The cultural challenge to terror in Europe

by Gabriele Nissim

What happened on 14 February at Franco Parenti's, in the conference that Gariwo had organized in cooperation with the theatre run by Andrée Ruth Shammah, on the modern phenomenon of terrorism and the foreign fighters?

Let's go in order. First of all we launched the movement of the Righteous Muslims who dare fight against terrorism and murderous fundamentalism. We have called all Muslims to take a personal stand, to break any form of silence and take up responsibility. This is why we invited as a great testimonial Mr. Hamadi ben Abdesslem, who not only rescued 45 Italians from the Bardo Museum during the terror attack of 2015, but as an intellectual took up also the task to become a protagonist of the cultural struggle against fundamentalist terror in Tunisia and the Arab world.

Hamadi was not only a Righteous man by chance, who had the promptness to save lives because as a tourist guide at the Museum knew all possible ways out very well, but his gesture also depended on a personal maturation. He explained to me how his life was marked by two inner experiences. For him, Islam represents a spiritual process, in which what really matters are neither the Koran's texts which date back to a given historical period, nor the attendance of the mosque, but rather a continuous self-interrogation, day after day, about what is good and what is evil. Muslims must dialogue with God without any intermediaries to tell him what to do, and thus he shall find again by themselves the imperative in their conscience. Secondly, in his experience as a tourist guide, getting in touch with different people travelling to Tunisia, he learned about the great value of the world's plurality. Hence he understood how stupid it is to build fences against different faiths and cultures, because in every person, for how seemingly different, there exists a similarity that gets us to understand the common fate of the whole humanity. This is why, when he found himself faced with the terrorists, maybe he was less scared of their threats, because he immediately understood that defending the museum and the lives of the Italians meant first of all safeguarding the beauty of human plurality and of an archaeological heritage belonging to the whole human civilization. In those dreadful moments he understood that the world he believed in was at stake, and therefore it was worth running the risk.
His gesture against terrorism will be remembered on 8 March in Israel in the village of Neve Shalom by Israelis and Palestinians, by planting a tree in his name. Hamadi has accepted this invitation, in a country which has no diplomatic ties with Tunisia because of the endless war that divides Arabs from Israelis, because he is profoundly persuaded that every peaceful deed can help get the walls of hatred to fall and pave the way for those two peoples to share the same land.

We have broadened the scope of this movement also to the people resisting terror in the Arab countries, where for the first time, in Tunisia, we created – in July 2016 – a Garden of the Righteous dedicated to the Muslims who struggle for dialogue against murderous violence. We are trying to broaden the scope of this cultural operation also to Morocco and Jordan. On 14 and 15 March, in Milan, the annual ceremony at Monte Stella Hill to mark European Day of the Righteous will be dedicated to four figures of Arabs and Muslims on the forefront in the defense of secularism against any kind of religious hatred.

I think this cultural proposal of our represents a historic break against any code of silence.

This is why in the soirée at the Franco Parenti Theatre I invited speakers to give fundamentalist terror a name, whereas both Obama and our diplomacy have always speak generally of terrorism. As writes Richard Stengel in the New York Times, this is the contradictions that often prevents us from understanding the nature of this phenomenon, nearly as if terrorism were external to the Arab and Muslim world. The former American President was always concerned about not hurting the sensitivity of the Arab countries, in the hope to find allies against a common enemy. This ambiguity is no aid to transparency and paved the way to Trump's demagoguery, that depicted every Muslim as a potential bringer of terrorism. The best answer was given by King Abdullah of Jordan, who said with great conviction that the struggle against terrorism “is first of all our struggle”. It must thus become a great battle of Islam in all Muslim countries.
Perhaps we can thus call this phenomenon “murderous terrorism of Islamic mould”. But on this term and definition we must open a dialogue.

Primo Levi has taught me, in The Drowned and the Saved, that in the face of extreme evil we must not only express indignation, but also try to understand the origin of the given phenomenon through reason, in a scientific way. Unless we understand it, it becomes very difficult to find the means to fight it. Primo Levi, with this question that haunted him, tried to understand the executioners' and the camp guards' behaviour. His nearly obsessive question was always the same: how comes that common people (not devils) behaved in such a dreadful way?

We must use the same survey method to punctually investigate the terrorists' biographies. We must try to understand the genesis and motivations of their behaviours. Is maybe the Koran the key of all? Or a distorted reading of religious texts? Why do they decide to commit suicide, when in history also the most grousome terrorists have been proud to commit brutal deeds in the name of a cause and then seek a way out? It is well possible to die at war, but why make death the mark of one's own deeds?

This is why the remarks of French politologist Oliver Roy were so important. He expounded the research published in his recent book Le Djihad et la mort.
The young European Muslims, second-generations immigrants, have undertaken the terrorist path not starting from education in mosques, or religious practice, but envisaging a nihilist revolt, instead. The focal point is that these young people do not seek to build a fundamentalist society based on the Sharia and the Koran's norms (in Europe as well as in the Mid-East), but are attracted by a definitive score settling, whereas by committing suicide they feel as avengers. The kill the highest possible number of people because they believe the definitive Muslim apocalypse is getting gloser. The doomsday is near, and they feel they are the instruments of such a judgement in the hands of a phantomatic God. Their motto is “we love death and you love life”. Maybe they imagine they will be rewarded in heaven, but it is in the action leading to their deaths that their fate is accomplished. Thus it is the act per se that makes them pride, and which they tell before the event in the social networks and the video footage of their cellphones. They thus feel completely fullfilled in the planning and accomplishment of their attacks.

