A Turkish Tale

How a failed military coup might lead to a revived national unity

 

Turkey is undoubtedly a country with a troubled history of military coups behind it: since 1960, the Turkish Republic founded by Ataturk has experienced four of them and the military has always been a major force in the Turkish structure of power and influence.

The attempted military coup of Friday finds thus its roots in a trend which has more than once characterized the country’s modern evolution and which has more than once tested its political stability.

 

Everything began on Friday at around 7.30 PM, when army units blocked the Bosphorus and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges in Istanbul; fighter jets and helicopters were reported flying in the skies over Ankara; and gunfire was reported in the streets of the capital. In a statement read on TRT (Turkey’s national broadcaster), it was said that the military had “completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order”, in response to Erdogan’s erosion of democracy.

At 10 PM, the news was reporting explosions at Parliament buildings. However, by 00.45 AM soldiers were surrendering their weapons in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and the picture of soldiers standing next to their tanks with their hands in the air has become the image of the coup’s failure.

On Saturday, the government’s reaction was in full sway throughout the day: a purge of soldiers and judicial officials led to the detention of 2839 military personnel, to the dismissal of 2745 judges from the HSYK (Turkey’s top judicial body), and to the detention of General Ozturk, accused of being one of masterminds behind the coup.

 

In just a few hours, the attempted coup took the life of 265 people (both among the military personnel and among civilians) and ended in a major failure that is probably explained by the absence of the necessary support on three essential fronts: the military, the political and the popular ones. As soon as the coup began, in fact, it became evident that the putsch did not enjoy a widespread military backing, since many among the army opposed it and voiced their condemnation. However, even more important in explaining why and how the coup failed, was the absence of political and public backing.

 

On the public’s side, in fact, people responded to Erdogan’s call and took to the streets to voice their support for the democratically-elected AKP government. This reaction on part of the Turkish public represented a deeply positive (and off-late sadly rare) sign of national unity, a sign of courage and respect for the state legitimate institutions that might turn into the beginning of a national reconciliation that Turkey desperately needs.

 

Equally important, is the unity showed at the political level: after seeing its buildings attacked, the MPs of the four political parties sitting in the Parliament convened in an emergency meeting that stood as clearest and brightest proof of how unity across party lines can be built and rediscovered when a country finds itself through its most difficult hours.

 

 

The unity within the Parliament’s groups and within the people of Turkey is at this point the only reaction that can save the country from itself.

 

Erdogan’s government is not a particularly liberal and illuminate one. Many of the internal policies that Erdogan has pursued over the past months have indeed led to an escalation of tensions, divisions and clashes between Turkey’s political and ethnic groups (with the clashes involving the PKK being the most dramatic expression of this trend). In terms of foreign policy -then- the war in Syria, the attacks against the Kurds, and the diplomatic tensions with neighbours and foreign powers (only recently partially healed thanks to a rapprochement to Russia and Israel) have isolated Turkey and exposed it and its people to unprecedented waves of terrorist attacks.

 

The internal and foreign policies pursued by Erdogan are thus responsible for many of the challenges and problems that Turkey is today called to address, and the President should be held accountable for them. Nevertheless, Erdogan was democratically elected by 52% of Turkey’s population and any opposition to his rule must rely on legitimate political means in order to be effective and beneficial for the country. Only political measures that are constitutionally legitimate can build a credible alternative and a safe path capable of leading to a stronger Turkish democracy.

 

 

 

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From Sykes-Picot to the Chilcot Report

The lessons that the West must learn when intervening in the Middle East’s complexities

 

Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attacks led the West to a “war on terror” that ended up creating more damages than those it had aspired to heal and taking more lives than those it had aimed to protect, the Chilcot Report -commissioned by the British House of Commons to assess the government’s decisions with respect to the war in Iraq – brought to light new evidence. The Report is an open (and due) condemnation of Blair’s foreign policy, but –more importantly- is a crucial document containing lessons that need to be learnt to develop more aware and informed foreign policies (especially when it comes to delicate regions that rest on ever more fragile balances such as the Middle East).

 

The UK, under the leadership of then-PM Tony Blair, intervened in Iraq in 2003 following the United States and remained in the country until 2009. Of the Report published on July 6th by Sir John Chilcot, two things particularly stand out. The first is that – contrary to what had been claimed by the USA and the UK governments at that time – the attack against Saddam’s Iraq was not a last resort; the second is that no clear nor informed planning had been made by Blair’s cabinet in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.

