‘Us and them’ will only add fuel to the fire

Terrorism requires a collective response and a better understanding of what community is

Hundreds of people come together at the Place de la Bourse In Brussels to mourn victims of the attacks. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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The rise of ISIL in the Middle East and of the current wave of terrorism that has hit the Levant, Europe and North Africa has many causes. Disentangling the threads and finding policy answers requires, as our editorial yesterday argued, careful work and careful words.

Unfortunately, the current search for answers to the Brussels attack has led to rather outlandish comments from some quarters that seeks to blame the Muslim community in Molenbeek for “shielding” the attackers. The problem with this analysis is that it relies on an outdated idea of community.

The idea that groups of people must naturally share social and political lives because of their religion has become prevalent over the past two decades, mainly, though not exclusively, with regard to Muslims. In very general terms, it is an unhelpful fiction. Muslim communities, like other religious communities, are stratified by economics, origin, gender and so on.

More broadly, though, the very notion of community has changed – perhaps in generations past, people might know their neighbours and their neighbourhood well. Today, particularly in large, developed cities, most people barely know their neighbours.

So the idea that those who lived in the same neighbourhood as the bombers might specifically know what they were doing is unlikely, and the idea that they said nothing is offensive.

Yet there is a kernel of truth in the midst of the accusation, because while the neighbours of the attackers most likely knew nothing of their plans, it is possible that others did suspect they were being radicalised. Often those who are radicalised start that journey online or through extreme preachers, and there may have been indirect signs of this – not to the wider community, but perhaps to one or two people they knew well. Crucially, signs and intentions are very different things. But signs could nevertheless prove useful.

This is an incredibly sensitive moment and security services must handle it well. Too firm a response to what is a mere suspicion (or even a malicious accusation) can aggravate the problem. No one will come forward if they believe they may ruin someone’s life with a mistaken accusation.

It is vital that the “us” and “them” mentality does not prevail. Defeating the scourge of terrorism will take careful policing and an understanding that all citizens stand one side, against the attackers.