RETURNING FOREIGN FIGHTERS, THE TRAP OF SOCIAL TENSIONS AND A RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Over the last year counter terrorism experts and European policy makers alike have warned that the military defeat and the end of large scale ISIS presence in the Middle East may be the beginning of a new phase; the influx of returning foreign fighters. We all know that the numbers are immense, that the foreign fighters are battle hardened and, in many occasions, ultra-radicals. We also know that many will hardly be able to return to their original homeland and will, just like the Afghan Mujahedeen did in the early nineties of the last century, seek to infiltrate the European space. It is a headache for intelligence services all through Europe. The Balkans are not an exception. On the contrary. This may be history revisited. After all, many of those Mujahedeen settled in Bosnia. A report issued by the EUISS, states that ‘countries with large percentages of Muslims – Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania – are ranked among the top five European ‘exporters’ of foreign fighters to the Middle Eastern battlefields when measured against their population size. In total, estimates show that around 1,000 individuals originating from the Western Balkans have ended up among the ranks of different militant groups in Syria and Iraq, mostly Daesh and Al-Nusra Front.’
To make things even more complex, the authors of a policy brief, issued by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) – The Hague in June last year, warn that the issue of returning foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria is intimately connecting to other problems that Europe should be dealing with. The ICCT links the issue of returnees to both the lone actors and the social polarisation challenges. And they may be very right in doing such. Because let’s face it, the effect of an increased terrorist threat on the European society is becoming increasingly visible. If terrorism seeks to destabilize society, this -fourth- wave of terrorism is definitely successful.
Islamophobia is on the rise. Anti-immigrant political movements are gaining momentum and public support. In some EU member states Muslims are under threat. Terrorism works. It makes people insecure. So, they want to identify the source of their insecurity. The terrorist claims he acts on the basis of (a certain interpretation of) the religion. And so, the most obvious impulse is to blame the religion and all of its followers. It has happened before. The Islam, the Muslims, the non-Western immigrants are now defined as ‘the issue’. Social polarisation is born. And social polarisation turns European Muslims into the scapegoats; into the victims. These victims feel targeted and excluded and feel that they are attacked for no reason by the anti-immigrant voices.
The ingredients for a lasting conflict are growing. It helps that the tensions between Christian and Muslims are historically rooted. The Ottoman period is part of that unfinished and burdened history, the aftermath of the first World War and the division of the Middle East by the West is part of it and the Balkans have had their own share of antagonism in religious terms as part of their very recent history. It is a historic scar that is not yet fully healed. And even though the optimist would claim that the tensions between Christians and Muslims are part of the past, a non-issue in a secular and peace loving modern world, the terrorists have not failed to revive this interreligious tension. It happens in Kenya and Egypt, in Myanmar and Indonesia and it looks like Europeans are falling into the same trap set for them by the terrorists. This new wave of identity politics has the potential to open old wounds in the Balkan region.
The solution is easy but requires leadership and wisdom. We should be led into denying the terrorists what they are looking for. Stop identity politics and stop defining societal divisions along religious lines. I’m not a Christian or a Muslim. I’m a human being, a father, a son, a husband, a scholar, a food lover, a world citizen. I believe in humanity and tradition, I believe in harmony and dignity. And most of all I believe in empathy and sympathy. Don’t judge me on my religion, exactly the way I don’t judge anybody else on his believe structure.
It also means that we should treat the foreign fighters as a group of human beings that made a mistake. They judged wrong. They deserve to be punished for the mistakes they made and subsequently be treated like anybody else who did time in jail. With dignity and humanity. Anybody who understands that these people are sons and daughters and fathers and also have loved ones should be able to accept and understand this approach.