 

As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, the Report highlights how PM Blair decided to attack Saddam regardless of the fact that the international community was still trying to deal with Iraq’s putative WMD without resorting to war, regardless of the fact that the UN was still conducting its enquiry, and that the UN Security Council (as well as the majority of the EU partners) was not supporting military intervention.

According to the Report, the reason for Blair’s decision was that in the previous year the British PM had pledged to President Bush his country’s unshakable support, and that maintaining such pledge had therefore become unescapable to preserve the Anglo-American special relationship.

 

As highlighted by the Report, though, the mistake was not only the decision to intervene in a war that was not necessary nor unavoidable. The other major mistake (and one that proved to have a dramatic long-run impact) was that no clear plan had been conceived in terms of how to deal with Iraq in the post-intervention phase.  Rather than elaborating an aware and coherent plan of reconstruction before going to war, the UK government missed this crucial step on the basis of the (wrong and unjustified) assumption that Washington would deal with the issue and that the UN would play a major role once the military intervention was over.

 

After the toppling of Saddam, though, none of this happened: the UN revealed little inclination to intervention and the USA had no reconstruction plan.

 

After winning against Saddam’s Baathist forces in a matter of weeks, in fact, the USA created and led a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) within which the UK had basically no relevant say and that failed to serve the interest of the Iraqi population (thus failing to win the people’s support). In a moment of delicate transition in which fair elections were needed to create a government that could give representation to all Iraqis and that could be accepted by Sunnis and Shias alike, nor the UN nor the USA succeeded in supporting the country through its delicate transition. A Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki took power in Baghdad; the tensions between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds were exasperated; Sunni jihadist groups (such as al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq) managed to exploit sectarian divisions to increase their action capabilities; and former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the army was disbanded became easy recruits for jihadist groups.

 

Thus, the result of the war that the Bush administration had pursued and that the UK had decided to support was not a mere regime change in Baghdad but the collapse of the Iraqi state as such.

What the Chilcot Report makes clear, in fact, is that, in the moment in which the UK and the USA intervened in the Iraqi theatre without a clear and informed strategy for the post-intervention/post-Saddam phase, they set into motion a chain of events that paved the way to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and that changed (perhaps forever) the geopolitical map of the Levant.

 

Forced to face the mistakes made by the West back in 2003, what lessons can now be drawn to avoid their repetition and develop more aware foreign policies?

 

If one major lesson can be derived from what is contained in the Report is that, when intervening abroad, three elements are especially crucial.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the theatre of intervention from any point of view: geopolitical, geostrategic, ethnic and religious. This understanding –especially as far as the religious and ethnic complexities of the Iraqi state are concerned- was clearly lacking on part of the UK and the USA in 2003 and explains how it was possible for power to end up in the hands of a Shia-dominated and sectarian government such as al-Maliki’s.

Secondly, it is necessary to develop realistic objectives and to embrace a relevant strategy that deals not only with the military aspect of intervention but also with the political and civilian ones – two dimensions to which the UK and the USA gave little importance when planning their intervention in 2003 and which continued to underestimate thereafter.

Finally, the third necessary step is to elaborate a post-intervention strategy that deals with the long-term and that gives to the country in which intervention was carried out and to its institutions all the support needed in a phase as delicate and crucial as that of reconstruction.

 

With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot – the infamous Agreement with which France and the UK divided the Middle East into artificial states whose ethnic and religious contradictions have exploded over the past few years – we are now painfully reminded that there are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat anymore, and that our approach to the Middle East cannot be successful if History’s lessons are not learnt.

Fear and Prejudice at the borders of Europe

The most difficult challenge we are facing right now is finding a balance between the legitimate concerns for our security and the necessity to save Europe from our own fears

Three days ago I flew from Paris to Milan and as soon as I reached Malpensa and approached to the exit I was stopped – just like all the other passengers on my plane and presumably on any other – by security forces in civilian clothes to have my passport checked.
Nothing striking in this, considering the fear and the suspicion that the attacks in Paris – now as close to home as they had no longer been since 2005 – have left behind them throughout Europe. Though, if I am now feeling the need to write on it is because something upsetting actually occurred: of my passport only the picture was checked (no stamps of previous travels nor any other detail) and a few seconds were enough to convince I was nothing more than a tourist coming back home. For the guy next to me, though, the process was longer as his brown skin and a previous travel to Egypt led to a series of insisting questions to which there seemed to be no easy way out. Nor was it easier for the African man heading towards the exit in the luggage hall and suddenly stopped for a last check on who he was and what he was in Italy for. A last check from which my pale, native European skin saved me.

The attacks in Paris on 13th of November shocked us all and will be part of our collective memory forever, as only devastating events can be – just like 9/11 for the Americans and November 2008 for Indians.
If terrorist attacks against civilians always elicit our outrage and condemnation, regardless of where they take place and who they hit, it is undeniable (and understandable) that the closer to home terrorism gets and the stronger our reactions are. No European will ever think there is a difference between terrorism hitting Turkey, Lebanon, France or Mali, because as humans we reckon and defend the value of life as such, but as European citizens who spend their free time going to stadiums, concert halls, and restaurants, we can too easily identify ourselves with the victims of Paris not to feel the need to react to that specific tragedy in some way.
All comprehensible. We feel threatened in our home, there where we used to feel safe the most, and we want and expect our States to do something that could make us feel safe again, or at least make us pretend we are.

The problem is when fear leads to irrationality, prejudice and racism.

Increased passport controls at European airports are clearly nothing outrageous per se. If they can make citizens feel safer and augment their trust in the State, its institutions, and its legitimacy, then they can’t but be welcomed in moments like this.
When those controls, though, involve only certain categories of people on the basis of unjustified assumptions, it means we have lost our fight against fear, by letting it free to cancel all the progress that we had managed to make thus far. When we accept that people be subject to different treatments just because of their skin, their nationality, or their (often merely presumed) religion, it means we are letting fear – and the terrorism that caused it – put into questions all the values and principles that our societies are based on.
Of all the achievements of the European Union as political entity and of us Europeans as people, few are as relevant as the belief and assertion that our identity – as expressed by our internal relations and by the relations we entertain with all other countries and individuals – is based on the protection of those fundamental human rights and freedoms that through the ECHR, through Art.2 EUT, through the Nice Charter, and the constitutional principles shared by all European States have entered our weltanschauung.
The recognition of the principle of equality of individuals irrespective of ethnicity, religion, nationality, skin, and sex has always been a pillar in the system of values that lies at the core of the EU’s self-perception and approach to the world – a principle to be defended there where it is and to be brought there where is missing.
Though, it seems as if we are now forgetting what being that community of values that Solana always celebrated means, and it seems as if we are now forgetting that to increase our security legitimately we cannot betray our identity. If the trade-off between security and freedom has always come to challenge States victim of terrorist attacks, we must not forget it’s the security and freedom of all.

Furthermore, it should be noticed that fear and prejudice are not only putting at risk the Europe we have built, but are also distorting our capacity of responding effectively to a major security threat.
By responding to terrorism through discrimination, in fact, we only risk to play the terrorists’ game, as we might tend to alienate all those people who are part of our societies but whom we feel threatened by just because they look different from us. By responding to terrorism adopting a different approach to different people, we don’t reduce threats – as real threats will always find a way around our increased controls – but just create further barriers within societies in which multicultural coexistence is already a delicate issue. How can in fact a foreign national/immigrant/son of immigrants living in our countries feel about a society that treats him differently for no just reason? How strong can be his sense of belonging and respect?
Instead of creating new sources of inter-societal divisions, and making feel those foreigners who have chosen our countries to live, work and study as a different and distrusted category of citizens, we should use the fear created by terrorism to increase cohesion. We should start from the common fear that terrorism spreads to build a common, unitary response, to make feel part of the same society all those who – whatever their national origins and religion – see in terrorism an enemy, a threat to our way of life that has to be prevented, resisted and fought.
If new controls and security measures are felt as necessary, then they have to involve all the population in the same way and to the same extent, to avoid giving terrorism the victory of disrupting our societies through a deepening of divisions that we create ourselves out of fear and irrationality.

In front of something as heinous and inhuman as terrorist attacks are, finding the proper way to respond is extremely difficult and perhaps the ideal response doesn’t even exist, as too many and too diverse factors come at play, shaking our world and questioning our beliefs. Though, even in a moment of major fear and suffering, something can be said for sure: no effective response to terrorism can be the one that put at risk the multiculturalism to which we have been opening our societies, the freedoms on which we have founded our political Union, and the values on which we have built our identity.

