Media Link: Brussels’ heart of darkness.

I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.

17 thoughts on “Media Link: Brussels’ heart of darkness.

  1. I know that history is not an inevitable guidebook to the future, but the Europeans spent 150 years engaged in brutal racial and ethnic wars that only ended with a mass ethnic cleansing of European countries post 1945. This will probably end with nationalist governments undertaking the mass expulsion of Moslems – if we are lucky. Otherwise, an ethnic cleansing massacre may happen.

  2. “Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East.”

    I used to strongly support this argument but now found it unpersuasive. Ideology is clearly the driving force behind these terrorists. While some terrorists have disaffected backgrounds, not all of them do, and some have very privileged lifes — much better than other groups in Western societies who are far worse off and do not resort to jihadism.

    But for the sake of argument, suppose that they are disenfranchised, I don’t see how that can lead to suicide bombing without ideology as the catalyst. There are black communities in the US who are at least as disaffected and persecuted as Muslims in Europe, and they are not turning into terrorists. The key difference appears to be ideology.

    Obviously there isn’t one single driver. I think terrorism is driven by:
    – persecution
    – disaffection
    – disgust of US foreign policy
    – religious beliefs mixed with extremist ideology

    I think the latter is the factor that is the most important, and also the factor that the left is unwilling to acknowledge in any serious way.

  3. Seb, the point that I am trying to make is that alienation and disenfranchisement based on socio-economic and cultural deprivation and isolation make disaffected youth susceptible to extremist ideologies, regardless of the latter’s specific content. In the past, the ideologies have been Marxist, Leninist, Maoist, Trotsyite, Fascist, nationalist, irredentist, ethno-separatist and religious of various persuasions (to name a few). Radical Islam is just the most prominent extremist ideology du jour.

    And just because some people from advantaged backgrounds join extremist causes does not mean that all do or that they make up a majority of those involved. If that were the case they would not need to resort to terrorism because they would be winning.

  4. Poor old Osama Bin Laden, only worth $50 million. No wonder he turned to terrorism.


    Not a single study could make a cogent case that terrorism had economic roots. This lack of evidence culminated in a recent review of the literature by Martin Gassebner and Simon Luechinger of the KOF Swiss Economic Institute.

    The authors estimated 13.4 million different equations, drew on 43 different studies and 65 correlates of terrorism to conclude that higher levels of poverty and illiteracy are not associated with greater terrorism.


  5. Ah Red, your faith in that dubious source is misplaced, as is your focus on disproving a strictly economic explanation of the causes of terrorism. I realise that you see a purely ideological motive in terrorism (in this case your root cause is Islam itself), and so you want to make the case that Islam alone accounts for terrorism. Of course, that ignores a whole range of non-Islamic terrorism, but I assume that you will cover that with the usual marxist/communist cloth

    The issue is not absolute deprivation or purely economic roots . It is one of relative deprivation, and that is not just economic. Alienation, disaffection and disenfranchisement may or may not have an economic component, upon which are layered other grievances. That is where the window of opportunity emerges for extremist ideological appeals–they make sense of the situation, attribute cause and blame and offer a means of redress if not revenge.

    There is a large body of literature on what is known as greed versus grievance theory. The former is an elite matter and often leads to conventional wars. The latter is a matter of disadvantage and is a core reason for irregular conflicts. You are welcome to peruse that literature at your leisure but here is a link to just one short overview of the subject:

  6. One of the best known “terrorist” incidents in our own history was the “Matawhero massacre” where put simply, the chain of events was conquest and land confiscation, sporadic violent or passive resistance, mass arrests and imprisonment, escape from captivity and the development of an innovative theology which justified the killing of women and children. So for us it was not a case of either material injustice or theological justification – it was one following on from the other. And one should not assume that the most deprived or disadvantaged took the leading role in our “terror raids”. That fell to the lot of the chiefs who had acknowledged responsibility to protect and lead their hapu in times of war. I believe that pretty much the same dynamic plays out wherever oppression gives rise to terrorism. In modern times it is a middle class phenomenon, but still a reaction to conquest, confiscation, exploitation, oppression which is legitimated by unorthodox ideological or theological systems.
    Our few surviving “terrorists” were eventually pardoned by the Crown in an act of surprising benevolence, or, if you prefer, political wisdom. I struggle to imagine the Western powers displaying the same wisdom or benevolence, but you never know.

  7. I’m sure all you well-read people are, by now, aware of this Times article What do British Muslims really think?, by Trevor Phillips, the former head of Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Key quotes include:

    Twenty years ago… I published the report titled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, we thought that the real risk of the arrival of new communities was discrimination against Muslims. Our 1996 survey of recent incidents showed that there was plenty of it around. But we got almost everything else wrong.

    For a long time, I too thought that Europe’s Muslims would become like previous waves of migrants, gradually abandoning their ancestral ways, wearing their religious and cultural baggage lightly, and gradually blending into Britain’s diverse identity landscape. I should have known better.

    Refreshing. As is this:

    Some of my journalist friends imagine that, with time, the Muslims will grow out of it. They won’t.

    Oddly, the biggest obstacles we now face in addressing the growth of this nation-within-a-nation are not created by British Muslims themselves. Many of our (distinctly un-diverse) elite political and media classes simply refuse to acknowledge the truth. Any undesirable behaviours are attributed to poverty and alienation. Backing for violent extremism must be the fault of the Americans. Oppression of women is a cultural trait that will fade with time, nothing to do with the true face of Islam.

    Even when confronted with the growing pile of evidence to the contrary, and the angst of the liberal minority of British Muslims, clever, important people still cling to the patronising certainty that British Muslims will, over time, come to see that “our” ways are better.

    Clever, important people with patronising certainties. It sounds familiar.

  8. The problem with this analysis is that it is a reaction to a false dogma but is itself simply the expression of a contrary, and equally false, dogma. On the one hand we have the dogma that “cultures naturally assimilate” and on the other hand the dogma that “Islamic culture is incapable of assimilation into Western secular culture”. The reality is more complex. Islam and liberal secularism are not like orange juice and vodka, but neither are they oil to water. Predominantly Sunni Muslims in New Zealand have assimilated fairly easily into a liberal secular society while in Iran a Shia Muslim society is in the process of adopting or adapting to many of the values of liberal secularism. However where tensions and conflicts remain it would be a mistake to suppose that Islam is the problem and liberal secularism is by definition the solution to all the difficulties confronting humanity. We also have to take account of the legacy of imperialism, and the manifest social and economic failures of liberal secularism. France meddled in Syria, Algeria and Lebanon, Britain in Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Egypt, the United States right across the Middle East, and as a result they are having to cope with the reaction in the form of an influx of Muslim migrants and “terrorism”. These western nations would be facing the much the same problems of mass migration and terrorist violence even if there was no such religion as Islam. Which is not to say that Islam is irrelevant. Radical Islam has become the ideological vehicle by means of which a significant proportion of the world’s population express their disenchantment with imperialism, liberalism and secularism. A permanent resolution will require adjustments on both sides.

  9. Geoff sums up my own views more precisely and eloquently than I can myself :-)

  10. Those two dogmas are strawman. Trevor Phillips did not ignore the complexity of mixing, pointing out the significant numbers of Muslims who have assimilated into British society. He has merely moved toward a position where he accepts that some Islamic cultures have not done so and – based on their internal dynamics – show no sign of doing so. But that is not the same as the latter dogma, which he does not express and which his history would demonstrate he has never accepted.

    The numbers of Muslim immigrants to NZ remain tiny compared to those of Europe so they have had little choice but to assimilate here. Iranian Shia Muslims began the process of adapting/adopting Western mores decades ago, to such an extent that the rise of the Ayatollahs can be seen as the usual response of conservative reactionaries. There’s also the example of Pakistani and Indian Muslims who’ve immigrated to the likes of Britain and her colonies over the last century and assimiliated quite well – but who came from areas controlled by imperial colonialists, in which encounter they appear to have had the rough edges of hardline Islam knocked off them, to the extent that Islam had become more a collection of cultural rites than a prescriptive guide to live by.

    But all these are quite different situations to the one the Europeans now face, where 2nd generation Muslim immigrants are actually reverting to more traditional Islamic beliefs and 1st generation immigrants increasingly refuse to accomodate the cultures of the countries they have just entered and instead embrace a living religion.

    However where tensions and conflicts remain it would be a mistake to suppose that Islam is the problem and liberal secularism is by definition the solution to all the difficulties confronting humanity.

    Why would it be a mistake when this specific “problem” is that liberal secularism has run headlong into its old foe, religious fanaticism. I’ve not heard even strong proponents of liberal secularism claim that it is a solution to all the problems humanity faces, but that is broad argument rather than this specific issue anyway. When such fanaticism has presented in other forms – opposition by Western Christians to easy divorce laws, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, Biblically based misogyny and so forth – there has been no question in supposing that religion is the problem. Islam’s status as being “The Other” would seem to have trumped traditional liberal secular principles.

    … and the manifest social and economic failures of liberal secularism…

    This also makes no sense in light of the other arguments. NZ presumably suffers from such “manifest” failures too. Yet you say that Muslims have assimilated easily (by at least the minimum standard of a lack of mass attacks) compared to Europe, a place many leftists have held up for years as an example of liberal secularism and social democracy largely unscathed by the predations of neo-liberals, and which we fall short of. Similarly with the accomodation of Shia Muslims in Iran to liberal secularism, where they’re also actively pursuing Western imperialism, in at least its cultural forms. Perhaps they’re reacting against the manifest social and economic failures of Islamic imperialism?

    We also have to take account of the legacy of imperialism ….

    If the Brussels attack had been performed by immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo this argument would make marginal sense. As it is this “explanation” has become as trite and tiresome as it is useless in formulating a solution. At what point would this legacy ever be practically dealt with: when colonial powers gave up on or were kicked out of their colonies decades ago; when their oil companies and assets were nationalised; when immigrants and refugees were accepted from those colonies; when they were provided access to jobs, public education, health and housing in the Western colonial powers? How far does the West have to go to have this Original Sin wiped clean?

    In any case, Belgium is a country that never had Muslim colonies or a state-owned oil company that “stole Muslim oil”. Moreover, despite being part of NATO they took great pride in sticking it to the US over the Iraq war, joining with the French in loudly denouncing “George W Bush’s illegal war”. Yet obviously none of this cut them any slack in the eyes of the Islamists, for whom all others are indistinguishable infidels. But apparently it cuts them no slack in the eyes of hardline leftists either.

    Europe is not facing the same problems of mass migration and mass terrorist violence from other former colonies or other religions. And it did not happen in the decades of the mid-20th century even when the Middle East was undergoing huge upheavals, the worst events being rare, isolated ones such as the Moluccan terrorist attacks in Holland in the mid-70’s.

    No, this unique situation has arisen only in the last four decades with the rise of Islamism; in Iran from the Shia side, and from the Sunni side with the likes of the Wahhabists and other metastasising forms.

    Which is not to say that Islam is irrelevant.

    And becoming less so with every attack – as Trevor Phillips recognises, and as Seb Rattansen earlier agreed to on this blog when listing several driving factors and commenting that ..

    – religious beliefs mixed with extremist ideology
    I think the latter is the factor that is the most important, and also the factor that the left is unwilling to acknowledge in any serious way.

    Which sounds like what Phillips said.

    Radical Islam has become the ideological vehicle by means of which a significant proportion of the world’s population express their disenchantment with imperialism, liberalism and secularism.

