Islamism poses substantial political and security challenges to governments across Europe. At present, it is unclear whether those governments are capable of successfully confronting Islamism’s challenges.
This is, perhaps, a surprising proposition since Islamism is a very familiar ideology to many Europeans; it has decades-long roots in Europe. Innumerable Islamist dissidents from authoritarian states in the Middle East and North Africa became political refugees in European states, which offered them generous asylum policies. Long before the Syrian civil war and the ensuing jihadi activity, some of these European Islamists began traveling to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Yemen and Bosnia to participate in jihad and receive training from radical groups.
In recent years, the harmful impact of Islamist ideology has been increasingly apparent. Between 5,000 and 6,000 Europeans traveled to Syria to fight in the conflict there, with many going on to join the Islamic State.1 Since 2015, major Islamist attacks have taken place in London and Paris on multiple occasions, as well as in Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, Stockholm, and Barcelona. There were also dozens of lower-level attacks, such as those in Copenhagen, Turku, Marseilles, and Amsterdam, with many more plots thwarted.
In European countries, the response to these attacks has been, on one level, relatively uniform. Terror suspects were arrested; legislation was tweaked to make foreign terrorist fighters’ travel illegal; physical barriers were erected across major cities to prevent vehicular attacks; armed police became a more common sight. Yet the threat of terrorist attacks shows no sign of disappearing. And the current workload—for police, security agencies, and judges—is unsustainable.2
This dilemma has led governments to focus on specific prevention programs, meant to tackle factors that lead to radicalization, including cultural sympathy for both violent and non-violent extremism. European responses to prevention have been less than uniform, partially because there is still significant disagreement about how to identify the triggers of Islamist violence in the first place.
Determining precisely what factors lead to radicalization is a pressing challenge. In fact, beyond the violent Islamist threat, the influence of political Islam and varying shades of Salafism are also growing across Muslim communities in Europe. This, too, has harmful social consequences.
The scale of the problem facing Europe was exacerbated by the decision made by Germany in 2015 to open its borders to refugees fleeing conflicts in Muslim-majority countries. While security threats undoubtedly entered with the refugee flow (or individuals were radicalized and became threats once in Europe), the refugee issue has also introduced social and cultural questions relevant to overall cohesion and integration in Europe.
This essay looks at these issues from the perspective of four European countries: the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and France. Islamist terrorists have attacked each country in the last two years, and each has taken differing approaches to preventing extremism and facilitating integration. Dozens of conversations with government officials from across Europe have informed my conclusions.
The UK has faced 37 publicly disclosed incidents of Islamist-inspired terrorism or acts of violence between January 2014 and December 2018. Eight of these incidents led to deaths or injuries, with five occurring in 2017 alone.3
As of March 2017, there were 23,000 Islamist terror threats on the UK intelligence radar. Within this, approximately 3,000 were being actively monitored or investigated in some 500 separate operations.4 Around 900 individuals left the UK for Syria or Iraq, with about 180 killed there and 360 returnees.5 As with every other European country, the UK has struggled to find evidence, usable in a civilian court, with which to prosecute their foreign fighters upon return.6
When it comes to countering the terrorism threat, the UK has long focused on prevention: “Prevent” is one of four strands within the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, in which the UK attempts to provide local communities with tools to challenge extremism. The other three strands are Pursue, Protect and Prepare.
In its earliest iterations, Prevent’s focus was on stopping acts of violence against Britain and British interests abroad while scrutinizing local grievances.7 This effort was partially compromised by the government’s reliance on a small group of Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood legacy organizations directing their approach to Islam. These groups were, at best, ambivalent toward and at times supportive of terrorism.
Ownership of Prevent initially lay with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), which emphasized the importance local councils should play in its efforts.8 Yet in reality, local authorities had no clear idea of the most effective way to spend Prevent funding. Islamist groups, who encouraged segregation from British society, ended up receiving government cash, while a Parliamentary committee concluded that money had “been wasted on unfocused or irrelevant projects.”9,10
There was a drastic shift away from this approach after a Conservative Liberal-Democrat coalition came to power in May 2010. A revamped Prevent was taken from DCLG and handed to the Home Office, putting a new strategy toward addressing ideology at the front and center of the problem facing the UK.11 Furthermore, it was now not just terrorism, but also non-violent extremism that had to be tackled, as “terrorism is associated with rejection of a cohesive, integrated, multi-faith society and of parliamentary democracy.”12,13 That meant focusing on all forms of ideological extremism—from the far right to Islamist—affecting the UK.
