Investing in a caring, open and inclusive society

by Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

A Dutch version of this article is available by clicking here.

Lately, more and more people in Europe are saying that military expenses should be raised. External pressure is increasing, especially within the NATO-context.

The idea of European nuclear deterrence is on the rise again as well. There is talk of a European “Pax Atomica”, as a response to the supposed internal and external security threats (including terrorism, migration, cyber-hacking, etc.). However, it remains to be seen whether nuclear weapons would be an adequate response to those threats. They are not effective as deterrents since they do not prevent attacks or terrorist acts. A few countries that possess nuclear weapons (including the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, France, and Belgium) have experienced such acts over the last few decades. Possession of nuclear weapons – weapons of mass destruction – is illegal, immoral and dangerous. This does not even take into account accidents, near-accidents and incidents.

Defence budgets are already immense. Weapons kill, even if they are not used. The cost of weapons is so high that their production often comes at the expense of other means that meet the most fundamental needs of people – with all the tragic – sometimes deadly – consequences that entails.

Security demands more than following military logic. Many politicians and experts believe that one should have and use sufficient military resources in order to counter security threats. One indeed needs adequate military means to protect a population, in situations of self-defence. This makes military cooperation comprehensible. But ‘security’ is a complex matter. It is related to a high degree to the quality of our society and the lives of its citizens. Not just military, but also more socio-economic means, are needed for this.

Nations are concerned with themselves

We find that certain politicians solely gaze ‘inward’, thereby neglecting, or even looking down on, the international or multilateral level. Certain countries are solely concerned with themselves and deploy a protectionist discourse. One’s own needs first! Multilateral bonds like the European Union and the United Nations are showing cracks and have to prove their legitimacy. Communal values such as cooperation, solidarity and human rights have come under review. This is a dangerous trend, since many of the social challenges we are faced with today (migration, the refugee crisis, terrorism, climate change, economic crises, tensions between citizens, etc.) demand an increasingly communal approach on the regional and national level.

Every crisis does, however, offer new chances. There is a need for more humane measures that can stimulate a peaceful society on all levels, not least the local level. In this way, one can invest in “human security”, in the citizens’ safety. A nation is measured based on its care for human and planet, both of which are vulnerable. We should thus invest in conflict solution systems, including “early warning” systems, and on the timely detection of injustice and tensions that could lead to conflict. It is important that countries and international organisations set out strong policies concerning prevention and conflict management and that they also provide non-military means.

In many cases the use of violence is related to political motivations and bad relations. Political violence is often the result of unmentionable and unmentioned disagreements and misunderstanding. Therefore it is necessary to break political and social taboos and to strengthen relationships. In our chaotic world, politics could function as a moral compass. However, this requires leadership and courage, things the world badly needs. In the years to come, new leaders will hopefully rise – also from the younger generations – so that confidence can return.

Forms of terror

We are being confronted with the globalisation of extremism and religious violence. Terror was brought close by the attacks in Europe and boosted feelings of fear. This fear should be taken seriously and should be brought into perspective.

Terror knows many forms and political backgrounds. Before the 9/11 attacks, post-war Europe knew periods of political unrest and terror as well. Some examples:

  • In the Spanish Basque country, the Basque secessionist movement ETA carried out terrorist attacks for years, in order to enforce their demand for independence.
  • Armed paramilitary groups terrorised Northern Ireland from the late sixties until 1998. The ‘troubles’ of sectarian violence between two populations – Catholics and Protestants – was political, ‘ethnic’, social and religious in nature. Splinter factions of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) continued with their terrorist acts, also within the framework of criminality and the drug trade.
  • The seventies and eighties were characterised by extreme leftist and Marxist terrorist movements that carried out a series of attacks on politicians, police and industrialists. Germany had the Baader-Meinhof group and the Rote Armee Fraktion, Italy had the Red Brigades. The Cellules Communists Combatants or CCC operated in Belgium during the eighties.
  • In Belgium, the so-called Bende van Nijvel carried out a series of deadly raids on department stores during the eighties. Although they hardly made off with any loot, they were considered a criminal group. The perpetrators were never found.
  • The largest terrorist act that took place in post-war Europe in the previous century was the bomb attack on the railway station in Bologna. Eighty-five people were killed and more than 200 people were wounded. Several members of the neo-fascistic NAR (Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari) were charged with the attack.

