Europe’s invisible “Islamisation”

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By Khaled Diab

The murderous Paris attacks have reignited fears of “Islamisation”. But Islamic civilisation is encoded in Europe’s cultural and intellectual DNA. 

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Monday 12 January 2015

The brutal and tragic murders of 10 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, two police officers and four customers at a kosher supermarket by masked gunmen has triggered an outpouring of shock and grief, not only in France but around the world.

Large, spontaneous vigils filled the streets of many French cities, while social media was awash with solidarity and condemnation, including the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #NotInMyName, which was used by Muslims condemning the attacks.

On Sunday 11 January, this culminated in rallies across France which drew nearly 4 million people from all walks of life who walked shoulder to shoulder in solidarity against extremism.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that the attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar”, and the designer who was forced to let the assailants in says they told her they were with al-Qaeda. According to AFP, the police claim that one of the killers remarked: “We have avenged the prophet.”

Why Muhammad would need anyone to “avenge” him is beyond me. The prophet endured far more mockery, humiliation, insult and rejection during his lifetime without needing or ordering hitmen to defend his honour than that meted out by a group of equal-opportunities French cartoonists who despise and satirise all forms of organised religion.

Despite the massive show of solidarity, the collateral damage to French and European Muslims has already been done, even though one of the fallen police officers was a Muslim and the “hero” who saved a number of customers at the kosher supermarket was also of Muslim background.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword... of Islam.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam.

The far-right Front National has already cynically and undignifiedly taken advantage of the tragedy. Declaring that Islamists have “declared war on France”, FN leader Marine Le Pen called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Claiming that the atrocities were predictable, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, no friend of Charlie himself, engaged in classic fear-mongering: “This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism.”

Exhibiting shameless self-promotion, Jean-Marie has already launched his daughter’s presidential campaign by tweeting a poster in which he suggests that Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam. The poster features a photo of Marine with the English caption: “Keep calm and vote Le Pen.” Ironically, this slogan is lifted from a anti-fascist British poster published at the outset of World War II.

The ethno-regionalist and xenophobic Bloc Identitaire which advocates “remigration” believes that “no-one can claim to fight against jihadism [and] not question the mass immigration and Islamisation of our country.”

But like Muslims who fantasise about an a-historical caliphate, conservative Europeans who dream of a bygone utopia of a Europe uncontaminated by Islam or immigration, miss the reality that the “Islamisation of the West” occurred centuries ago.

Islamic civilisation is so hardwired into Europe’s cultural, social and intellectual DNA that it would be impossible to expunge its influence. The same applies in the other direction, in light of Christendom’s and the West’s powerful influence on Arab and Islamic society.

In addition to the philosophy, science, literature and art of the Muslim world which profoundly shape the European Renaissance, Islamic culture had some far more unexpected and surprising influences on Western civilisation.

One man in particular, for whom no statues or memorials stand anywhere in Europe and very few Westerners have heard of, is possibly the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

In the ninth century, Ziryab, Cordoba’s most sought-after hipster, brought into vogue the idea of seasonal fashions, steering history’s catwalk towards the fashion slavery of the 21st century.

This Sultan of Style also added a fifth pair of strings to the Arab oud, paving the way to the European lute, which would become the modern guitar. He also introduced Europe to the idea of dining etiquette, from table cloths and crystal decanters to the three-course meal.

Fashion, fine food and rhythm are not what Europeans tend to associate with Muslims or Islam today. Instead, they are haunted by images of fundamentalists, not fun-loving eccentrics, and fanatics, not fans of refined culture.

As someone who is well aware of the destructive influence of violent Islamism in the Middle East, I can, at a certain level, sympathise with fears in the West over radicalisation. But Islamic extremism is mostly a threat to Muslim societies, not to Europe, as a minority has never, in history, imposed its will on a majority, except in the form of a military conqueror.

This exaggerated sense of threat can be seen in the enormous hysteria in segments of the media and among some politicians regarding the small trickle of European jihadists who have gone to fight in Syria. Although one gets the impression that Europe has sent forth a veritable Islamic army to the Levant, the real number is around 3,000 from across the continent, including the dead and returned, according to an estimate by Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s anti-terrorism chief.

While it is important to be vigilant and to find effective ways to deal with the threat posed by returning fighters, society must steer clear of stigmatising Europe’s already marginalised and distrusted Muslim communities.

This is because it is unfair to blame an entire group for the behaviour of a tiny minority and it is also counterproductive, as marginalisation is a significant, but not the only, factor in radicalisation.

In addition, the demonisation of minorities is what nurtures the truly threatening radicals in Europe’s midst: the far-right and neo-Nazis. Since the end of World War II, Western Europe has worked consciously to build and celebrate diversity. Despite its weaknesses and failings, Europe needs to cherish, build and strengthen its multicultural experiment.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 January 2015.

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The naked truth about body scanners

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By Andrew Eatwell

Airport body scanners are being touted as the latest anti-terroism wizadry. But do they actually work and are they worth the invasion in privacy?

15 February 2010

More at QorreO

Ever since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day with explosives hidden in his underwear, authorities in the United States and Europe have been touting the benefits of installing body scanners at airports.

The privacy concerns raised by these machines are understandable:  if they can be used to spot a bomb in someone’s boxer shorts, they can also detect prostheses, the results of plastic surgery, evidence of transgender or, for self-conscious males, the results of jock stuffing self-enhancement. But while the thought of having your body – or, more troublingly, your child’s – viewed and photographed in all its naked glory by a stranger just to go on holiday may make many people uncomfortable, the privacy argument largely misses the point.