The government also rejected the big tent approach of the past. Instead, it explicitly stated “we will not work with extremist organisations that oppose our values of universal human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society. If organisations do not accept these fundamental values, we will not work with them and we will not fund them.”14
In the years following the review, and despite much criticism, the UK government has doubled down on its strategy. Prevent-related legislation passed in 2015 legally required certain authorities—prisons, hospitals, or education providers, for example—to “have due regard” to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Training was provided to help identify those at risk of being radicalized. This, too, related to both violent and non-violent extremism.15
The government’s ongoing dedication to focus on both violent and non-violent extremism is reflected in several other initiatives. Perhaps most controversial was the official review of the Muslim Brotherhood launched in 2014. While the full text remains classified, a published executive summary concluded that “aspects of Muslim Brotherhood ideology and tactics, in this country and overseas, are contrary to our values and have been contrary to our national interests and our national security.”16
Another UK foray into the challenge of non-violent extremism arrived with the 2015 Counter-Extremism strategy that promised a “more assertive approach to defeat extremists” and to “challenge their ideology, and defend and promote the values that unite us.”17 To assist in this, a Commission for Countering Extremism was launched in 2018, headed by Sara Khan, a vocal critic of Islamist ideology and extremism.18
Meanwhile, the UK has been active in considering how best to achieve integrated communities. To that end, in July 2015, Dame Louise Casey was tasked with carrying out a review for the government.
Casey saw a pattern of increased segregation and concluded that the UK had, “lost sight of our expectations on integration and lacked confidence in promoting it or challenging behaviours that undermine it.”19 Too many public institutions had, in Casey’s view, “gone so far to accommodate diversity and freedom of expression that they have ignored or even condoned regressive, divisive and harmful cultural and religious practices, for fear of being branded racist or Islamophobic.”20
Among Casey’s recommendations were a greater emphasis on British values and history in school, more English-language classes, and an integration oath for newly arrived immigrants.21
Unfortunately, momentum on the counter-extremism and integration agenda was lost when Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote of June 2016. A long-promised Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill is yet to emerge. At the same time, the government’s commitment to Islamist disengagement is wavering: The Home Office has recently renewed engagement with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), for example, one of the groups aligned with Jamaat-e-Islami that was left out in the cold by the 2011 Prevent review.22 The government has potentially even begun to relent on its commitment to Prevent, recently agreeing to an independent review of that program’s effectiveness (a step for which some of Prevent’s more strident critics had been clamoring).
Meanwhile, the Casey report is viewed by Whitehall as too controversial and has been quietly shelved. When asked by a journalist in December 2017 what progress had been made on her recommendations, Casey replied “absolutely nothing.”23 In March 2018, she spoke again about her “incredible frustrati[on]” at the lack of progress made on her community cohesion agenda.24
Between January 2014 and December 2018, Germany faced 34 Islamist plots or acts of violence, nine of which led to casualties. Germany’s Ministry of the Interior declared, “the Islamist following comprised a total of 25,810 individuals.”25 Within this are around 2,240 jihadists. Approximately 770 are considered to be especially high-risk.26
Furthermore, the threat continues to be on the rise: Federal prosecutors dealing with approximately 80 terror cases in 2013 thought they would be confronting between 1,300 and 1,400 cases by the end of 2018.29 As of April 2018, there was assessed to be 11,000 Salafists in Germany, a number that has multiplied dramatically since 2013.30
Germany’s security problems are directly linked to its asylum policies. The government let in almost 1.5 million asylum seekers, mainly from Muslim-majority countries, between 2015 and 2017.31 Of the 34 plots of violence my research identified, asylum seekers carried out fourteen (41 percent).32 The majority of those plotters were recent arrivals into the country, many from Syria.33 By way of comparison, the then-head of Germany’s domestic central criminal investigation agency stated that only 11 plots were disrupted between 2000 and 2013.34 There was no major Islamist atrocity in this period, compared to post-2015 attacks in Berlin, Ansbach, and Hamburg, among others.
