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Contextualizing the ISIS Attacks in Europe

November 18, 2015

The Event
     Friday November 13 in Paris, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks killed at least 129 people and wounded at least 352. Eight men working in three teams attacked a concert hall, two restaurants, and the Stade de France where France and Germany were playing a football match. French President Francois Hollande was at the game and was rushed away. One American was killed, 23 year-old Nohemi Gonzalez. She was a junior at California State University, Long Beach, and was in Paris studying abroad for a semester at Strate College of Design.

These attacks were horrific, and the murders senseless. Who did this, why, and how can it be prevented from happening again?

The Enemy
     ISIS is the political entity that claimed responsibility for the attacks. What is ISIS? An acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS is a Sunni Muslim organization that wants to reconstruct the old Islamic Caliphate. What is the Caliphate? The short answer is a single Islamic empire functioning as a unified government for the Islamic world. Just as Christianity expanded in step with the Roman, Byzantine, and Carolingian Armies, so too, Islam spread under its armies. Between the time Muhammad received his revelation (the Quran) in 610 A.D. to 750 A.D., Islam spread at an amazing rate from a single person outside Mecca to covering the entire Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and most of Central Asia.


Over time, the leadership of the Islamic Caliphate transitioned from the Arabs to the Ottoman Turks, reaching its zenith 1600s – 1850s. Iran emerged as a separate entity and under the Safavid dynasty, Iran converted all subjects to Shia Islam by the 1600s. Here we see a history of two empires, one Sunni and one Shia, fighting along the border of their empires that mark the borders of modern day Iraq-Syria.




By the early 1900s, the Caliphate had declined in power and was known as the “sick man of Europe.” In World War I, the Ottoman Caliphate supported Germany and paid the price for backing the loser, as Ottoman lands were carved up into the modern Middle Eastern states we have today, each under a protectorate of a European power. Eventually, these protectorates became independent, usually by a protracted insurgency against the European powers. A critical point is that these insurgencies were usually led by nationalist ideologies, rather than a unifying Pan-Islamic force.


What is the goal of ISIS and why is it a threat to Europe? ISIS believes it has reestablished the Caliphate and is calling for a Pan-Islamic Jihad aimed at the reconstruction of the original Caliphate as a single state under a Sunni theocracy. To do so requires regaining control of the lands of Shia, including Iraq, Iran, and Bahrain, and as well as reconquering the lost lands in Europe, including Spain and the Balkans. The following map was posted on the ISIS website.


This is the same goal as al-Qaeda, yet there is a critical distinction between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, the two founding fathers of the al-Qaeda movement, had a vision of recreating the Caliphate using global terrorism carried out by a diffuse network of cells to spur a war between Muslims and non-Muslims that would last for decades. ISIS has flipped the equation, and has declared that it has already established the Caliphate, and is now in a war of conquest to expand it to its historic rightful borders. ISIS has separate military and civil bureaucracies, taxes, a territorial base, and selling oil on the global market.

The International Political Problem
     Fundamental problem with ISIS is that it is an organization that has both a religion and centuries of history that can mobilize individuals to its cause from around the world. ISIS can point to a real period in history where its vision was realized, where Europe was weak, the Caliphate dominated, Israel and Shi’ism did not exist. It is a vision that can be sold easily to the disenfranchised and disempowered youth looking for a life of meaning. Unlike Nazi ideology that is based on a racial superiority of a small few that has the inherent right to dominate all, the Islamic extremist Takfiri ideology of ISIS does not discriminate or fracture based on race, ethnicity, language, and as a result it is highly successful at recruiting globally. We have seen thousands of young Muslims travel to Iraq and Syria to join, including hundreds residing in “Western” countries. A global revolution with a goal of overturning the global system of modernity, and it is a revolution that anyone can join.

The Domestic Political Problem in Europe
     Based on current reports, the attackers were a Muslims born in Europe and its is still uncertain if any of them or their logistics chain crossed into Europe as Syrian refugees. This presents a huge problem for European states, and the essential question facing Europe is:

How can individual European states and Europe as a collective protect themselves from attacks, maintain internal freedoms, and destroy the existential threat of ISIS, which is constantly infiltrating and recruiting Muslims within European borders to work as a fifth column to conduct more attacks?

Clearly a key point is how to improve the mechanisms used to integrate and assimilate existing Muslim residents into European states. While some immigrants are happy, well adjusted, and assimilated into the host country, some immigrants do not wish to assimilate, but prefer to create a little Islamabad, or little Cairo in their new country. Europe must decide what degree of assimilation it will require of its immigrants, and what mechanism it will use to encourage and assist immigrants in becoming “Europeans.”  At the very foundation of this, is that Europe will have to wrestle with what it means to be French, Italian, German, Greek, etc., and overall European, which also means identifying what is not European. Identities change over time and can be quite flexible.  For the present and the future, Europe must grapple with first defining those characteristics, beliefs, and values, and second figuring out how to acculturate those key things, while simultaneously giving freedom of diversity on the characteristics, beliefs, and values that are deemed non-essential to European identity. For the EU and NATO, it may be impossible for member states collectively to agree on those essentials.

These are extremely difficult issues for the “West” that prides itself on openness, cosmopolitan values, and the desire to assist those refugees in need. It is impossible to know the best mix of policies, or how the future will unfold. Yet the future of Europe, its values, and its freedoms will be determined by the policies of assisting and assimilating its Muslim citizens and Muslim immigrants, its policies and strategies for destroying ISIS, and its policies for assisting in the creating viable successor states in the Middle East.

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