The EU’s “Islamism” bias and its “added damage” in Central and Eastern Europe

In my blog on the prevent industry and the RAN, I referred to the It-briefs-well mechanism that I described as a systemic pattern in which mostly those things are said and done which brief well to others, i.e. are liked and welcomed by colleagues, superiors, politicians, and other relevant third parties – regardless of what practice experts in the field are saying. It may thus be understood as a systemic form of obedience which has detrimental effects on the success of practical prevent work and may even cause “European added damage”.

One instance of the It-briefs-well mechanism regarded the fact that the EU and Member States in their Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) discourses since the beginning of the 2000s had largely fallen prey to a cross-the-board bias on so-called Islamism – thus obfuscating other forms and more contextual and systemic views on extremism, which would also implicate one’s own role in it. This bias had violated two ground rules of good practice in PVE policy-making, which are: Never focus on only one sort of violent extremism, and: Avoid terms which implicate ethnic or religious groups, such as Islamism and Salafism. Instead use general concepts, such as “violent extremism” or “religiously motivated violent extremism”. Also always be aware that good practice in prevention often follows the same methodological principles across all forms of extremism.

The reasons for these rules are as simple as they are evident: For if you don’t follow the first rule you will inevitably cause polarizing effects by involuntarily pitting the one (reciprocal) extremism against another; and if you were to use terms like Islamism, Salafism, Christianism or the like, we would stigmatize large groups of society. All this fuels further polarisation, resentment and violent extremism.

Given this simplicity, we may safely conclude that it just didn’t brief well during the previous decades of PVE and the politics around it, to always refer to at least two or more forms of extremism, in principle. It also didn’t brief well to strictly refrain from emphatically using the term Islamism; and it certainly didn’t brief well to say the word right-wing extremism too often or at all. This was just not liked very much by superiors, politicians, and other relevant third parties, and it certainly was not good for one’s career. For sure, doing so anyway would have been valuable proof of the critical thinking and civil courage which the PVE area always so emphatically appeals to.

Without doubt, the biggest EU added damage of this Islamism bias was the underestimation of right-wing populism/ extremism, neo-Nazism, as well as white supremacism, racist militias, and similar sorts of hate groups and hate crimes which would much deserve the epithet “home grown” (while this term is generally used in the area of so-called Islamism). Only quite recently, since Charlottesville, Christchurch and the October 2019 attack on the synagogue of Halle, Germany, discourses are changing a bit – also producing some ironic results, like the far right-wing interior minister of the current German government, Horst Seehofer (Christian Social Union), portraying himself as the avant-garde of right-wing terrorism awareness by claiming today that he “already since several months is acutely aware of the danger” which he had better been aware of since several decades – but never was. On the contrary, he was one of the most prominent voices in the Christian Democrats to stir fear and hate against immigrants and mainstream radical right narratives.

The widespread neglect of the right-wing terrorist threat was, as a matter of course, the result of downplaying one’s own history of Nazism – and of the decades long partisan ping-pong game between political fractions that followed from this: The centre-right claimed that left-wing terrorism is the biggest threat to society, which by any measure was nonsense from the 1990s onwards, but then later shifting this claim towards so-called Islamism which was less nonsensical. The centre-left had always claimed right-wing extremism to be the biggest threat and it sometimes may have misunderstood religious extremism as being an intercultural problem mostly. This came with strong feelings because the decades long political dominance of the centre-right in Germany had often absurdly and maliciously defamed liberal, leftist and pro-democratic engagement as potentially left-wing extremist, which happened as recently as around 2010 by right-wing minister Christina Schröder who tried to coerce all organisations in the prevention program to sign an extra pledge to the constitution.

Needless to say, the added damage caused by this selfish partisan ping-pong game and by the resultant underestimation of right-wing terrorism, is immense; and we are probably only seeing the beginning of it today. Now, in the Central and Eastern European region this damage was even doubly disastrous. Since in these countries far right and partly extremist political elites welcomed the biased European Islamism rhetoric because it gave so much additional strength to their defamatory anti-refugee and Islamophobic populism and helped them equate refugees with terrorists. Moreover, being partly right-wing extremist, they naturally welcomed that the EU and RAN did not talk much about right-wing extremism with them.

Yet, the absurdity of a Western European PVE program which indirectly strengthens right-wing extremism in Eastern Europe could have been recognized and mitigated early on. When attending a 2014 European PVE congress in Prague which was hosted by the conservative European Values Foundation and focused solely on so-called Islamism, a London-based expert struck my attention. The Muslim background speaker proceeded to communicate to the Czech audience a strong sense of imminent threat of radicalisation within the Czech Muslim community, for which he cited no empirical evidence. Upon inquiring I learned that there are a few thousand citizens of Muslim faith in Czech Republic which have always been quite well integrated in society – and that there is hardly any sign of a terrorist threat in this community. However, other attendants of the congress who courageously asked from the floor why there is no talk about foreign fighters from Ukraine and Russia who form right-wing militias upon their return, did not receive much attention; since there was no input planed on right-wing extremism.

Hence, the selfishness and complacency of Western Europe’s partisan ping-pong games over PVE politics may well end up pushing Eastern European countries further into right-wing extremism. Intelligent PVE strategies should be able to do better than this.

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