One possible response by the German government has been to deport those who have no legal right to be in the country. As of November 2015, Germany had identified around 150,000 people it wished to deport.35 At least 36 Islamists were deported in 2017, and 46 more in 2018.36 Germany has even begun to pay asylum seekers to leave the country, offering funds as high as 3,000 euros.37
However, Germany has had significant problems in deporting even those individuals it knows have no legal basis for being in the country. One reason is that deportation is not a federal task, but one that falls to the states (Bundesländer). Authorities in the conservative south, in states such as Bavaria, have taken a tougher approach. But in the more liberal north—in Berlin and North Rhine Westphalia for example—authorities have been more reluctant to pursue deportations. Some northern judges have also been unwilling to approve bone x-rays in order to ascertain an asylum applicant’s actual age, complaining that it is discriminatory.38 One consequence has been multiple rape-murders committed by adult asylum seekers who falsely claimed to be minors in order to remain in the country.39
The depth of support within Germany for its asylum policies is uncertain. A February 2017 poll for the Chatham House think tank showed that 53 percent of Germans agreed with the statement “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.” Only 19 percent disagreed; 28 percent were unsure.40 Another recent poll showed that 62 percent of Germans wanted to turn away at the border asylum seekers without proper documentation.41
Despite this, in the September 2017 election, the politician inextricably associated with Germany’s asylum policy—Chancellor Angela Merkel—retained power. (She has since resigned as leader of her party and will not seek re-election after 2021.) The party most associated with a hardline on immigration—the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)—came in third, with nearly 13 percent of the vote, and a recent poll had the AfD as the second-most popular party in Germany.42
When it comes to prevention policy, such programs have existed in Germany since 1992. Unlike other European countries, however, the roots of Germany’s prevention work do not lie in concern over Islamist violence, but with regards to the far right. Neo-Nazi murders of Turkish small business owners, which began at the turn of the 21st Century, particularly focused minds on that problem.43
Today, the government centers its efforts on all forms of extremism, which it aims to combat by promoting democracy. Much prevention work takes place at the Bundesländer level, which has responsibility for the police, jails, education, youth programs, and social work. Meanwhile, the federal government has launched “Live Democracy! Active Against Right-Wing Extremism, Violence and Hate.” Housed within the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), “Live Democracy!” aims to support those “actively working towards their aim of a diverse, non-violent and democratic society.”44 This is complemented by the Ministry of the Interior’s “Cohesion through Participation” program, which “funds projects for democratic participation and against extremism specifically in rural, structurally weak regions.”45
These ministries co-published the overarching “Strategy to Prevent Extremism and Promote Democracy” in July 2016. This strategy focuses on all forms of extremism while also highlighting its attempts to minimize various forms of prejudice. In 2017, the federal government committed itself to spending more money on prevention programs, a move informed by an increase in Islamist activity.46
A 2015 poll carried out in Lower Saxony for the BMFSFJ revealed that 27 percent of Muslim students agreed with the statement “[t]he Islamic laws of Sharia, according to which, for example, adultery or homosexuality are severely punished, are much better than the German laws.” Almost one-fifth—19 percent—agreed that “[i]t is the duty of every Muslim to fight unbelievers and spread Islam around the world.” 47 Clearly, there are ample problems for Germany’s government to address when it comes to Islamism.
Nordic countries are also dealing with a jihadist threat, with an April 2017 vehicular attack in Stockholm the highest-profile incident so far. The fact that this plot occurred in Sweden was no great shock, as the risk there has been surging for years: The number of Islamist sympathizers reflected on Stockholm’s intelligence radar in December 2010 was around 200; by July 2017, that number had shot up to 2,000.48 At least 300 individuals traveled from Sweden to fight in Syria or Iraq,49 and around half have since returned.50
In Stockholm, a more developed Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policy is seen as a vital part of the response to terrorism. Sweden’s approach to prevention is focused on crime prevention (stopping acts of violence) and addressing grievances, rather than on tackling ideology. Officials cite a commitment to freedom of speech as a reason it has been reluctant to wade into addressing non-violent Islamist ideology.51
At first, prevention work was the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture and Democracy, which reflected the fact that Sweden saw promotion of human rights and democracy as the best barrier to terrorist violence.52 However, prevention efforts were recently placed under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, a move that was discussed before the April 2017 attacks and was formalized afterwards.53
Around twenty of Sweden’s public agencies also work on violent extremism.54,55 For example, in January 2018, a Center for Preventing Violent Extremism was formed, working under the National Council for Crime Prevention in the Ministry of Justice. It is “tasked with developing the knowledge-based and cross-sector work involved in preventing violent extremism on the national, regional, and local levels in Sweden.”56
From the Swedish perspective, a significant challenge to prevention efforts is the central government’s lack of power. There are 290 municipalities in Sweden—branches of local government—which have autonomy over the provision of social services and education (within national guidelines). Those engaged in prevention work believe that these sectors are ideally placed to detect early warning signings of radicalization. However, the municipalities have a strongly independent bent, and to the extent they have focused on radicalization warning signs, their concerns have centered on the far right—a movement with historic and familiar roots in Sweden.