Many people would agree, after all, that being scanned briefly by a machine – assuming the images are viewed remotely by an operator and then destroyed, as is likely to be required – is ultimately less intrusive, less an inconvenience and less an invasion of privacy than having to remove your coat, your shoes and be patted down physically by a security officer.

The real issue, therefore, is not so much what these machines and their operators may be able to see in addition to a bomb, but whether full-body scanners can spot explosives at all and whether going to the enormous expense of installing them in airports would really make flying any safer.

On this, experts remain divided, and, fortunately for European governments’ overstretched budgets, so too is the EU, at least for the time being. Though scanners have been installed experimentally at airports in London and Amsterdam – from where 23-year-old Abdulmutallab boarded his Detroit-bound plane – there are no plans as yet to make their use obligatory at European airports (though the British and Dutch now intend to install them permanently).

Scanner technology needs to be evaluated further with regard to privacy “guarantees and effectiveness”, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the current term president of the EU, said in early January. He added that installing them is not a decision that can be taken “unilaterally”.

Until now, the EU has left it up to individual member states to decide whether to use body scanners at airport checkpoints. In 2008, the bloc suspended work on draft legislation regulating the use of body scanners after the European Parliament demanded a more in-depth study of their impact on health and privacy. However, in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day bombing, EU officials are busy re-evaluating security regulations, and inevitably will find themselves under pressure to make scanner use widespread.

The United States, which currently operates 40 scanners at various airports throughout the country, will almost certainly urge Europe to scan many – if not all – passengers on US-bound flights. And, just as the EU gave in to US demands on passenger information and biometric passports – albeit not without a fight – it will probably eventually give in on full-body scanners as well.

Spain’s public works minister, José Blanco, admitted as much after meeting with US officials in Washington in early January.

“The use of scanners in airports will be inevitable,” he said, adding, nonetheless, that an EU-wide agreement governing their use would need to be reached first.

Pressure is also likely to come from the general public – and demands for authorities to “do something” to keep travellers safer would certainly have been greater had Abdulmutallab brought down the Northwest Airlines plane.

A USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted on 5 and 6 January, found that 78% of US respondents favoured the use of scanners in airports, while a survey conducted by The Canadian Press Harris-Decima found that four in five Canadian respondents said the use of the scanners was reasonable. A poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion, showed that 78%  of respondents in the United States, 73% of Britons and 67% of Canadians would prefer to be scanned rather than patted down by a security guard or police officer before boarding a plane.

A flight of blind faith?

Is this a case of blind faith on the part of both politicians and the public in an expensive and unproven technology?

Studies and anecdotal evidence certainly show that full-body scanning is no silver bullet when it comes to keeping airplanes safe.

Full-body scanners use either millimetre wave or backscatter technology. The first type sends radio waves over a person and produces a three-dimensional image by measuring the energy reflected back. The second kind uses low-level X-rays to create a two-dimensional image of the body. In an effort to assuage privacy concerns, current procedure – in both the United States and Europe – is for operators to view scans remotely and not store them. With regard to health concerns, proponents of body scanning note that the amount of radiation the machines emit during a typical scan is less than what a person receives by using a cellphone or spending two minutes inside an airplane.

While both types of scanners produce relatively detailed images, showing body features, breast implants or colostomy bags, they are generally unable to detect objects hidden in body cavities. And, more significantly, they may not be able to detect the kind of powder and chemical bomb components Abdulmutallab smuggled onto Northwest Airlines flight 253.

One British study found that millimetre-wave scanners could detect high-density material, such as metal knives, guns and dense plastic (like C4) explosives, but not low-density material, such as powder, liquid or thin plastic, if the person being scanned was also wearing low-density clothing – the millimetre waves simply passed straight through.

German television station ZDF recently vividly highlighted the shortcomings of the machines in a demonstration that revealed that the device was able to detect little more than a cellphone, a knife, and the girth of the man walking through it even though he was also packing materials that could be used to make a bomb.

If full-body scanners might not be able to detect bomb-making materials of the kind carried by the 23-year-old Nigerian in his underpants, why the sudden focus on these machines as the next step in ever tighter airport security?  And, though 100% security is never attainable, could the money that would be spent on deploying thousands of these machines at airports around the world – as will probably be the case – not be better spent elsewhere?

Each machine costs between €100,000 and €150,000 and dozens would be needed in a large international airport to handle the numbers of passengers and minimize inconvenience (scanning a single passenger with a millimeter-wave machine takes around 40 seconds). And, if not all passengers are scanned, then the effectiveness of the technology is ultimately reliant on how effectively high-risk passengers can be identified.

“It may turn out that we can reduce the overall risk of a successful terrorist attack far more by investing in additional intelligence analysts, or consular officers in high-risk countries, than purchasing expensive new screening devices,” notes  David Schanzer, the head of a terrorism study centre at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

That is certainly one option. The other, of course, is for Western governments to spend more money, time and effort on tackling the social, political and economic problems that lead young men like Abdulmutallab to want to blow up a plane in the first place. Or which lead fellow would-be terrorists to target trains, buses or city streets, where, incidentally, no one has to pass through a body scanner.

Article published with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s new website, QorreO.

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