Is Europe overreacting to terror?

The streets of France have been subdued this summer. Tourism is down. Public events have been canceled or curtailed. Red-bereted paratroopers patrol through crowded streets, assault rifles held at their sides.

The soldiers are unmistakably ready for trouble. Many wear armored gloves in the mid-summer heat, ready to grapple with any knife-wielding attacker. Body armor and webbing pouches are stuffed with ammunition-heavy magazines.

It’s now well over a month since the July 14 Bastille Day truck attack in Nice killed 86 people – and there is a clear sense of relief that Europe has been spared an attack on that scale since. Still, the continent remains distinctly on edge – and in the background, what feels like a never-ending series of smaller attacks unsettle populations and continue to destabilize already messy politics.

Indeed, the last few days have seen alarming signs that the political reaction to the attacks might yet prove more destabilizing than the attacks themselves. No one questions that Europe is under threat. In tempo and scale – and most notably in the number of casualties – the successive attacks over the last 18 months far outstrip anything seen on the European mainland even in the days of France’s long war in Algeria or Germany’s militant outrages of the 1970s. But there is a very real risk of overreaction.

Last week, Muslim women were confronted by armed police on southern French beaches as they enforced a local ban on the full-body “burkini” swimsuit. Local officials have described the garments as showing “allegiance to a terrorist group.”

On alert: Armed French paratroopers patrol a street in Nice July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jean-Pierre Amet
On alert: Armed French paratroopers patrol a street in Nice July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jean-Pierre Amet

Witnesses say several women were issued with on-the-spot fines. Some French beachgoers apparently cheered the police action and shouted “go home” at nearby Muslim migrants.

On Friday, France’s highest court declared the various local burkini bans unconstitutional and illegal. Several local mayors, however, said they would continue enforcing it anyway. The issue now looks set to drag into France’s presidential election next year, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy calling last week for nationwide criminalization of the garment.

In many ways, what happened on the beach at Nice is exactly what groups like Islamic State want – to deepen divisions within society.

Europe’s recent political polarization is about much more than terrorism. It’s about wider popular discontent with the unprecedented levels of migration of the last two decades, of moves to multiculturalism and fear of more change to come.

But it is the visceral fear of attacks – arguably out of all proportion to the risk, even with recent events – that seems to now be really driving the wider backlash.

Much of what France and other European countries have done since recent attacks is eminently sensible. Most have beefed up the size of their emergency response SWAT-style police or paramilitary units, allowing them to flood heavily armed officers to the scene of any Paris-style assault.

France, for example, has scaled up both the number of elite GIGN and RAID counterterrorism units as well as the number of offices and firepower within each individual team. Germany is looking at tweaking legislation to allow military units to back up police for the first time since World War Two.

In Germany, however, government officials have been criticized for a report suggesting householders should stockpile several days’ worth of food and water in the event of some kind of crisis. German authorities are also considering whether the country should re-introduce conscription, abolished in 2011.

Those steps are not just related to the fear of Islamist militant attacks – indeed, the documents in question make it clear they are also a response to worries over potential cyber or “hybrid” attacks, phraseology which seemingly points to worries over Russia.

All of this adds to an ever more febrile environment on social and mainstream media. It increasingly seems to become less relevant whether an attack – such as the gun attack in Munich which killed nine, or last week’s stabbing of an Orthodox Jew in France, or a machete attack on a bus in Brussels – is directly related to a militant group like Islamic State or not. Providing a migrant or someone of migrant descent is involved, it all feeds into the same divisive narrative.

Good intelligence is key to preventing attacks – and that means authorities having good relations and deep contacts with the populations in which militants want to hide. As distrust grows, that may become more difficult.

It’s not entirely a negative picture. Many French Muslims made a point of attending Christian church services as a show of solidarity after the beheading of a local priest in July. The French government is aiming to work with moderate Muslim groups to tackle the growth of what they say are extremist mosques often funded from groups and individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

The social divisions in France, however, predate recent attacks and have been quietly growing for years. France’s 4.7 million Muslims comprise 7.5 percent of the population and often live in distinct and much poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities. Crime is high and policing relatively weak there, despite attempts at changing that in the aftermath of major riots in 2005.

In general, opinion polls suggest citizens in those countries with the largest Muslim populations in Europe – France, Germany and the UK – view Muslim migration less negatively than those countries in Eastern Europe that are home to very few. Even last year’s Paris attack did little to immediately shift those numbers.

This year, however, the constant drumbeat of stories of large and small attacks has begun to have an effect. And while attacks themselves have been carried out by a very small number of people, there is little doubt that popular discontent is often aimed at entire Muslim populations.

A poll in April showed 47 percent of French respondents viewing Islam as “a threat” to national identity, up from 43 percent in 2010. Two-thirds said they felt it was “too visible”. In Germany, where reports of sexual assaults conducted by migrants over New Year’s Eve received hefty media coverage, 43 percent said they viewed Islam as a threat.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. But it may yet prove a self-fulfilling narrative.

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.

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