Europe’s hidden terror menace

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

By Khaled Diab

The fifth anniversary of the 7 July attacks has refocused attention on Islamist terrorism, but the neo-Nazi threat goes largely unnoticed.

13 July 2010

On the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terror attacks in London, the issue of Islamist terrorism and Islamic extremism is back in the media spotlight. While the threat posed by a small number of violent Islamist extremists is very real and the danger of Islamic fundamentalism should not be downplayed or understated, the seriousness of the situation is often exaggerated into a menace of Hitlerian proportions.

In contrast, Hitler’s ideological descendants, who have become increasingly emboldened in recent years, constitute a growing, if still minor, threat that largely goes unnoticed and under-reported.

An example of this menace is the Belgian neo-Nazi group Bloed, Bodem, Eer en Trouw (Blood, Soil, Honour and Loyalty), whose trial is to start soon. The group, whose members were arrested in 2006, stands accused of planning terror attacks targeting the National Bank and other institutions, plotting the assassination of a number of prominent politicians and conspiring to destabilise the Belgian state. BBET had even apparently managed to infiltrate the Belgian military and had amassed a large cache of guns and explosives.

More worryingly, perhaps, at least in terms of social cohesion, the neo-Nazi group had intended to sow the seeds of discord by carrying out a “false flag” operation to murder the popular Flemish far-right politician Filip Dewinter in the hope that the blame would be pinned on Islamists, stoking further hatred of the country’s embattled and marginalised Muslim minority. During the expected outrage that would ensue, they would then seize the opportunity to assassinate the radical Lebanese-Belgian politician and activist Dyab Abou Jahjah.

Had members of an Islamist cell been planning similar outrages, news of their forthcoming trial would have grabbed headlines across Europe and enough columns to support the Karnak temple complex would have been written on the subject. As it stands, the group has elicited little to no attention outside Belgium.

Not that I feel we should deal with neo-Nazi extremism and its violent manifestations with the same level of sensationalism and mass hysteria we reserve for extremist Islam – we need to be vigilant, not vigilante about it. More attention needs to be paid to the fact that it is a growing menace. We need to build greater awareness and better understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural factors feeding this phenomenon, especially since mainstream society is, in certain ways, complicit in the emergence of this troubling current.

Some, dare I say many, will consider my last assertion as an overreaction and will dismiss BBET and other violent far-right groups as little more than the outer reaches of the ‘lunatic fringe’. And at some level, this is true and can equally be applied to violent Islamist groups. But just because they’re mad and bad, that does not exclude the possibility that they are the symptoms of a deeper malaise – there is some warped logic to their madness.

Just like their Islamist counterparts, many people who are drawn to neo-Nazi and other far-right ideologies feel disempowered and marginalised, and believe that the way to overcome this is to turn back the clock to an idyllic “pure” past – based on religion, in the case of Islamists, and based on race and, to a lesser extent, religion for neo-Nazis.

And, as the economic situation worsens – especially for those on the lower rungs of the social ladder, but also for the middle classes who are increasingly feeling the bite of job losses, as unemployment figures rise and government spending falls – this sense of exclusion and frustration will grow.

And minorities will continue to fill the role of convenient scapegoat, as has long been the case with far-right parties, many of which have gained a sheen of respectability in recent years. In fact, time and again, violent neo-Nazi groups and individuals have been linked to these parties. For example, there are reports that the BBET had ties to the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party, as had a teenager who went on a racially motivated murder spree in Antwerp.However, this does not exonerate the rest of society. The increasingly mainstream vilification and demonisation of Europe’s Muslim minority and Islam in general – based on fear, insecurity, ignorance and political expediency, as well as the worry that extremist groups will succeed in their bid to “Islamise” Europe – since the 11 September terror attacks in the US has created fertile ground for the far-right to lay down deeper roots. Some governments have been complicit in this for foreign policy purposes, while some politicians, such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, have skillfully manipulated the situation to enter the corridors of power.

In a bid to downplay the threat, some will play a macabre numbers game and claim that Islamic terrorism in Europe claims far more lives than far-right violence. Although it is true that there have been no spectacular, large-scale attacks, neo-Nazis are responsible for a regular and growing stream of violence against Muslims, Jews, blacks and other minorities across Europe.

For example, between 2000 and 2005, racial violence spiked dramatically in many European countries. Denmark alone reported an increase of 70% in reported racial violence and crime.

