(RIEAS Senior Analyst)
Many European countries have been facing the challenge of Muslim citizens of theirs or immigrants getting religiously radicalised and choosing a path of violence in the name of Islam or the Ummah (global community of Muslims). Religiously motivated acts of violence were not a novelty when the challenge became evident. After all, 9/11 stunned the world only months before the first major attacks on European soil. The fundamental difference was the background and the radicalisation processes of the attackers. The axiom of top-down radicalisation and terrorist recruitment was critically undermined, with new bottom-up processes emerging. The perpetrators of violent acts no longer needed to have close ties to terrorist or radicalising networks, nor to have graduated from terrorist training camps. A new potential for self-radicalisation emerged, that required none of the until then perceived prerequisites for terrorist wannabes. Face-to-face interaction with identified radicals, frequenting radical mosques and trips to the traditional hotbeds of terrorist training, were no longer needed for terrorist mobilisation and therefore new challenges arose regarding identifying potential threats. Internet became a potent facilitator of radicalisation, with everything from recruitment rhetoric to technical manuals being available, and the process became surprisingly shorter and swifter. Perhaps more alarmingly though, the willing recipients of the radical message belonged to the very same society they were targeting. In other words, the threat was no longer external, it had become internal as well, with individuals who for a number of reasons were willing to wage what they saw as jihad against their own country, in the name of the Ummah or based on religious interpretations.
More than 5 years after the Madrid attacks and 4 years after the London attacks, the phenomenon of violent radicalisation among Muslims, especially in countries of the so-called West, persists internationally and has been contaminating countries who were until recently perceiving themselves as immune to this kind of violence. So far Greece seems to be exempt from violent acts committed on religious grounds. With important differences and even more similarities to European countries known to be affected by radicalism, is Greece likely to maintain its apparent immunity? Is radicalisation among Muslims a phenomenon calling for policy responses and preventive initiatives or is it yet one more demonstration of Greece’s proclaimed ‘specificity’?
Many say that Greece constitutes an exceptional case and is not at risk of this kind of violent radicalisation among the Muslims residing within its territory. The Muslim communities in Greece have grown and multiplied fairly recently. Greece has no long history of chain migration, with no resulting large established communities, and the countries of origin vary, making a potential hijacking by radicals, similar to what other countries have experienced, more difficult. Also, what is viewed as a non-provocative to Muslims foreign policy, is thought to be a further safeguard. Such optimism however is not sufficiently justified. It’s useful to remember that the diversity and dispersion of Muslim communities in the US was not enough to shield them from homegrown Islamist terrorism, while the non-aggressive foreign policy has proven equally insufficient to protect Scandinavian countries from radicalisation and Islamism.
It’s important to highlight that Greece has yet not reached the point which has proven problematic for so many countries. The radical call seems to be finding a fertile ground particularly among young people (predominantly second-generation immigrants and converts, rather than first-generation immigrants striving for economic benefits), who may be, as all youth, looking for a sense of belonging and a strong identity or who may be seeking ways to rebel. The reasons why national identity and state institutions are proving insufficient to cover such needs, and why religion, especially in its radical interpretations, is filling this gap goes well beyond the scope of this article and is too complex to analyse briefly. However, Muslim communities in Greece comprise predominantly first-generation immigrants, looking for a better economic future. Therefore, It remains to be seen whether Greece, despite evidence to the contrary so far, will prove prepared to manage constructively its newly acquired ethnic and religious heterogeneity and manage to protect its youth, in the coming years from the sirens of radicalism.
Another important exacerbating factor is that, unlike other countries in the post-World War II era and the 1980s, Greece is entering the debate in an already polarised global environment and with significant time pressure for effective policy decisions. Tensions are high internationally, the time to build confidence is practically non-existent, biases are prevalent and there is no luxury to experiment or engage in any kind of public debate.
I would argue however, that there is one noteworthy distinction between the Greek experience and that of other countries. Radical Islam draws its appeal partly from its portrayal as the resistance ideology and rhetoric of our times. As Olivier Roy has implied, to a rebel, radical Islam provides a cause. Interestingly though, Greece has a long tradition of social and political activism and, to the extreme, even social and political violence. In other words, ‘rebels’ have plenty of ‘causes’ to choose from and to a great extent, there is no apparent gap for a religious radical ideology to fill. The sphere and debate on resistance have already been claimed and are currently dominated by other elements, rhetorics and ideologies, thus making it more difficult, although far from impossible, for religious radicals and their message to recruit sympathizers.
Despite the few reassuring factors, Greece cannot assume any kind of immunity to Muslim radicalisation and Islamism, which seem to be persisting globally and expanding their grip. No country can deem itself immune in an era of polarisation combined with globalised and decentralised communication networks, where the inflammatory rhetoric and material have proven capable of enabling not only the radicalisation process but also terrorist mobilisation. The radical rhetoric remains recognisable, appealing, offers absolutes in a time of overwhelming uncertainty, solidarity and a sense of belonging. The appeal of the global islamist message is a force to be reckoned with and should not be underestimated. The international experience, even in the cases of countries viewed as the most unlikely to be affected by this phenomenon, has amply demonstrated the urgent need for preventive and multi-disciplinary policies, if one does not wish to face the severe challenges and threats of Muslim radicalism.