Municipal and central government interaction was supposed to be improved with the 2014 appointment of a National Coordinator for Safeguarding Democracy from Violent Extremism (initially a three-year mandate which has now been made permanent). According to the government, the main task of the National Coordinator is, “to develop and reinforce the work taking place at local level and ensure that there is cooperation between government authorities, municipalities, and civil society organizations” on CVE.57
Sweden faces a significant challenge in integrating the large number of asylum seekers and economic migrants it has accepted post-2015. Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. This is the equivalent of the U.S. accepting 5.2 million asylum seekers in a single year. Sweden also took in more child refugees than any other country. However, the use of x-rays to prove the age of applicants is voluntary, and inevitably, some applicants are older than 18.58
In January 2016, Sweden projected that up to 80,000 asylum applicants would be rejected.59 Yet one official suggested that around 50,000 of those who should leave will more likely end up staying.60 This is no surprise: The ability to deport those without identity papers, or who come from war zones or countries with questionable human rights records, is an ongoing concern for European nations. One such individual—an asylum seeker from Uzbekistan called Rakhmat Akilov—carried out the April 2017 vehicular attack in Stockholm. For such reasons, some in Stockholm suggest that the Swedish Migration Agency needs to cooperate more closely with the security services.61
There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that integration has not been successful. Around 23 percent of non-European immigrants in Sweden are unemployed, compared to 4 percent of Swedish citizens.62 Gang violence largely emanates from immigrant communities, with gang-linked firearms murders sharply rising.63 Sexual assaults are committed disproportionately by those with an immigrant background.64
Yet despite all this, Swedish officials have a generally relaxed attitude to asylum, viewing their willingness to take in large numbers of asylum seekers as a global obligation, and their welcome to refugees as a boost to the economy. They point to their perceived success in integrating those fleeing the Balkans in the 1990s, and express confidence that jobs can be created, housing offered, and education provided for these recent arrivals. However, as of May 2016, less than 500 of the 163,000 arrivals from the previous year had managed to find employment.65
The perception at official levels of Sweden’s previous success in integrating immigrants is not necessarily shared within broader society. One April 2018 poll by the European Commission showed that 73 percent of respondents do not believe that integration of immigrants had been successful in Sweden.66 Voting patterns are beginning to reflect this concern and at least one stridently anti-immigration party—the Swedish Democrats—is gaining strength.
My research for the Heritage Foundation has revealed that France is the European country most threatened by Islamism-inspired terrorism or acts of violence. And yet it also has a surprisingly successful pattern of Muslim integration into French society.
Between January 2014 and December 2018, France faced 87 publicly disclosed incidents, 30 of which led to either injuries or deaths.67
In November 2017, the head of France’s domestic security agency stated that around 18,000 radicalized terror suspects (up from 15,000 in 2016) were living in the country, with 4,000 regarded as particularly dangerous.68 Approximately 1,000 adults traveled from France to Syria or Iraq. As of early fall 2017, 265 of them had been killed and 217 had returned.69
Beyond France’s immediate terror threat, Salafism is growing at a rapid pace. The French government’s Central Territorial Intelligence Service assesses there to be between 30,000 and 50,000 Salafists in France today, up from just 5,000 in 2004. One report placed the number of Salafi mosques as having increased by 170 percent—from approximately 50 to 140—between 2010 and 2016.70
Several explanations are offered to explain why Islamic radicalization is so prevalent in France, including France’s fierce commitment to secularism, racist attitudes towards North African immigrants, and general hostility towards Muslims. One Time article from January 2015 stated that France’s “radical brand of secularism” had set it on a “collision course with Islamic practices.”71
It is true that France wades into areas of religion that many other western European countries do not. The state is willing to shut down radical mosques.72 A former President has signed letters calling for sections of the Koran to be abrogated.73 The niqab is banned in public spaces. And President Macron is considering ways of shutting down foreign funding of French mosques.74
Nonetheless, many French Muslims have successfully integrated into French society. Perhaps French dedication to nationhood and secular values has bolstered Muslim assimilation. One pertinent example is the large number of French Muslims who are willing to fight and die for their country.
Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the French military is Muslim. (Since France does not officially break down its population according to religion, precise numbers are unavailable.)75 Therefore, roughly 26,500 to 53,000 Muslims are serving in the French Armed Forces, and even fighting in Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan. According to Pew, there are almost six million Muslims living in France, representing some 8.8 percent of the total population.76
The number of French Muslims willing to serve their country is also reflected in the identity of terrorism victims in France: Two of the three soldiers killed by Mohammed Merah in March 2012 were Muslims. So too was one of the police officers killed in the al-Qaeda attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
French Muslims’ disproportionate representation in the French Army become even more impressive when compared to other countries. For example, the UK had a proud tradition of Indian Muslims fighting for the Empire in both World Wars.77,78 Today, however, only 0.3 percent of the Armed Forces are Muslim (650 individuals).79 To say this is disproportionately low is an understatement: In 2016, Pew estimated that there were just over 4 million Muslims in the UK, which is 6.3 percent of the overall population.80
France’s approaches toward de-radicalization has differed from those of other European countries. Its policy has been less community-led and more reliant on psychology and social care. Unfortunately, in light of recent history, any French skepticism towards its de-radicalization initiatives would be understandable.