Of course, neo-Nazis have yet to pull off any attack as spectacular as those in Madrid or London. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to or don’t plan to, as the case of the BBET amply demonstrates. In May 2010, a British neo-Nazi father and son – who, in an worrying echo of a bygone era, had set up a group to overthrow the government because they believed it had been taken over by Jews – planned to poison Jewish, Muslim and black people with ricin.

In addition, neo-nazism seems to be going increasingly global, with groups in different European countries and the US building increasingly strong alliances. Examples of this include Combat 18 and Blood and Honour (of which BBET is a splinter group).  Could such transnational groupings become the kernel of a loose-knit global neo-Nazi network along the lines of al-Qaeda? Only time can tell, but I certainly hope not.

The most troubling threat posed by neo-nazism, and the far right in general, as opposed to Islamism, is that it is an indigenous ideology which once held powerful sway in Europe, even in countries that were not run by Nazi regimes. If we are not careful and do not learn the lessons of history, there is the future possibility that Nazi and fascist totalitarianism may rear its ugly face again.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 11 July 2010. Read the related discussion.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

Queer times in Belgian politics

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

The product of an odd political marriage between left wing Belgian unionists and radical Flemish nationalists could be the world’s first openly gay male premier.

23 June 2010

Sometimes living in Belgium can be a surreal and somewhat comic-book experience. With the economy haemorrhaging jobs, inequalities widening and an empty treasury looted by the banks, how has the government been occupying itself for the past three years?

In contrast to their mostly moderate voters, Belgium’s Flemish and Walloon parties have been engaged in a bitter and Byzantine war of words over language and an obscure electoral turf war – over whether or not to split the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district – which matters to few outside the political class.

Since the 2007 elections, one fragile coalition after another has risen and fallen over these petty issues, with the final nail in the coffin coming in April this year.

Of course, I am well aware that these are partly proxy disputes for deeper historical grievances between the country’s two main communities, bolstered by the regional economic divide, which largely parallels the language fault lines and has prompted many in now-wealthy Flanders to seek to stem the flow of resources to now-poorer Wallonia.

Nevertheless, there is a touch of fiddling while Rome burns about this fixation on secondary issues, and I can’t help but suspect these seemingly manufactured crises are being used to distract from government inaction on issues that really matter, such as creating jobs and steering a course out of the current economic crisis.

So, it was with a sense of foreboding that we headed to the polls last weekend. And, with Flanders’s growing shift to the right and the disarray among Flemish progressives and the air of corruption and nepotism surrounding Walloon socialists, voting almost felt like a futile exercise.

The elections triggered what has been described as a tsunami in Belgian politics, with the young radical Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever (N-VA) and the dandy, bow tie-wearing veteran Walloon socialist Elio di Rupo (PS) emerging as their two regions’ undisputed winners. It was satisfying to see the far-right Vlaams Belang suffer the greatest electoral loss in its history.

If nothing else, the aftermath of this shift in the political landscape should provide us with some interesting political theatre: De Wever, the anti-monarchist republican and separatist, has met with his arch-nemesis, the king, and has been chosen to explore coalition options.

More interestingly, De Wever and Di Rupo are set to forge a marriage of opposites between their two parties and, ironically, though they may be like chalk and cheese, the convincing mandate they each possess and their unquestioned capability as political movers, could actually break the impasse that has plagued Belgian politics since the previous election.

Both have been making conciliatory noises to the other side, with De Wever even breaking some of the taboos of Flemish politics by indicating his readiness to accept Di Rupo as Belgium’s next prime minister – and the idea has caught on widely. This would make the veteran socialist the first Walloon premier since 1973.

And in a twist of the plot, it would also make him, as far as I’m aware, the world’s first openly gay man (Iceland has a lesbian prime minister) to become head of government.

And the great thing is, his sexuality is largely a non-issue in the mainstream, and few Belgians appear fussed by the notion that a gay man is the most likely contender to become the leader of their country. Despite the country’s rather staid and conservative image abroad, Belgium is sexually more tolerant than most of the rest of the world and became the second country to legalise gay marriages.

Sadly, there are disgruntled mumblings in far-right circles. After all, Di Rupo embodies everything they despise: not only is he gay, he is also Francophone and, to top it all off, from immigrant stock.