The list containing all the terrorist groups in the world is long and the motivations differ depending on the political context. The European Union, the United States and the United Nations created a list with terrorist groups, partly for their sanction and security policies. Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the New People’s Party (NPP) in the Philippines are examples of such groups.

Violence – not in the name of religion!

In the 21st century our world is once again confronted with religiously inspired violence, ‘theo-terror’. The attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on 11 September 2001 are a decisive and unprecedented fact hereof. They can be seen as the globalisation of terror. Within this framework we know Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS/Daesh). Most combatants for IS come from Iraq and Syria, but since they have recruited tens of thousands, mostly young combatants from foreign countries, we can by now speak of them as an international group. About 30 to 40.000 foreign fighters joined IS in 2015. Many of them come from other Arabic countries like Tunisia, but also from regions like Chechnya and from Western countries. We know of similar Islamist terrorist groups in Libya and Nigeria (Boko Haram).

Members of religious communities who call for violence and war misuse or make false interpretations of religion. Violence can never be justified in the name of religion. Only peace is “holy”.

Is the West to blame?

Boko Haram literally means “Western education is fake”. Boko Haram’s brutal violence against people with a different religion, women and minorities is unprecedented. According to themselves, they react to Western decadence, but their actions mainly attack and terrorise their own population.

In the past, the West has sometimes all too easily and with the use of political violence tried to enforce a certain model of society without acknowledging the traditions and culture of a population. Culture cannot and must not be simply set aside. Change must come from the people themselves and should fit with them, as this is the only way to make a model of society sustainable. The enforced democratisation process of the West has often been accompanied by neglect of singularity. This nearly always leads to strong opposition. In the past, traditional societies were all too often forced from above to modernise. Unfortunately, Boko Haram is an extreme consequence of this.

The West finds it difficult to understand the Arab world. It knows and acknowledges the complete separation of religion/church and state. Within the Arab world, there is a deeper layer of “connective tissue” that is formed by religion and its accompanying value system. Here, one cannot clearly distinguish between politics and religion, since religion is related to life.

No impunity – but care and integration

Diplomats reckon that the end of IS in Iraq and Syria is near and that a great deal of Syria-fighters will start returning to our countries. What should be done about all those IS-fighters? Syria-fighters that have returned are currently being imprisoned. For each of them a fitting rehabilitation process is necessary. Impunity is out of the question, but a one-sided focus on criminalisation is dangerous as well.

One group of these former IS-fighters wants to readjust and integrate into their original communities. Our society should take the necessary measures and should involve their surroundings, families and acquaintances.

A second group could constitute a great danger. They keep on resisting the West, which they perceive to be the source of all evil. Brainwashing and sectarian thinking, including the use of violence, is deeply rooted within some of them. The intention to carry out terrorist acts remains a realistic possibility. Belgium therefore has threat level 3, which means that terrorist acts remain a possibility.

Inequality and exclusion are increasing

There are numerous explanations for the fact that so many young people are attracted by armed and brutal violence. In the Global South an enormous group of young people has no prospect for a decent existence.

But many young people in the ‘rich’ West also feel excluded from the job market, from education or from society itself. They are searching for a connection, for an identity, for a sense of belonging. Where do I fit in? With which section of the population can I identify myself? With which norms and values, religion or ideology?

Religion has much to offer: rules of life, inspiration, social relations, solidarity and peace, hope and identity, the offer of a framework and an outlook. Religion can give someone something to hold onto in uncertain times. Religions should focus on the needs of the most vulnerable people in society: the hungry, the poor, the refugees, etc.

Change starts locally

We in the West should not dehumanise ‘the other’. ‘Othering’ does not get us anywhere and should cease. Polarisation and thinking in terms of groups, which often results in the exclusion of the other, can degenerate into anger and violence.

These are boon times for nationalism and populism, both of which create an atmosphere of closed societies. We have to stand up for real emancipation and integration of all groups into society, at all levels. Then we are building an open society, not building walls between groups of people. An “open society”, like all change, starts at the local level.

It could even help if people had a place, small-scaled, where they could come together and talk over problems. Political participation, especially that of young people, is a prerequisite for a well-functioning and critical society of citizens.

The good news is that many such small integration initiatives take place locally and cultivate learning to live together. Standing up for solidarity is happening on an international level as well, with actions such as the Lenten campaigns of the Catholic Church, Jesuit Refugee Services, Caritas International, United Network of Young Peace Builders, etc. There is a large choice of initiatives and this brings hope for change.

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