When they plan an action, Palestinian terrorists as well as Hezbollahs set out a political aim. They often become suicidal as well, but as a matter of facts they are the political instrument in the hand of their manipulators who use them as human bullets. On the side of their wirepullers there is often a mafia code: their death is good, so it is possible to conceal the true masterminds. The European terrorists, instead, do not act for a purpose, but only for the sake of death.

It is important to observe how the European terrorists are quite a different thing from religious fundamentalists. Not only before dying they never come close to a rigid religious practice. They do not seek Islamic purification or a life not contamined by the temptations of the Western enemy (like alcohol, drug or sex), nor they dream of building on this earth an Islamic republic, freed from the presence of infidels. Those who have gone to fight in Syria on the side of Daesh in the hypothetical paradise, have remained bewildered. Nothing to do with the enthusiasm of the communists who searched for their promised land in Russia. It is only the idea of the apocalypse that entices them, as the taste for death in combat. For them, the Islamic State does not represent a new social experiment, but a land that can become useful only as a detonator of the final score settling. They are not Muslim scholars who from a reading of the Koran have reached an extreme radicalization, but rather antagonists and radicals who have seen in their identification with Islam the best answer to their nihilist project.
It may seem paradoxical, but these radical youths who have made up an Islam tailored on their custom and use are challenging the Muslim who live in Europe, and are forcing them to make a clear stand on their Islamic identity in their process of integration. For many of them, for too long, the phenomenon of terrorism was unexpected, and they felt at unease to take a clear stance of condmneation. They felt unjustly blamed: “Why are we compelled to say we have nothing to do with it?”

But the way these terrorists have scared the Europeans, thus giving stamina to populists and xenophobes, is compelling the Muslim associations not only to explain how their religous faith does not match to the imaginery of the terrorists, but also to work out a new identityin syntony with the Western secular state. As the king of Jordan had understood, the fight against nihilist terror thus becomes an issue within Islam, and not only of Europe.

Why did these second-generation immigrant Muslim embrace terrorism and why did they fall in this nihilist logics?
It is completely wrong to see in social marginalization the unleashing cause of these behaviours, also because most of them have nevertheless a stable job and sometimes they are even graduated.
Oliver Roy invited us to consider two sets of phenomena: on the one hand, their cultural uprooting due to their inability to come to terms with the tradition they belong to; on the other hand, the inability of our society to offer reference moral values apt to fill this cultural void.

What is then the solution? A good relationship with their traditions can help these young people not to be enticed by nihilism. They have grown up with the idea of being new heroes in their imaginary Islam in gyms, sleazy pubs, prisons where terrorist detainees often have proselitized.
Whether we like it or not, religion is for immigrants a source of identification and integration. This is why Oliver Roy, as of the rest Somali Marian Ismail – an Italian herald of the struggle against terrorism and for secular Islam – and the Minister of Interior Affairs Mr. Minniti, support the great importance of institutionalizing plural and transparent mosques, where the young uprooted Muslims can find again their normality and work out their relationship with society.
If they are transparent and in the sunlight, these mosques can become important places of education and restrain; instead if they are clandestine, or are replaced by uncontrolled facilities in garage, or sporting clubs or sleazy places as happened in many cases – there may be a spread in the worst cultures of hate and thus new forms of subversion may arise.

It is interesting to observe what happened in Tunisia, as told me by Hamadi ben Abdlesslem, after the ousting of Habib Bourghiba in 1987.
The new leader Zine El Abidin Ben Ali, prompted by an idea of secular modernization, tried to limit the number of mosques and abolish religion nearly by decree. The result was thus counterproductive: underground mosques were set up in the hands of fanatics who have sown hatred among young people.
Of course it is not enough to institutionalize modern mosques in Europe, but the key challenge depends on our ability to offer secular reference values. The moral and political crisis of Europe, unfortunately, does not help this process of transformation and taking roots.

When Alberto Negri, the great envoy of Il Sole 24 Ore, justly remembered the responsibilities of the West for all that happened in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East in general – were we have recently been dumb in the face of Assad's crimes – and has thus tried to explain the origine of the terrorist phenomenon, I reminded him without arguing, as Nelson Mandela taught me, that there is no privilege of innoocence on the side of the victims. Not even victims are allowed to choose hatred.

If we thought the Arab peoples act only reflexedly, as an effect of our conditionment, we would deprive them of the main peculiarity of every human being, i.e. their possibility to choose, which is always there. This is why I underlined the fundamental role of the Arab intellectuals in the fight against terrorism and I invited Hafez Haidar and Hamadi Abdlesselem, proposing them as two exemplary figures in the struggle against terrorism in Tunisia and Lebanon.

The event at Teatro Franco Parenti was one of great moral and intellectual courage. Sometimes I myself am somewhat afraid for a risky battle.
But this is not the main point. The point is how to deal with the complexity of this phenomenon, not with a fast ready recipe, but rather by developing the loftiest confrontation of ideas.This has only been the beginning.
We have sown. I have learnt from Václav Havel about the force of dialogue, confrontation and pluralism. If I had invited all those who are like-minded with me, it would have been a teleguided evening. I believe the world changes when we put in motion different forces and we bring them to maturation.

Ps. I had written some notes in a first Facebook reply to my friend Alessandro Litta Modignani, very critical of our conference. I then decided to go more in depth to continue the discussion.

Gabriele Nissim

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman

22 February 2017

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