The Vlaams Belang party, whose core supporters are often homophobic, has not openly criticised his sexuality, despite its clearly stated belief that homosexuality has no place in the public sphere – perhaps out of fear of a public backlash or falling foul of discrimination laws.

Nevertheless, the VB’s strong man, Filip Dewinter, tweeted in the runup to the elections that, if Di Rupo became prime minister he would go into self-imposed exile in Namibia. Given that he’s a politician who claims to keep his promises, a Facebook group with around 40,000 members is calling on him to stay true to his word.

Although I wouldn’t want to wish the anti-immigrant politician on the people of Namibia, Belgium would be a better place without him. I’m also looking forward to seeing how he handles himself as a migrant in Namibia – or perhaps even a political asylum seeker – and whether he follows his own advice to immigrants and assimilates fully into the local culture, learns Oshiwambo and leaves his Flemish identity behind him in Flanders.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 June 2010. Read the related discussion.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

Crime and privacy

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

A Belgian far-right politician is in hot water for uploading a video of an attempted break-in. Was he right or should he have gone to the police?

22 April 2010

I’m beginning to suspect that Filip Dewinter, one of the faltering far-right Vlaams Belang’s leading lights, sees Antwerp, where he has long been the mayor-in-waiting, as some kind of comic strip Gotham City, casting himself as its very own Batman.

The Joker in this Caped Crusader’s pack is the cunningly villainous Mo and his evil army of bearded minions, with their hijabbed parodies of Catwoman whom Dewinter is battling to unmask. Not only is he on a crusade to foil their evil designs to make his beloved Flanders and the rest of Europe part of a global caliphate, he is also single-handedly keeping the streets safe for decent (white) citizens by fighting (brown) crime. To that end, he is one of the brains behind his party’s controversial anti-crime website which critics fear will fuel vigilantism.

One of Dewinter’s latest stunts was to post CCTV footage of an apparent attempted break-in – carried out unsuccessfully with comical incompetence by a young man who appeared to be an immigrant – on his website.

According to Belgium‘s privacy commission, this falls foul of privacy laws and only the police and the ministry of justice have the right to release video footage and images of alleged criminals and their crimes. The commission is now investigating whether to take legal action, especially as Dewinter enjoys parliamentary immunity.

Dewinter reacted in predictable fashion, saying that “criminals are clearly better protected than the victims of crime“. And judging by online reactions, many ordinary Belgians seem to approve of Dewinter’s actions. “Now criminals enjoy a sort of parliamentary immunity, too,” commented one enraged reader. So, is this a case of “privacy gone mad”, or are there valid reasons for such legal protections, especially in our increasingly surveillance-oriented societies?

Well, in short, by releasing this video into the public domain, Filip Dewinter is effectively taking the law into his own hands. If Dewinter truly believes in the rule of law, as he claims, and wishes to make society safer for law-abiding citizens, then the responsible thing to have done, rather than this grandstanding, would’ve been to report the incident to the police, who can then decide whether to go public or not. Any information made public about the identity of an alleged criminal should be weighed up carefully against the severity of the crime, the chances of it leading to an arrest, and the risk posed to the public.

In the case of a gruesome murder, rape or an armed robbery, for instance, there is a strong imperative for the authorities to release information about the identity of the perpetrators. Also, when massive abuses of power, corruption or miscarriages of justice occur, the media can play a role in bringing them to light, as long as there is sufficient evidence. However, a young lad apparently trying and failing to jemmy open the window of a travel agent is not the same. Moreover, the release of such footage can do the young man in question – who may never have done anything illegal before – harm that is not proportional to the crime he has allegedly committed by stigmatising him in public.

Besides, when they deem it necessary, the authorities routinely release footage or photofits of criminals and make public appeals for information, and so these amateurish efforts are, at best, pointless, at worst, harmful and even dangerous.

If some citizens start usurping the role of the police, how much longer will it be before others appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner? What if a furious citizen takes the next logical step and decides to execute some summary justice by, say, attacking alleged criminals?

More fundamentally, even criminals have rights. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty by a competent authority, and no one should be allowed to prejudice the course of the legal process. But even convicted criminals – who have, in effect, paid their dues to society – have, and should enjoy, a right to have their privacy protected and respected, unless this puts others at great risk.

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 13 April 2010. Read the full discussion here.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts