A string of three terrorist attacks in quick succession has shaken Europe and has revived debates on Europe’s relationship with Islam. In the span of about three weeks, suspected Islamists have carried out two terrorist attacks in France and a third in Austria. In mid October, a French schoolteacher was beheaded in a suburb of Paris. He had shown caricatured cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his class during a lesson on freedom of expression in France; such images are considered blaphemous in the Muslim faith. At the end of October, France was attacked once again, this time by a knife-wielding jihadist who left
three dead in from of the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice. Finally, only days after the attack in Nice, a gunman opened fire in six locations in Vienna in an attack reminiscent of the highly organized Bataclan Attack in Paris in November of 2015.
In France, the epicenter of both Europe’s 2015-16 terrorism crisis and this current bout, these latest attacks have recentered radical Islam and national security in French political debates. In America, many analysts have charged that France’s radical interpretation of state secularism excludes Muslims and, to some degree, creates divisions that instigate these attacks. But, this is a fairly unnuanced view that tries to view French society through an American lens. While the complex differences between American and French secularism could fill a book, to put it crudely, one can consider American secularism as agnostic—the state does not privilege any one religion, but still affords special privileges to all religions—whereas French secularism is better understood as atheist—the state recognizes no privileges for any religion. The indivisibility of the French people is central to the French republican philosophy; all French citizens must be political and social equals and, as such, the state cannot favor any groups within France. This means that to censor caricatures of the Prophet would be privilege the Muslim faith over other religions, something that would divide the French people along religious lines.
To an American audience, this may seem disrespectful to religious believers, especially since religion plays such a central role in American society. But, as former French ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud pointed out to his American followers on Twitter, a Pew Research Center study concluded that French Muslims feel better integrated into French society than do their counterparts in other European countries. Furthermore, France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population and claims the title of the continent’s most diverse country. So, it is hard to say why France seems to so often find herself targeted by Islamist terrorists, but there is good reason to believe that France’s philosophy of indivisibility actually drives her success as a pluralistic society rather than hinder it.
But, this still leaves an important question: what is driving the current streak of attacks? If we look at the 2015-16 terrorism crisis, that was linked to the EU’s migrant crisis of the same years. Uncontrolled flows of migrants fleeing the Syrian Civil War kicked up instability and populist movements across Europe and created easy mechanisms for terrorist organizations such as ISIS to both radicalize homegrown jihadists in Europe and infiltrate refugee flows with their own agents. And, while Syrian refugees are now being held at bay by Turkey, a different conflict has now opened up a new pipeline of refugees fleeing into Europe: the Libyan Civil War. As the conflict in Libya heats up, more and more refugees are piling into boats and rafts headed for Italy and Greece, generating new waves of uncontrolled migration into Europe. And it was, in fact, by this route through Italy that the Nice attacker, a Tunisian national, illegally entered the European Union on September 20.
For this reason, the response in Europe has been to focus on illegal migration in Europe and strengthening the porous borders of the Schengen area. For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron announced recently that the number of border protection agents stationed at France’s borders with Spain and Italy would be doubled and revived his call for an EU level security force to control the Schengen area’s exterior borders. He has also teamed up with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to propose a new set of initiatives aimed at fighting Islamist radicalization among young Europeans and strengthen penalties for jihadists in Europe. The Vienna attacker has been confirmed to be a Austrian citizen who had only last year been released from prison after serving only part of a 22-month sentence for trying to join ISIS. The Franco-Austrian proposal would seek to prevent such a person from slipping through the cracks by improving the EU’s intelligence and security apparati, improving border screenings, and mandating harsher penalties for European nationals who attempt to join up with terrorist organizations abroad.
The current terrorism crisis in Europe is, in many ways, the result of the same factors as the last one. Namely, the lack of standardized exterior border controls and a disorganized national security apparatus within the Schengen area make Europe vulnerable to these types of attacks. But, Europe is not the same as it was in 2015. Several of the EU’s institutions and member countries have new leaders (such as Mr. Macron in France, Mr. Kurz in Austria, and President Ursula von der Leyen of the EU Commission) who are much more proactive and eager for change within the bloc. Only time will tell how much this new generation of leadership can actually change the EU and, in many ways, a lot of Europe’s new leaders are subject to the same incentives that pushed their predecessors to oppose greater political integration. But, the conditions for progress are undoubtedly more favorable than they were in 2015 and Europe seems well positioned to respond in a much more effective manner this time around.