In 2016, there were the bombings in Istanbul & Ankara. While the first Istanbul bombing in January was claimed by ISIS, a different group, TAK, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party, claimed last week’s Anakara attack. Following the most recent bombing in Beyoğlu, Istanbul over the weekend, the Turkish government claimed that the Kurdish separatist group, rather than ISIS or another organization, was behind the attack.
Today, Brussels joins the list of cities recently targeted by violent bombings, with 34 confirmed dead and hundreds wounded in a series of attacks that hit the Zaventem airport.
ISIS claimed support for the attack, though to what extent this attack was directed by ISIS personnel remains unknown. The recent arrest of Salah Abdelslam, while heralded as a potential breakthrough for European counter-terrorist organizations, also highlighted just how local Abdelslam was and how weak his ties to ISIS were, let alone potential ties to Syria or other places of conflict. This certainly raises some interesting questions, such as: how exactly does ISIS affiliation work? What is the process of planning and executing an ISIS or ISIS-inspired terrorist attack? How do people stay in touch with one another? How do European citizens who do not travel to ISIS held territory or have weak connections to ISIS manage to carry out such attacks? Are local connections with an ISIS brand more important? However, that salient point about Abdelslam and the nature of his ties to ISIS seems to be lost in the journalistic and social media shuffle, to say nothing of the rhetorical echo chamber of politics.
It’s been a slow education
These most recent attacks reminds me of the Madrid 2004 bombings at Atocha Station, except back then, it was ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) and al-Qaeda everyone talked about, not ISIS. In Spain, as in Turkey, and indeed, as in Ireland pre-1998 accord, terrorism was a local affair, related to historic issues of colonization, identity erasure, and ethnic tensions within modern borders but infused with 20th century leftist and right-wing rhetoric, ideology, and teleology. ETA, a Basque paramilitary group founded during the Franco dictatorship, had been the proverbial boogyman for Spanish terrorism, though not without reason. Car bombs and rupture of cease-fire agreements led to such distrust that when the Atocha bombings occurred on May 11, 2004, then Prime Minister José María Aznar said it was the work of ETA. ETA had been the perceived enemy for so long that the idea of ETA being behind the attack was within the realm of possibility, despite evidence to contrary.
Even American media outlets fell prey to this line of thinking. The Wall Street Journal spoke at length about the attack as the work of ETA rather than al-Qaeda and Osama bin Ladin, despite reporting on Arabic-language materials found in connection with the attack within the same article. The New York Times reported that “an American counterterrorism official” doubted the possibility that the attack could have been done by al-Qaeda.
It was only after the electoral defeat of Aznar and PP (Partido Popular) several days later by Rodrigo Zapatero and PSOE that the focus on ETA shifted towards al-Qaeda, but just like 9/11 truthers, some in Spain still hold the group responsible. A similar focus on the PKK over all other terrorist elements in Turkey pervades The Guardian‘s coverage of this weekend’s bombing in Istanbul, despite the fact that Reuters reported ISIS claiming responsibility. No doubt, the Turkish government and portions of Turkish population will still tie the PKK to the recent events in Istanbul because the PKK is the “traditional” enemy and because it is far easier to go on chanting the same slogans than actually assess the political situation on the ground and stop it, much less do a proper investigation into the root causes.
Is the second verse, same as the first?
Despite being a country split between a French and Flemish population, Belgium does not have a paramilitary group like ETA or the PKK, and tensions between the two groups have not (yet) come to blows. However, this does not make the country immune to the same types of errors of judgement and perception as those that happened in Turkey or in Spain. Belgium does have another group, namely immigrants, that can fill the role of perpetrator. Like the Basques and the Kurds, there are tensions and suspicions between Belgians and immigrants, though it is becoming increasingly apparent that a particular group, namely Muslim immigrants, are facing the brunt of suspicion, building upon a deep sense of cultural and social alienation between the two groups. This is not a situation unique to Belgium, but since there has historically been more focus on the situation as it manifests itself in France, the fact that Belgium suffers from similar issues has been largely overlooked by most Anglophone media until recently.
More importantly, this Muslim/non-Muslim tension within Belgium is occurring despite the fact that the majority of non-Belgians come from the EU and are not Muslim. It is also becoming increasingly common across Europe, where Europeans vastly overestimate the actual percentage of Muslims living in Europe.
Thus, signs are pointing to the fact that Muslim immigrants are being targeted based not on actual data, such as the number of immigrants or the percentage of immigrants relative to the general population, but on other criteria, such as a perception or an idea. Operating on this perception of a particular group rather than the lived reality, is what leads to the marginalized group “over-performing”, that is always demonstrating or being called upon to demonstrate that they are good, perfect, and highly law-abiding citizens and declare themselves to be “moderate”(i.e. non-threatening) while the group who is controlling the marginalization still retains the power and possibility to turn on the marginalized.
This is not a recipe for the healthy relationship necessary for sustaining a pluralistic, open society, much less one that can correctly identify and process the available evidence after a national tragedy.
A little bit louder and a little bit worse?
Certainly, the rise of religious extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other networks around the world is a major shift away from the left-wing and right-wing paramilitary groups of the 20th century. Certainly, the rise of Islamic religious extremist groups who not only strive for reward in the next life but also come with a political ideology for this one, is a major shift. Certainly, the rise of Islamic religious extremist groups is deeply tied to the political destabilization and disintegration of numerous Muslim countries and countries with large Muslim minorities in the past 30 years, including Nigeria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Israel & Palestine, and Lebanon, with Iraq and Syria the most recent casualties. Certainly, the combination of severe economic downturn, Euro crisis, and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees is not going to make thing easy for European countries, much less provide smooth process of integration and counter-weight to Islamophobia in Europe or elsewhere.
Certainly, all these factors need consideration when discussing the events of the past few days, months, years, and decades. Certainly, taking these factors into account when it comes to debate and policies on how best to counter the threats that they pose to societies and countries around the world is the prudent and correct thing to do.
Yet at the same time, we must recognize that fear and suspicion can do harm just as it tries to keep us safe. More importantly by viewing the world only through a single lens, one erases the fact that the world actually does not operate along such strict parameters, and the fact that our perception of a threat or suspicion does not match measured reality. For all the attacks like Brussels or Madrid, there are attacks like Istanbul and Ankara, that is, the strategic use of violence by Muslims on other Muslims based on an ideology of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” For all the reports about economically marginalized and radicalized European Muslim men joining ISIS or for instances of Syrian refugees carrying out terrorist attacks, there are stories of non-economically marginalized, non-radicalized, and even non-Muslim Europeans and Americans, male and female, joining as well. Even for all the reporting about ISIS, ISIS terror cells outside of Iraq and Syria, and the very horrific violence of ISIS, focusing on them and only them causes us to ignore other perpetrators of horrific violence, most notably, Boko Haram, and our own national and international policies that are (still!) creating one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the past century.
These recent attacks in Brussels, Istanbul and Ankara, and the subsequent coverage and discussion of said attacks underscore how much we still need to pay attention to the ways in which our own ideas and perceptions about the world affect our own understanding of said world and the way in which we report and record history. It is only when we look at the world in multiple ways and from multiple viewpoints that we see things as they are, rather than in only in the ways they are perceived.
Until then, however, we’re just going to keep seeing more of the same.