In the aftermath of the attacks in Belgium it’s easy to focus on the granular aspects. Where were the attackers from, how did they choose their targets and why now?
But with 26 countries having experienced Islamic terrorism since January, we need to begin to look at what is common to these attacks. In Australia, the political debate and focus of resources has been on economic isolation or political disenfranchisement of young Muslims.
In Europe, the focus is upon the cultural exclusion of Muslims and the development of ghettos with very little opportunity to break through the social class structures. Questions are being raised about the failures of Muslim migration and why more isn’t being done to forcibly assimilate Muslims, including through efforts to ban the burka.
Belgium has been particularly susceptible with the highest per capita portion of foreign fighters, with an estimated 120 who have returned home alongside those who are supporters. That the remaining perpetrator of the Paris attacks, Salah Abdesalam, was able to evade capture for four months, while presumably living in the same Brussels suburb where he was caught last week, is representative of the challenge.
While there may appear to be some commonality in what motivates terrorism across Western countries, these tend to falter when bringing into consideration Islamic nations with homegrown terrorists such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Lebanon. In these countries there is no cultural or economic isolation, yet the threat of terrorism is just as great.
The common denominator that ties terrorism from all of these countries together is a political Islamism that aspires to a society that is shaped by a particular interpretation of Allah’s will.
In Belgium the Sharia4Belgium movement has been blamed for being at the forefront of this effort to change society.
In Australia we are reluctant to talk about a religion as being political. This is a particularly Western secular view built upon an evolving history of the separation of the Christian church from the state.
The roots of Christianity are found in a religion persecuted by the state. In Islam we have a religion that became a state and quickly transformed into an empire. For some believers, there is a yearning for the return of this period when Islam shaped every aspect of life and in return Allah rewarded them.
This is the common thread connecting Islamist terrorists around the world, a belief in the need to revive the Islam of the 7th and 8th centuries. That by doing so we will return to Allah’s favour.
The focus upon 7th century successes shape how Salafist clerics interpret the scriptures, inspire wealthy believers to donate funds and offer a sense of purpose for young men to fight.
It also changes the limits of these conflicts. Islamic State in the Middle East is pursuing nuclear and chemical weapons because their Salafist ideology reduces the value of human life to a binary division between believers and non-believers. It has made suicide attacks a real and present danger because martyrdom is something to be sought out.
Understanding the challenge as a transnational ideological movement rather than focusing on each individual terrorist event can help us better respond to the threat.
For Australia this means committing more resources to battling the ideology globally. Jordan has had success in reducing the support for extremist Islamic groups through community-led initiatives. Iraq is using satire and popular television shows to ridicule their views.
Australia’s military response to the rise of Islamic State was a critical element in stopping its expansion. But now is the time to refocus the effort by attacking the ideology that provides a moral justification for terrorism.
Banner image: Belgian security forces seal off an area during an anti-terror operation in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels on 18 March 2016. Picture: EPA/Laurent Dubrule