Greenwich in the Season, by Gustave Dore.
Greenwich in the Season, by Gustave Dore.
The terror attacks in Nice and Wurzburg are the latest manifestations of what should now be seen as a still fairly low-level Islamist insurgency taking place in a number of west European countries. The fact that this insurgency has been allowed to kindle itself and slowly emerge before now bursting forth represents a profound failure of Western European political culture and of the continent's elites.
This is not merely a matter of poor police or intelligence work. Rather, it is the culmination of a long process of enfeeblement. The Islamist insurgency is a disease attacking an already weakened body which lacks the means to defend itself.
What has brought about the decline of Western Europe to this point?
In the first instance, of course, one may point to the decision to admit tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East. It is now clear that a considerable number of the refugees harbor loyalty to the violent Islamist military groups that dominate large parts of Syria. But the more profound question concerns the worldview of the political and intellectual elites in Western Europe who produced this decision. The decision, after all, is just the latest manifestation of a longstanding policy of somnambulance toward the threat of political Islam.
European political and intellectual elites are transnational, cosmopolitan, and reflexively secular.
A hollowing-out of European culture has taken place over recent years. The elites of the continent are united by a set of joint perceptions deriving from a shared experience of life. They are transnational, cosmopolitan, skeptical of passionately held belief, reflexively secular. Their shared experience of the world is of a safe place, in which a certain set of attitudes and connections enables life to be lived in a pleasant and free way.
Civilizational conflict, passionate religious ideological commitment, even fervently experienced patriotism do not feature very highly on the elite's radar. Such sentiments are to be dismissed with a smile, or treated with bewildered fear and apprehension if they appear to be persistent and potent.
This is an elite that takes in representatives of both the traditional European left and center right -- social democrats and free market liberals. Indeed, one can easily discern a sort of slightly more leftist and slightly more conservative variation within its basic type. Yes, it is a global elite, with its powerful representatives in the U.S., in Eastern Europe, in Asia and so on -- but it is in Western Europe where its influence on culture and on the atmosphere in which policy is made has reached its apogee.
Until recent years -- in all major countries of Western Europe -- the leading elements in the main political parties, academia, and the mainstream media were clearly representatives of this group.
The problem with this elite is not that they are evil or decadent. It is that their worldview is inadequate to grasp the nature of the time in which they are living. They are an easy generation, made for prosperous times, for the cool management of systems, for times of plenty.
But the times of plenty have gone. The Middle East is in the midst of a massive historic convulsion. Political Islam, in its many variations, has captured the minds of millions and is now leading to war and state fragmentation in the Middle East. And through the process whereby Mideastern refugees seek to quit the region and enter Europe, these ideas enter Europe, carried by some of the young men making their way behind the walls, like a plague bacillus.
The result is the current insurgency. It is erupting out of parts of the society untouched and undreamt of by the elite.
The response is denial. Ways are found to maintain that the insurgents are not in fact Islamists or jihadis at all.
Absurdly high levels of knowledge and religious commitment are required for the perpetrator to be considered an Islamist, as if such knowledge tests were ever demanded in ascertaining the affiliation of terrorists past.
Mohammed Lahouaiyej Bouhlel drives a truck into a crowd of passersby screaming "Allahu Akbar"? This is found to have nothing to do with Islam because of his poor record of mosque attendance. And so on. It would be comical if it were not so serious.
This is an elite uniquely unprepared to understand the nature of the sectarian holy war facing Europe.
The current European intellectual and political elite is simply not equipped to understand what is taking place. Denial and stopping its ears is thus the only option available to it. This is an elite uniquely unprepared to understand the nature of sectarian holy war; such things are utterly outside of its experience. What is clearly unfolding before their eyes -- a largely homegrown Islamist insurgency running on the fuel of ideas coming out of the Middle East -- cannot be happening. So it isn't. Their solution is to block their ears.
Does this mean that Western Europe is doomed and must resign itself to seeing its cities turned permanently into battlegrounds for Islamist insurgency? As things currently appear, the answer is "not necessarily."
When faced with external threats and tests, cultures can do one of two things.
If they are played out and decadent and old, they can admit defeat. Yet if something of vitality remains, the culture will produce antibodies, alternative voices, and modes of resistance. History is replete with examples of both.
As of now, the growth of voices and political parties outside of the mainstream who are prepared to speak openly about the challenge attests to a residual will to survival in a number of European countries.
However, since the Islamist side is entrenched, well-financed, and full of wild desire for the fight, we should assume that the efforts at resistance will presage not an early return to order, but rather the prospect of further and increased civil strife in Western Europe in the period ahead.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.