone in sight rather than rendering assistance to those affected - which is generally left to civilian bystanders.’

‘Examine carefully who the perpetrators are, and whether there are any foreign governments or powers supporting them.’

Danish Karokhel, from another office in Kabul, pleads for a very considerate response: ‘Examine carefully who the perpetrators are, and whether there are any foreign governments or powers supporting them. If you fail to do so, you risk getting caught up in a long-term cycle of violence, like the one we’re experiencing in Afghanistan.’

Jolyon Leslie is especially impressed by the speed with which life in Brussels seems to be restoring itself – taking into account both the scale and the highly unusual nature of these attacks. ‘I can’t imagine what the people of Brussels are going through, given how unusual such an event is in the city, but the manner in which ‘normal’ life seems to be quickly resuming is impressive. Whether this is  a conscious effort to counter the aims of those responsible for the attacks, or just force of habit, the experience of Kabul (where vigils are quite rare) suggests that it’s an effective way of dealing with anxiety.’

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