A tragedy made of divisions and violence threatens the Turkey we knew

When terrorism is exploiting a much deeper and internal problem of polarization, where we have to look at is not the attacks, but the forces that caused that tragic polarization

On Saturday 10thOctober, Turkey and the world stopped astonished and incredulous at the suicide attack that took the life of 97 people and injured more than 200.
The target of the attack – occurred tree weeks before November elections – was (again) a peaceful rally organized in Ankara by the pro-Kurdish HDP party, convened to the streets to ask for a cease of the hostilities between Kurdish separatists of the PKK and the Turkish government.
Not immediately clear who was concealing behind the attacks, each party began accusing the other (as it is almost the rule in all cases of internal civil tensions).
Some voices were pointing to the PKK – the number one enemy of the government that though would have little interests to fulfil in hitting a demonstration of pro-Kurdish supporters. Other voices were pointing at ISIS – whose immediate aim could be that of creating turmoil in another Middle Eastern country. ISIS’s long-term hope with such an attack, then, would be to lead Turkey to abandon the air campaign against the Caliphate (that though has not thus far been particularly assertive) and to reach the same objective with respect to the Turkish Kurds (whose commitment to fight ISIS has been more resolute than the government’s). Finally, there were some voices coming from the HDP side accusing of the attack radical elements close to the government – whose logics could be that of creating insecurity to lead an exasperate and scared Turkish population to vote for Erdogan’s AKP party in November, so as to allow the President to build the stable government the country desperately needs.
All these internal mutual accusations, though, have been (partially) silenced by the findings of the Turkish police, a few days after the attack, who identified the bombers as two individuals apparently linked to ISIS.

End of the story? Not at all.
Found the culprits and mourned the death of those innocents whose only fault was their belief in the right of free political association and free political expression, the question “how could it happen?” is still open.
How could such an attack be perpetrated in Turkey – a unique country with an Eastern soul and a Western mind that since its earliest days has been regarded as one of the most positive examples of fusion between Islam and democracy?

To answer we should look at the reality that, over the past few years, Turkey – guided by a leader who seems to have forgotten that it is the President who is supposed to mirror the country, not the other way around – has been moving along a dangerous path that is putting at risk the country’s stability.
Therefore, if Yunus Emre Alagoz and Omer Deniz Dundar are the perpetrators of the attack, the roots that created a favorable environment for it would better be found in the most recent developments that saw Erdogan as protagonist and Turkey as his theatre. A story that the latest acts now risk to turn into a tragedy.
Often regarded – and admittedly not wrongly – as the most prominent figure of politician Turkey has had after Ataturk, Erdogan has over the past years embarked on a political project that (rightly) looks to many liberals as being too authoritarian and too Islamic.
Erdogan’s intention of turning Turkey into a Presidential Republic to increase the powers of a figure that hasn’t traditionally been the pivotal one (role that the Turkish Constitution attributes to the PM) has worried many of those who had until that moment been AKP supporters.
How not to be worried by a leader who changes rules as the cards in his hands change?
Moreover, for a Turkish population that has always been proud of its being a religiously Islamic country without being a politically Islamic Republic, the renewed focus put by Erdogan on Islam and on the role it should have in Turkish public life has created some concern among those who believe in a Western-inspired separation between politics and religion.

The blow suffered by Erdogan and his AKP party at summer elections, then, didn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Of those elections, what did surprise was the high percentage obtained by the HDP, a leftist largely Kurdish party emerged in the last years that won more than 10% of votes. Outcome that was important not only because it showed how Erdogan has to move more carefully in the Turkish political arena, but because from that moment on the situation has been a downward spiral.
In July, in the majoritarian Kurdish city of Suruc, an attack was perpetrated by ISIS’s affiliates against activists gathered there to discuss and plan the reconstruction of the neighboring Syrian city of Kobane. The consequence was that the PKK accused Erdogan’s government of lack of protection – when not of compliance with ISIS’s terrorists – and a ceasefire between the PKK (that spent the last three decades fighting to see more rights and possibly independence granted to the 14 million Turkish Kurds) and the government was revoked.
After elections that had already sown the seeds of tensions by changing a political environment that had remained unchallenged since 2002, Suruc emerged as the event that definitely opened the Pandora Box. Attacks from each side against the other, in fact, have been marking since then Turkey’s political dynamics, and have been particularly exacerbated by the intervention of the Turkish government in the international fight against ISIS – whose price, though, is paid more by PKK’s members than by ISIS’s apphiliates.