    An explicitly ideological-religious vehicle, not “mixed”, but present at its creation – which makes it very different from the likes of Communism, Facism or other Western-generated ideas of recent vintage, not least because its adherents believe in what is quite literally another world, and who perform conscious actions on that basis that are entirely rational within that framework. That too is not taken seriously by the left.

    Moreover, there is again this determination by leftists to treat it as merely a reactionary force and to try and argue that it’s fighting against some of their bugaboos (imperialism, colonialism,….) – when tens of millions of adherents are telling us explicitly that it is how they are enabling the word of God on earth. The things with which you think they are “disenchanted” are secondary to their own, rational, willed positive choices, and often only mentioned when they think Western ears will be receptive to such messages. The only exception to this is secularism, which naturally stands in their way.

    A permanent resolution will require adjustments on both sides.

    The problem here is that while millions of individual Western Muslims have adjusted, they’ve done so by simply dropping aspects of the Quran and the prescriptive world of Sharia Law – in much the same way that modern Western Christians simply ignore parts of the Bible they don’t like. But there’s no history or theory within the religion that argues those points, and substantial minorities reject that approach entirely and accuse those Muslims of being apostates. And these are substantial minorities within their Western enclaves: if they have not “adjusted” now what reason would they have to do so in the future?

    And what adjustments is liberal secularism expected to make to enable this accomodation? One can imagine minor things such as Muslim holidays becoming public holidays in the way that Easter and Christmas are here in NZ. But that won’t be enough to satisfy Islamists. What then? The key feature of Islam that has never changed is its determination that there be no separation between church and state – which strikes at the heart of Western liberal secularism. How is that to be adjusted for on either or both sides?

  11. Sorry Tom, but you stepped out of your depth when you came over here.


  12. Sorry again Tom, but marshalling a lot of words does not always make for a good argument. You have a serious case of selection bias: you already have a bedrock opinion on the subject and spend your time compiling evidence to support it. This, of course, is methodologically dishonest, because you are selecting on the depend variable rather than the independent and intervening variables that taken together make for a specific outcome (as the dependent variable, in this case Daesh or al-Qaeda terrorism). That may work over at the rightwing troll fests that pass where you usually hold court but as I said before, here you have stepped up in class.

    Anyway, read this and weep:

  13. It’s easy to put an argument into 300 words or less if one is willing to use little more than boilerplate language. And converting points of debate into terms such as “dependent” and “independent” variables won’t work if your arguments and assumptions about which they are turn out to be wrong. And you can stop with the “Sorry”: passive-aggressive does not suit you.

    I note that you have no such criticism of “selection bias” and “bedrock opinion” when it comes to your other commentators such as Mr Fischer, presumably because he comes at this issue and others using the same class-based analytics that you do. I actually clicked on his Republican website because some of what he said had strangely Christian overtones to it (Marxist Christian, Fabian Socialist?), and was interested by his arguments on euthanasia. But I also found these gems:

    The problem posed by ISIS is that it has imposed a political order which is opposed to western style democracy and which has proved both popular and successful.  The caliphate has brought orderly, efficient and honest government to the regions under its control.  It has been welcomed by millions in Iraq and Syria, and by many within Muslim communities around the world, particularly Muslim youth.

    And this:

    Hebdo is a pornographic publication with a political slant – not the sort of magazine that you would give to your fourteen year old daughter for a Christmas present, and one has to wonder whether those who take up the cry “Je suis Charlie” (or, in New Zealand, “I am Charlie”) really have much idea of what they are saying about themselves.   That is forgivable ignorance.  But there is also inexcusable arrogance at work when imperial peoples, invariably European and usually secularist, think they can properly and safely ridicule the things which their subject peoples hold most sacred.

    If that is an example of having stepped up in class then you can keep it. Who needs enemies like ISIS when I have fellow citizens like that.

    Having seen your writings on both topics I doubt you would agree with him on those points, but you cut him a degree of slack you won’t grant to me.

