2017: A tumultuous, fascinating year (Part One)

Part 1: On Terrorism, The Far-Right and Europe’s fortunes

In 1992, fresh after the Cold War, American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington introduced what would eventually become a widely popular theory in International Affairs. Huntington called it The Clash of Civilizations; the idea that cultural and religious identity would be the primary drivers of conflict in the post cold-war international order. Huntington divided the world into seven civilizations that would inevitably clash in different forms as a result of basic differences in ideology and culture, as well as the frictions associated with globalization/immigration and social change. The West, he argued, at its peak power, was being increasingly challenged by the resources and desire of Non-Western Civilisations (i.e Islamic, Orthodox, Sinic) to shape the world in their image. The Emperor challenged by his subjects: a recipe for conflict. When I first came across this theory in 2012, I couldn’t help but dismiss what I perceived as a simplistic carving up of the world, an inaccurate Hollywood style apocalyptic vision of the future. How times have changed… Fast-forward to 2017 and I’m forced to re-examine Huntington’s ideas, as rising terrorism and immigration contribute to the emergence of a “West vs Islam” mentality. Meanwhile, great powers such as China and Russia are challenging America’s diplomatic and military dominance. Take the South-China sea or the proxy bloodbath in Syria. Take what by now should be labelled “The Forgotten War”: Ukraine. Observe the world, as I have in this tumultuous, fascinating year and you might just ask yourself the question: Was Huntington right afterall?

Let’s start with the good news. The year 2017 has witnessed the military defeat of ISIS. Back in November, Iraqi and Iranian leaders announced the militant Islamic group had been militarily driven out of Iraq and Syria. So much for spreading the caliphate… Not so long ago we reacted with fear as news reached us of “another city falling to ISIS” with the group acquiring large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. But ISIS’s military fall did not coincide with a fall in terrorist attacks. On the contrary, it has forced the group to rethink its strategy. Rather than encouraging Western recruits to travel to Syria, the group is now refocusing on recruitment and attacks around the globe to compromise for the damaging effect of military defeat. This may partly explain the rise in terrorist attacks in 2017.

You must have heard of the van driving into pedestrians at London Bridge in June. The 23 people killed in the The Manchester Arena bombing? Rings a bell. Barcelona ? Yup. New York? All over the news. Common themes: The West and violent Islamic extremism. We’re under attack. There are, however, terrorist incidents far more significant in their death toll and damage that you’re less likely to have heard of. October 14th witnessed the death of 512 people in the Mogadishu bombings; the third deadliest attack of terrorism in recorded history. Egypt, meanwhile, endured its deadliest attack ever (311) when a group of 42 gunmen detonated three bombs in a mosque, then proceeded to fire at worshippers, blocking off escape routes with burning car wreckage and firing bullets at arriving medical personnel. These attacks, like countless others across the Middle East in 2017, have not received the same level of media attention and coverage as incidents in Europe. Did you know that modern-day terrorism has killed more Muslims than people of any other religious faith? In a world where agents of power, such as the media and politicians dictate language and distort the flow of information through selection bias, how easy it is to forget that Muslims, too, are victims of terrorism. And how difficult to escape from the Us vs Them mentality when a clear, yet irrational distinction is drawn between “terrorism” in London and a “shooting” in Las Vegas. Our problem lies in the fact that we often take language for granted, failing to notice the power it projects. Stephen Paddock and Khuram Shazad both committed despicable crimes. One is labbelled a gunman, the other a terrorist.

At the same time, in these crazy times, it takes the U.S president days of intense pressure from the media, his own party and the public to draw a line between the naked, explicit racism of Neo-Nazi groups and counter-protesters rejecting a fascist contamination of American public space. If anything, the events of Charlottesville (and others such as retreating from the Paris Climate Accords) convinced me that on its current path, America is abandoning its role as the West’s moral and spiritual leader. For there must be something broken in a political system where an outraged public forces its leader to utter the words “Racism is Evil” with a clear, obvious reluctance. Trump’s initial reaction, condemning violence “on both sides” effectively gave Neo-Nazis and counter-protesters moral equivalence. It was also met with cheers and praise from the radical/ alt-right movement. Shortly after the president’s controversial comment, David Duke, former KKK grand-wizard thanked his “honesty & courage to tell the truth…”. Charlottesville was clear evidence of what many feared during the campaign back in 2016: Trump’s presence in the White House, along with his rhetoric, would serve to embolden the darkest fringes of society to knock on the doors of mainstream American public life. But if someone must be increasingly alarmed by a collective ‘shift to the right’ in political thought, it must be the Europeans.

Across the ‘Old Continent’, young people, business people, and pro-EU cosmopolitan elites cheered in delight as Emmanuel Macron became the newest occupant of the Elysée Palace. In a highly symbolic move following the results, Macron marched through his victory parade through the Louvre as Ode to Joy, the EU’s anthem played in the background. Le Pen would have likely arranged a ceremony to burn EU flags, with transcripts of Mein Kampf on loudspeakers to educate the masses. A deafening sigh of relief could be heard across Europe when it was announced that Mrs. Le Pen would not follow in the footsteps of Brexit and Donald Trump. Yet another victory for the so-called Global Right-Wing Populist Uprising was not to be. This time, it was the mainstream elites drinking champagne as far-right defeats in The Netherlands and France appeared to signal a return to the pre-2016 ‘normal’ state of mainstream politics. This early optimism was always far-fetched and bordering on naive. Despite electoral ‘defeats’, the numbers revealed an alarming support for far-right groupings across Europe. Yes, Le Pen had lost, but only after advancing to the second round and gaining 33.9% of the vote. That’s a third of France’s population comfortable with a far-right president in office. Elections results in The Netherlands were similarly welcomed by EU elites as Angela Merkel proclaimed them a “pro-European result”. And although Geert Wilder’s Dutch Freedom Party failed to win elections and form a government, performing below expectations, it had become the second largest party in the Dutch parliament. Meanwhile, the end of the year has surely awoken us from our complacency. Poland’s independence march in November produced xenophobic and racist banners calling for a “White Europe of brotherly nations” as far-right fringe groups shamefully paraded Fascist symbols in the streets of Warsaw. Meanwhile, German parliamentary elections produced a far-right presence in the German Bundestag for the first time in six decades. In a country so apparently allergic and sensitive to the dangers of Nazism, the Alternative Fur Deutschland(AdF) party won 13% of the vote, in a result which has already weakened Merkel’s authority and could yet produce a shift in tone and substance from Berlin with regards to immigration and EU reform.

The year 2018 will be an important, if not crucial, year for the prospects of EU reform. Martin Schulz, Merkel’s potential government coalition partner and leader of the SPD party, boldly proclaimed his vision for a ‘United States of Europe’ by 2025. Macron, meanwhile, in what has been lauded as the most pro-European speech by an EU leader in years, laid out a grand plan for European reform at the famous Parisian Sorbonnes University in September. Attacking isolationist nationalism, Macron called the present day EU “too weak, too slow, too inneffective” and called for more integration in defence, fiscal and asylum policy. Any hopes of closer European integration will have to secure the backing of Berlin. But Merkel’s domestic hopes of securing a stable coalition government with the SPD might depend on her embracing, at least to some degree, the visions of bold European reformers like Macron. Will the former be convinced by the latter to take the EU forwards and revive the Franco-German engine of European integration? 2018 will provide some of the answers.

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