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What was first? Polarization dynamics which foster terrorism

In a climate of rapidly expanding diversity, preventing and combating societal polarization, violent extremism and radicalisation leading to terrorism are major European concerns which need a comprehensive response.

In that regard, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe remains „deeply concerned about Islamic extremism as well as about extremism against Muslim communities in Europe“ and already recognized in 2010 that „both phenomena reinforce each other“[1] noting that „Islamic radicalism and manipulation of religious beliefs for political reasons oppose human rights and democratic values”.

Jihadist terrorism and raise-up of populist far-right extremism have contributed to the perception that most of European national models of multiculturalism and diversity integration have somehow failed: the UK 2017 attacks renewed doubts on PREVENT British counter radicalisation strategies, doubts tracing back to 2005 London attacks. Germany or Belgium are as well in doubt due to last years´ incidents, while Paris 2015 and Nice 2016attacks and raise up of far-right wing populism put the spotlights on the French model of standard universal values and “laicité” constantly discussed around religious symbols among other manifestations. The Dutch model of multiculturalism is as well questioned because of both radicalisation and ultra-right wing nationalism. Narratives around migrants, refugees and Islam sustaining the myth of an ongoing Islamisation or invasion threatening nations and its values extend to countries such as Austria, Hungary, Check Republic, Poland or Slovakia among others.

Despite warning signals, the polarizing dynamics in which terrorist attacks reinforce anti-Muslims hatred which in turn reinforce some religious radical arguments has been  constant in the last years. Just after August 2017 Barcelona terrorist attacks[2] claimed by ISIS, the main mosque in Granada was targeted in reaction by a group of far-right youngsters throwing up smoke devices and claiming xenophobic and anti-Islamic slogans. Other Spanish mosques and Muslims commerce were targeted and inscriptions with threats against Muslims appeared on their walls. The many condemns to the terrorist attack mixed with hate speech[3]based campaigns and even physical violence occurred[4]. The scope of the problem is global and far away of being isolated, similar events have been occurring in reaction to terrorist attacks in UK, Germany or France.

According to Europol´s TE-SAT reports, total number of terrorist attacks in Europe have decreased while those religious inspired increased between 2014 (242attacks, 4 of them jihadists), 2015 (193 terrorist attacks, 17 jihadists) and 2016 (142 attacks, 13 jihadist attacks). At the same time, different data show how islamophobic incidents, reported hate speech or far right extremist offences grow especially from Paris 2015 Charlie Hebdó and Bataclán attacks, and the number of suspects arrested for jihadist terrorism have year by year increased from 2012 (159 arrests) to 2016 (718 arrests).

The use of religion to justify the terrorist acts keeping in fear societies has made many Europeans regard Islam as a threat and fear Muslims as the enemy. Terrorism has as well contributed to foster the raise of right-wing extremist parties with instrumental ultra-nationalist narratives many times based on anti-immigration and anti-muslim hatred. According to a 2016 PEW Research Center pool, in countries like Germany, Netherlands, UK, Sweden or Italy more than 50% interviewed say immigrants will increase terrorist attacks in the next years, while in countries like Hungary or Poland the percentage is over 70%. Those far right extremist narratives may get mix not only migration and terrorism but homophobic or anti-European messages in which Islamophobia as an expression describing irrational fear, prejudice and hatred towards Islam, Muslims or Islamic culture is widespread (Koehler 2016).

But those narratives are as well fostering radical arguments and positions that may serve as fuel for terrorism: while EUROPOL TE-SAT 2017[5], recognizes “the socio-economic grievances of Muslim immigrants are exploited by terrorist organisations to recruit and incite them to engage in terrorist activities” the European Parliament[6] „considers that Islamophobia in Europe is in turn manipulated by organisations such as Da’esh for propaganda and recruitment purposes“ and recalls that the rise of Islamophobia in the European Union contributes to the exclusion of Muslims from society, which could create fertile ground for vulnerable individuals to join violent extremist organisations”. This could be even a strategy sought by international terrorist organizations like ISIS: „When mosques are attacked by neo-Nazis, Muslims will protest against them,“ says the manual‘How to survive in the West. A Mujahid Guide’.


Those dynamics analysis require to combine a set of historical, cultural, theological and sociological debates and multidisciplinary discussions around immigration, integration and assimilation, economy and policy or security and securitisation. But in between we must consider some relevant issues. If vast majority of Muslims and their organisations have continuously expressed their condemn to terrorism, we cannot nevertheless fall in naïve positions: Muslim leaders in Europe should unequivocally recognize the increasing extremism conducting some individuals belonging to their communities end up adopting radical positions. On the other hand, European actions to counter radicalization leading to terrorism must have in mind those dynamics and care about not reinforce them. While disseminate and leverage some Islam religion and Muslim culture knowledge to Law Enforcement and specially media can be productive in short, work together with Muslims representatives and communities may be powerful in the mid and long by promoting cross-cultural democratic resilience.


Javier Ruipérez, Euro-Arab Foundation (FUNDEA)


[1] Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Resolution 1743 (2010)




[5] TESAT. European Union Terrorist Situation and Trend Report. The Hague: EUROPOL, 2017

[6] European Parliament resolution of 25 November 2015 on the prevention of radicalisation and recruitment of European citizens by terrorist organisations (2015/2063(INI))