    Fine! Despite your expressed desire to gain readers and page views I will depart before being booted. You’re always welcome to engage over at Kiwiblog of course, it being understood that politics and ideologies gain success when argued in the public sphere, rather than in hermetically sealed chambers, and both your politics or your ideology seem less successful with every passing day.

    But thanks for that FP link. I’m sure they’ll make a good argument, but I’m less interested in the terrorism acts themselves than the radicalisation of the wider population who will never commit acts of terror, but are determined upon the success of Sharia Law and the rest.

  14. Tom:

    Do you even know what independent, intervening and dependent variables are? They are not based on assumptions but on empirical facts. My point is that your argument fails the basic methodological requirements for making one. If you did so and came to the same conclusion (“Islam bad, the rest of us good”), then I would give it more credence.

    Nothing passive aggressive about my saying “sorry.” I am just being polite but that probably is lost on someone who lurks in the depths of DPF’s comment threads.

    Not sure what the point of bringing in Geoff’s blog is supposed to be. He comments here and we certainly do not universally share views. So you might as well have brought in a reference to a travel or food blog for all of its relevance to this discussion.

    Not sure where you got the idea that I have an expressed desire for more readers and page views. That might be nice but I have never said as much. Again, your time spent at KB has muddled your ability to differentiate from what is said and what is imputed, inferred or imagined.

    You are welcome to stay around but no problem either way. I realise that it is difficult for you to cope with the opinions of people who may know a bit more than you on topics of international import. Easier for you to be snarky about my views on another blog rather than deal with them over here.

    You will find the FP article interesting in any event, assuming of course that you dare to read something that challenges your assumptions and world view.

  15. Is the problem terrorism, Muslim fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, or religion in general?

    It depends where you want to draw the line between people of your own persuasion and the rest of humanity. Some militant secularists wish to ban the symbols and trappings of religion such as the hijab and the crucifix from public places as is done, for example, in the French republic. Others will tolerate any form of religious expression so long as it does not involve violence towards non-believers. I am not quite sure where Tom Hunter sits, but when he says that “liberal secularism has run headlong into its old foe, religious fanaticism” and gives as examples of fanaticism “opposition to easy divorce laws, homosexuality, contraception, abortion” he is clearly stating that religion and traditional conservative moral values are also enemies of secular society – and not just terrorism.

    Tom sees a direct causal association between religion and terrorism and fails to see such association between imperialism and terrorism. I tend to largely go on our own national experience, in which one has to admit that terrorism was justified in religious terms, with little if any specific reference to imperialism or colonialism. Yet when we look at particular terrorist incidents – I referred previously to the Matawhero massacre – there is an obvious and I believe irrefutable link to the process of conquest, colonisation, confiscation, imprisonment and in the widest sense of the word, dispossession.

    Now if you look at terrorist movements other than our own, you will see a similar pattern modified by the phenomenon of mass migration from the colonies to the imperial homelands. The Netherlands, as Tom notes, suffered terrorist attacks from within the Moluccan community. This was not an exception, but a classic case of Dutch conquest and colonisation, followed by mass migration of Moluccans to the imperial homeland and then outbreaks of terrorism in the heart of the Dutch empire. Similarly many terrorist incidents in Britain have been the work of Pakistani immigrants, France has had been bedevilled with terrorists from among its population of Algerian origin, and the latest terror attacks in Paris can be linked to decades of French rule in Syria. Belgium seems to be an oddity and an exception, yet I suspect that it was Francophone Belgian residents who carried out the Brussels bombings, and that their preferred targets might have been in France. In any event, the boundaries between nation states and their respective grievances are being blurred not only in the Middle East, but also in western Europe. So the association between terrorism and imperialism is complex, multi-faceted and stochastic.
    We can relate the European experience to our own resistance to British rule, which passed through a number of phases. The first phase was resistance through our traditional institutions, hapu, iwi and tribal rangatira. In the second phase traditional institutions had been modified by the adoption of institutions based on British models such as the hahi mihinare and the kingitanga. In the third phase, more aggressive and innovative theologies (Hauhau and Ringatu) drawing on both indigenous and pakeha sources inspired violent “terrorist” resistance to British rule. We know that our terrorist movements grew at least in part out of our exposure to European culture, and we say that not to justify ourselves or to condemn the British, but simply because it is a fact that must be acknowledged as such. We know the people who resorted to terror, both individually and collectively and we have not forsaken them. We know their history, their often surprising interactions with the British people and culture, their professed and genuine religious beliefs, their worldly grievances and motivations, and we are left in little doubt that colonisation led to terrorism.