This said, when Erdogan defined Saturday’s tragedy as “a heinous attack against our unity, solidarity, and the peace of our country” I am personally unable to tell which unity is he referring to.
In a moment in which those differences that are the heritage of the Ottoman Empire’s millennial history of pluralism are progressively being turned into sources of conflict, Erdogan’s words couldn’t be further from what the reality actually is.
It is undoubtedly true that the transition from Empire to State is always a delicate process. It is equally true that since 1923 one of the major challenges the new Turkish Republic had to deal with was how to balance the new national identity with the traditional ethnic and religious pluralism. And History is something not even Erdogan can change. However, it is also true that if the issue of minorities has hardly been tougher than it now is, the fault is not of History’s dynamics but of a man’s errors.
It is indeed that man’s party that has adopted a divisive politics and a divisive language that have created an unprecedented polarization, not only in the political environment but also – and more worryingly – in the societal one.

How November elections will go is something only time has the power to foresee, and only the Turkish people have the power to decide.
No one will ever be able to cancel what happened in Ankara, nor what has been going on since summer, or since the past few years, but it is now up to the Turkish people to decide through their November vote that internal divisions and tensions (and the violence they bring about) deserve to be left behind. A message that only a united people can send to their government.
Because whatever the outcome will be and whoever will take the reins in Ankara, everything has to change so that nothing can stay the same.

Opening the Doors of Fortress Europe

In European history 2015 will be remembered as the year we revealed our incapacity of dealing with the biggest migrant crisis of the last 70 years.

For a continent that as early as 1950 drew up the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and in 2000 restated those values with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, last months’ events are a blatant contradiction. A perfect case – as if the world needed another one – of verbal commitmentconcrete action gap.

Since January 2015, 350,000 asylum seekers reached Europe’s shores and more than 2,600 died trying to. And though, we still lack a sustainable and realistic strategy and there are still people and States that would rather close Europe’s door and look the other way, until migrants find another place to bother with their tragic stories and with their unwanted asylum applications.

The emotional involvement each of us may or may not feel in front of people forced to leave their roots by events they can’t control, forced to undergo desperate journeys in conditions that would inspire Primo Levi’s verses on the mortification of human dignity, and who are risking everything to find refuge in our countries, is a private matter I won’t dig into. But those who wish to raise higher walls around Europe’s borders might be interested to know that hosting migrants can bring benefits to us too. Economic, social and political.

No one will fall from the seat reading that Europe’s population is constantly ageing. According to the EU Commission official data, by 2025 more than 20% of Europeans will be over 65.

We Europeans are always proud when referring to our continent as old Europe, but being old Europeans is another matter – and one that should worry us. All European States, in fact, are now in the tough situation in which the number of retired workers to pay pensions to is exceeding the number of active workers who should cover those expenses. A ratio, this one, that threatens the stability of our societies, the labor market’s functioning, and that made necessary reforms such as raising the retirement age and cutting pensions.

But a hope of reversing the problem exists, and it is here that migrants come to help us. Migrants, in fact, are generally in their 20s, 30s and 40s – which means in the most active period of their life. If hosted in our countries, they could become part of the labor force – something they generally aspire to, as the majority of them reach Europe with families to take care of – and thus help our societies to bring the burden of an ageing population.

It might seem too easy to be realistic, but this is what has been going on for decades in the United States: Americans are getting older as we are, but thanks to the constant flow of migrants – who conversely tend to be young and to have more children – the labor market there is in better shape than in Europe.

The other positive contribution migrants can give to our job market has to do with job offer and demand.

In European countries, in fact, with more and more youngsters studying and getting their university degrees, competition for qualified jobs in the cities is dramatically increasing – while the number of people with manual skills or looking for traditional professions in rural areas is decreasing.

It is here that migrants come again to save us. It is true that there are many cases of migrants who have college degrees and years of qualified work experience behind them. But it is also true that the majority of them are people who come from countries where education is still a privilege of few, where manual skills are the most widespread, and non-qualified jobs the ones in which people have more chances to build their expertise on. Most migrants, thus – coming from regions whose labor markets have given them skills that in this moment we are lacking – could help us to address the offer-demand gap that many traditional fields are suffering from.

