by Lieven De Cauter
The events in France (Charlie Hebdo and other attacks) and Belgium (a raid in Verviers that prevented a similar terrorist attack) mean the end of normality for Europe and the beginning of a long state of emergency. The idea of the war on terror as a permanent war is backfiring in a big way: we are becoming part of the permanent war zone. Since both France and Belgium have been bombing the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), we really are at war. Two hundred radicalized Muslim youngsters went from Belgium to fight in Syria with IS, and those who came back are trained soldiers who can organize terrorist attacks. Apparently in Verviers a cell of returnees planned to attack a police station and kill all those inside. Europe seems doomed to replay the sort of state-of-emergency crackdown that happened in the United States after 9/11.
In Belgium this state of emergency is tangible. The army is in the streets for the first time since the terrorist attacks of the Communist Combatant Cells in 1984. We are in an extreme and chilling situation. Some people like this sort of muscular politics. Our rightist politicians in the NV-A (New Flemish Alliance)—local neocons with nationalist overtones—are receiving as a late Christmas present the sort of pretext they were looking for. The idea to have the army on the streets was in the official program of the current Belgian government—which includes the NV-A as part of the ruling coalition—dating back to August. The attacks provide the perfect occasion to implement that plan. The army on the street may also come in handy when the next strike comes along (the autumn was full of protests against economic austerity).
Recent events also give Islamophobia an obvious boost. Before the attacks, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of Europe (Pegida) was already big in Germany. Now it is booming and spreading to Belgium. In France, Marine Le Pen is basking in popularity, and her National Front will be bigger than ever in the next elections.
The free-speech matter of Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, was exposed as hypocritical by French comedian Dieudonnée’s bad joke about “Charlie Coulibaly.” He was immediately arrested for “praising terrorism.” Tolerance for jokes about the Prophet Mohammed coexists with zero tolerance for bad-taste humor from the other side. But the confusion started already when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the scene, elbowing his way to the front of the recent march in Paris. Defending free speech with a war criminal heading the march was absurd and, for many Muslim youngsters who see this as lopsided indignation, dangerous as well.
The infamous “clash of civilizations” is materializing before our eyes, crystalizing into a mixture of state of emergency and low-intensity local conflict, even a latent civil war. It is all fired by terrorism and anti-terrorist repression, and it feeds on racist fears and religious fanaticism. This dangerous cocktail will spread from France and Belgium to the rest of Europe, with Germany possibly next. The madness will take different forms in different countries. Anders Behring Breivik’s murder spree in Norway in 2011 was also an attack on migration and Islamization. So have been the programs of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece. The picture will be dark for the foreseeable future, and it is getting darker by the day.
To address this crisis, we must provide “lessons in globalization” that teach young and old to go beyond what novelist Amin Maalouf calls “murderous identities.” In other words, we must prevent the problematic, inauthentic, and almost schizophrenic identities of our rapidly globalized societies from becoming murderous.
The killers of Charlie Hebdo were first rappers before they turned into fundamentalists. That reveals a desperate search for identity. They never had any contact with the mosque, the true Islam of their communities. These are desperados from the ghettos, just as Breivik was a psychopath who had retreated into his video-game world. Now this psychotic frame of mind has become political, and collectively so. This pathological personal identity politics is another aspect of “the end of normality.” Globalization is producing an epidemic of this wacko identity politics that threatens to become a pandemic.
But the army in the streets will not save us. It is part of the theater of counterterrorism. Because such theater will only further polarize society, our first task is to fight the paranoia of muscular politics.
Lieven De Cauter is author of The Capsular Civilization, Entropic Empire, and several other books.