    Taking the other side of the coin, assimilation, New Zealand has few Muslim immigrants, because New Zealand as such has never ruled over a Muslim nation. However as a component part of the British empire, and therefore as an English speaking nation, it has taken Muslim immigrants from Fiji, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Southern Africa, all nations which have been under British rule at some stage in the past century, where the English language is widely spoken among the middle classes and British institutions and principles of government are well understood. We assume that these factors – language, education, political understanding and so on – will assist the process of assimilation, as they do in general, but in certain circumstances the opposite is the case. One widely acknowledged to be our most redoubtable and indefatigible warrior was himself part Brilish, fluent in the English language and trained in English law, yet one can argue that it was the very expectations created by his knowledge of British culture which inspired him to sacrifice his life in the war against a predatory British crown. This is, I suggest, part of the problem for your “second generation” of Muslim immigrants in Britain and France. They are both Muslim and European, and they are crying out from their lost origins in Islam to their betrayed expectations of “liberty, equality and fraternity” in western secular states. New Zealand has been spared because its involvement in the British imperial project was peripheral, because there has been no mass immigration from conquered states and disrupted societies, and because New Zealand can still deliver something like the “liberty, equality and fraternity” promised by western liberalism, all three conditions being relevant to the current absence of Islamic terrorism in this country.

    Relations between church and state have been contentious from the day that Abel was slain by his brother Cain. The religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane have always been separate, even in Islamic societies, but at the same time they have depended one on the other. Religion establishes the moral foundation on which the secular state can build its economic and political institutions, while the state pragmatically provides for the material needs of its citizens. However western states are now in the process of substituting liberalism for Christianity as the social foundation stone, just as the Communist bloc attempted to substitute Marxist-Leninism or “scientific materialism” for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism. That goes well beyond the “separation of church and state” as we previously understood the phrase, and takes society into dangerous waters, where secular liberalism may prove to be an altogether unseaworthy vessel.

    Finally comes the question whether religion as such is opposed to the greater good of humanity. That is a question which is best addressed from a non-sectarian standpoint, and for better or for worse (I am sure for better) we are not a people given to sectarianism. We can attend te hahi Mihinare one day, te hahi Ratana the next, and te hahi Ringatu the day after. We can visit Shia or Sunni mosques and argue theological points with Muslim scholars in a spirit of amity, and we tend to agree that some form of religion is beneficial. Those of us who are fundamentalists (and they are many) may reject abortion, easy divorce laws, homosexual marriage, alcohol and drug abuse, usury, gambling, prostitution and many other things which liberal secularists see as signs of a progressive and advanced social order. We think they are wrong, but they have no reason to fear us, and we do not fear them.

  16. Tom, you give the impression that I am a supporter of ISIS. That is not the case, as you would discover if you read all the relevant comment in I try to see from where and how the regimes with which I happen to disagree draw their strength, and that was the basis of my comments on the appeal of ISIS to many young Muslims.
    If it is any comfort to you, Tom, I have been banned from commenting on the Republican Movement of Aotearoa website and a couple of other liberal websites, but have never banned or censored comment on my own blog. If you wish to offer a contrary opinion there, you would be welcome.
    With regard to kiwipolitico, my advice would be to stay in the debate so long as you are able.

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