If Europe is to overcome Islamist terror, it needs to fight for the values it holds dear

Paul Mason
The Guardian
11 January 2015

For many on the left, tolerance comes easily. But economic disarray has sapped the will to defend our principles of rationalism and individual liberty

There’s a map of Europe that was supposed to tell the main story. It shows the wealth created in every region in the European Union, colour coded: yellow for poor, green for average and purple for the rich areas that produce up to 125% more per head than the average.

The result looks as if somebody took a broad purple paintbrush, starting near Florence, and swiped upwards through the Alps, western Germany and the Netherlands, running out of paint a little around Denmark, but then colouring in most of Scandinavia.

The lifestyle in these rich regions is the outcome Europe aspired to when it adopted first the single market and then the euro. When the euro project was still working, it was assumed that around this highly developed central bloc of wealthy regions, crossing national borders, there might develop the paradigms of a transnational European culture. Think the high-spec family car, the regional opera house and the skiing holiday. It was, after all, along this geographic corridor connecting Florence with Flémalle that the Renaissance happened.

The eurozone crisis put an end to this conceit. But the current wave of revulsion against Islamist terrorism challenges us to ask, urgently, what the common European culture actually is. Austerity has drawn a horizontal line through the map of Europe, across which solidarity has not readily flowed. German unemployment this week hit an all-time low of 6.5%, while youth unemployment in Italy – even in the “purple zone” – stands at 43%. So if the Charlie Hebdo atrocity was aimed at sparking a culture war in Europe, it could not have been better timed.

The news coverage showed the enormity of the spontaneous demo at the Place de la République on the night of the murders. But one participant told me, contrary to the instant myth-making about “unity” among the crowd, that those on the plinth of the statue were openly divided between secular leftists and liberals and populists of the Islamophobic right. The latter leerily belted out the most embarrassing line of the Marseillaise – “Let’s spill the blood of the impure” – to jeers from others. The atmosphere, said my witness, “felt dangerous”.

The source of the danger is that, with the economic project in disarray, the very concept of a unifying, liberal and tolerant European culture is already under threat. With tens of thousands on the streets of Dresden opposing “Islamisation”, and with Geert Wilders’ Freedom party leading the polls in the Netherlands, for many – even in the wealthy “purple” regions – defending European values has become a question of defending white, smalltown, conservative Christian culture, and letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean.

The mainstream parties of the centre have been almost unanimous across Europe in their response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre: dignified restraint, emphasis on the multi-ethnic nature of society, refusal to link it to Islam and migration. Which is fine, but like the rest of elite politics in Europe right now, seems hollowed out in terms of emotion and principle.

The French left’s preference for in-your-face secularism and scatologically offensive satire goes back to the Jacobins, for whom the words “priest, bugger and fuck” were in the core political vocabulary. It is a “French thing” that even their friends struggle to understand. But as a cultural response it has the virtue of being strong. It draws on a tradition 200 years old, that subjected Paris to three revolutions in the space of 90 years, and allowed its population, when the time came, to resist and defeat the Nazis.

But it’s a national tradition. Europe remains, for all the economic integration it has achieved, a coalition of nations with national cultures. Indeed, we revel in our differences: see how warily we intermingle in the summer cafes along the Med, or on the ski slopes, always attuned to national quirks, cultures and obsessions. So by hitting a Europe that is culturally incoherent, and in the midst of economic stagnation, the Islamist terror groups are hitting a smart target.

You would not have to spend much time driving a pizza moped, as one of the Kouachi brothers did, to understand how much the white, Christian people of Europe currently blame each other for the economic crisis. Or how much of their frustration is directed at migrants. The danger in Europe is that the forces of cultural fragmentation coincide with those in economics. The political elite’s economic credibility ebbs away with every month that GDP or inflation falls below zero. For those who have already supported one round of unsuccessful foreign wars in Muslim countries, there is no appetite to do it all again.

The only common culture that will survive the onslaught that IS and its allies are planning for Europe has to be built on two principles: first, religious tolerance and respect for migrants’ rights under international law; second, the aggressive pursuit of secularism, rationalism and individual liberty. The liberal centre and the European left have this weakness in common: they find the tolerance bit easier than the aggressive fight for humanism and modernity. The collapse of the old left’s economic project, and the current collapse of the economic project of the centre, has sapped their will to fight for the culture they believe in.

Islamist terror cannot be stopped by the security and intelligence services alone. It has to be fought culturally and economically. But the only cultural response that is going to beat them is the one that does not play their game. It has to be based on the core values of European democracies – and this is true whether or not we like the eurozone or even the EU as institutions. Those core values reach back to the Enlightenment and the Renaissance; they are secular and humanist in action, even when carried out by people who are devout Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Where to start? Eradicate the slums, remove religious bigots from all educational contact with children and give kids brought up in obscurantist faiths an education that insists the prejudices of their parents may be mistaken. And find the young people jobs.

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