At this point, though, many Europeans argue that with migrants coming and job offer increasing, wages will drop. True. But we shouldn’t either forget that, with offer increasing, competition among workers is stimulated – and workers who have to compete to obtain and maintain a job tend to work harder and better. Secondly, a country where more people work, earn, and pay taxes has more money to invest in public services – so that the slight decrease in personal wages would be compensated for by the access to better services that make it possible for families to save money. In fact, if thanks to higher public funds state hospitals provide everyone with cures and public schools give all children a solid education, then families do not need to go to private clinics or to look for costly private schools.

But immigration can also bring socio-cultural benefits to our countries.

It is human history itself that shows us how it has always been contacts between different peoples that enabled development at any level. Contacts between Alexander’s Empire and the Indian subcontinent, between the Romans and the Chinese, between Arabs and Europeans and the most recent ones between developed and poorer countries are just few of the milestones that mark that path of human development that since its start has been made of intercultural contacts and exchanges. So that a society where more groups live together tends to be a richer one – where there is an exchange of ideas, skills, knowledge, traditions, and where kids grow up in an inclusive environment that will turn them into tomorrow’s liberal and open-minded adults. Those kind of adults that an increasingly interconnected world and increasingly multicultural societies desperately need.

On the political level, then, learning to live in contact with other cultures and peoples helps us to better read the world around us, its crisis, its problems, and to better understand how we can play a positive role in it. And this understanding can lead to the elaboration of a more coherent and considerate foreign policy (something a region such as the Middle East hasn’t always seen us do). Moreover, immigration gives us the opportunity to deepen bilateral links with the countries of origin of migrants – links that can impact positively on our economies, trade relations, and diplomacy (just think of the role played by Mexican and Irish migrants to foster the special relationship that exists between Washington and Ciudad de Mexico and between Washington and Dublin).

Coexistence is undoubtedly far from easy, but closing our door only incentives illegal immigration (as people who are fleeing wars and famines won’t easily let go the dream of reaching our continent); makes harder coexistence with those migrants who already live in Europe, as they now feel outraged by our dealing with the migrant crisis; and portrays among the international community a negative image of the European Union that doesn’t reflect the values we built our common identity on.

Instead of closing our door and making fortress Europe an unreachable place that only a small European elite can live in, we should make it a model of inclusion, defense of human rights, and a place everyone can have the chance to call home as long as disposed to actively contribute to its growth.

But of course, to do that in a way that doesn’t end up being a burden on a few countries only (those like Italy and Greece that are the first to be reached, and those like Germany and Sweden where most migrants go to) a single European strategy is necessary. The best direction is that – proposed and supported by some politicians led by Angela Merkel – of abandoning the Dublin Regulation and adopting instead a quota scheme to distribute migrants on the EU territory according to their country of origin, to their eventual family needs, and to the social and economic characteristics of our countries. The same relocation scheme should then be applied within each country to avoid internal discrepancies and the emergence of ghettoized areas.

But we can do this only if we understand that immigration – if addressed coherently, jointly, on the basis of humanitarian principles and practical considerations – can bring us benefits. And the problem is that while the number of refugees increases, too many European leaders still have to realize that a common scheme is the only way to address this challenging and inevitable new chapter of Europe’s history.

Muslims in Europe: when differences become barriers

The growing challenge posed in Europe by radical Islam can’t but lead us to wonder what went (and still goes) wrong in our relations with Muslim migrants

A few weeks after the Islamic State’s first anniversary, we can say that not only is the Caliphate proving more resilient than we hoped it would, but also its attraction of Muslims from all over the world is far from decreasing. The more the Caliphate survives, the more it strengthens that aura of success that al-Baghdadi has been shaping since 2012 – and this success unfortunately attracts young radical(ized) Muslims.

If this attraction is nothing new for terrorist organizations (just think of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah…) the new phenomenon is represented by the unprecedented number of youngsters going to Syria and Iraq from Western countries. For how difficult it is to get access to accurate data when dealing with terrorist groups, it is though estimated that ISIS has in its ranks 20,000 fighters, of whom 3,000 are said to be European.