In 2016, counter-radicalization units were established for a series of Islamist prisoners who—while assessed to be potentially violent—were viewed by authorities as capable of rehabilitation. They were provided with access to psychologists, religious instruction in Islam, language classes, and a variety of workshops.81 Regrettably, these prisoners used this opportunity to plan an attack in which an inmate, who had previously attempted to travel to Syria, managed to stab two prison wardens.82 The counter-radicalization units were scrapped in less than a year.
Another high-profile disappointment was the Centre for Prevention, Integration and Citizenship, a state-run initiative in which up to 25 radicalized individuals could voluntarily enroll for a 10-month program. They were offered housing, classes on subjects such as history and religion, and psychological treatment. However, enrollment numbers were low and nobody completed the program. The center opened in September 2016 and was shut down by the following July.83
Despite these unsuccessful experiments, the French government is now initiating a more proactive approach to prevention. It not only focuses on violent Islamism, but also seeks to confront the entire ideology that feeds it. In February 2018, France launched a National Plan to Prevent Radicalization, which listed sixty specific measures “to refocus the prevention policy.”84
The plan takes a wide-ranging approach, delving into everything from education, sports, local government, and private enterprise. The measures include developing support for secularism, use of counter-narratives, greater government oversight over private and home schooling, faster removal of illegal online terrorist content, training teachers to spot signs of radicalization, and more involvement from mental health professionals.
It is too early to assess the success of this approach. One official remarked, however, that while certain approaches may be unlikely to work, the government needs to try them anyway.85
Europe faces a massive set of challenges pertaining to security, Islamist radicalization, and integration of people from Muslim-majority countries. If current trends continue, more terrorist attacks will occur, segregation will deepen, and social cohesion will deteriorate. Elections across Europe in recent years have shown that voters will increasingly turn towards ever more radical political parties that promise to fix such problems.
Determining the precise way for politicians and policymakers to navigate this morass is extraordinarily daunting. To comprehensively mitigate the impact of Islamism in Europe is clearly beyond the ability of any one leader or administration.
From a philosophical perspective, a good starting point is to recognize the nature of the challenge that Islamism—in both its violent and non-violent forms—poses. Many Europeans still argue that focusing on non-violent Islamist ideology is counter-productive. Their refusal to censure all Islamist ideology leads to Islamist narratives being infused into the European discourse with great regularity. This can only result in direct Islamist engagement with European governments. It will also permit prominent proponents of Islamist rhetoric to find platforms in the media and in universities.
Essentially, governments need to recognize that non-violent Islamist ideology plays a major role in supporting and generating violent Islamism. When carried out with that in mind, prevention programs would have a more significant capability to reduce the threat.
Domestically, there also needs to be a heightened focus on integration. Unfortunately, every integration model in Europe has, in varying degrees, failed. Perhaps the most paradoxical example is France: a country where segregation is so pronounced, yet also one able to offer a sense of national identity that transcends—or complements—religion.
While a stronger sense of national identity can potentially reduce the appeal of Islamism, a path toward forging national loyalty and patriotism is much less clear. And the likelihood that government bureaucrats can achieve such a goal successfully is uncertain at best.
Meantime, European countries tend to be anxious, for obvious historical reasons, about excessive displays of nationalist fervor.
The integration of some Muslim populations into European political and religious life was an urgent and complex problem even before 2015, and it is likely to become far more difficult now as European Islamist fighters seek to return from Syria. Europe can make this task easier for itself by deporting those who are illegally in their countries, as well as by reducing the number of newcomers every year. There is ample polling to show that these tactics would be popular with voters. Still, a lack of political will or desire among authorities, along with the aforementioned legal complications, may prevent it.
Overseas, the continuing meltdown of order in the Middle East and North Africa and the Sahel makes it clear that a stronger border defense will not be enough to secure Europe. European governments will need to do far more in conjunction with the U.S. to help friendly governments in the Middle East deal with the unprecedented challenges they face.
Despite these challenges, it is not too late for Europe to address the perilous political and security challenges it faces. But better policies require a philosophical sea change, not just marginal adjustments and tweaks to current policies.