The fact that so many youngsters are deciding to abandon wealthy, democratic states to join jihad is a failure of moderate Islam and a failure of our societies as well. And if the roots of the phenomenon are to be found in a mix of religious and personal reasons that psychology can better explain than politics, it is nonetheless true that such a phenomenon involves the broader issue of Muslim migration in Europe and is igniting the European political discourse on the topic.

With everyone pointing the finger to others we risk missing the point that when it comes to the locals-immigrants relationship, both sides are to be blamed and both sides are responsible if coexistence fails.

Where are we all going wrong?

In Middle Eastern countries – with the obvious exception of Israel – the majority of the population is made up of Muslims, and Islam – more than just a religion – is a way of living and seeing the world. In this context everyone perceives himself as a Muslim and feels recognized by others as such. In these societies people are born as Muslims, live as Muslims, interact with others as Muslims; and thus there is no individual-society gap.

But when Muslims come to Europe all this changes. They live as Muslims in their families but not in the external society, which (being a non-Islamic one) feels threatened by their group identity and does its best to curb it. They behave as Muslims in their narrow circles but not in the broader social ones, where relationships and bonds are not (and cannot be) built on the basis of religion, being this perceived as something that exclusively pertains to the private sphere.

Therefore, a gap between individual and society emerges. In fact, when the outer society puts rigid limits to a self-definition which is not individual but based on the belonging to a certain community, then what was a matter of immigration becomes a matter of identity – which is far more difficult to deal with.

If we want to find a way to address the problem of coexistence , we have to face our responsibilities: we have hosted and accepted Muslims in our countries but we haven’t integrated them; we have accepted their difference (building mosques for them, for instance) but we have put limits to its expression. We have accepted Muslim migrants as individuals but not as a community, and we have thus made our societies be ones that Muslims feel they can live in, but don’t feel they do belong to.

And though, not all the blame is to be put upon us.

What often happens, in fact, in the immigrants-locals relationship, is that the formers adopt a behavior that is –not without good reasons in many cases – perceived as threatening by the latters.

When moving to a different country, where they are faced with the individual-society gap, Muslims often tend to try to impose on the outer society their behavior, traditions, and values. They fail to recognize that the countries in which they now live and the people they live alongside with have their own history, traditions and beliefs, and that –just like them- we are not disposed to let them go.

When Muslim families ask for school meals to be not only adapted to their needs, as it is licit, but completely changed because they feel offended by other kids having pork; when they resist learning the local language; when they prohibit to their kids to make local friends…they contribute to make co-existence difficult and integration impossible. In fact, in trying to impose their ways and habits on the others, in refusing to understand the surrounding culture and in closing to contacts with those who don’t belong to their community, they just let the individual-society gap grow wider and wider. More than that, they often adopt a negative approach to the outer society that turns what could be a fillable gap into an insurmountable wall, and exasperates that question of identity that obstructs a balanced coexistence.

The blame, thus, is both ours and theirs.

We have hosted them and proved our multiculturalism but then we have missed the subsequent and most important step and do nothing to make them feel real part of our societies; they, for their part, have come to our countries looking for better life and job conditions, but rather than trying to understand our culture, they try to make us adapt to their views and ways of life.

We all have to find a delicate balance between their Muslim religious identity and our traditions, between their traditions and our European national identities.

Integration (not multiculturalism) must be our first objective. To make everyone feel part of a same society, whatever the religion and the nationality, points of contact need to be found. These can touch every field and go from TV channels and TV programs aimed at promoting the appreciation of the others’ culture (of which often nothing is known about), to language courses promoted by municipalities; from events aimed at the merging of groups and ideas (for instance local and immigrant artists exhibiting their works), to inclusive schools and neighborhoods (having boroughs where only certain ethnic/religious groups live, in fact, can make migrants feel home but doesn’t help integration); to inter-religion meetings that can become occasion of discussion and mutual listening for people belonging to different faiths but all living together in our countries (and at this respect one of the most positive examples is set by the European Council of Religious Leaders, where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists are all represented).

Far from being presented as definitive solutions, these are proposed as steps that could contribute to build up an inclusive society in which there is no gap, but everyone’s identity is part of a broader social one to which we all belong. Steps of this kind could help new generations to grow up together, without one feeling threatened by the other and without axis of religious and ethnic divisions building up barriers.