Europe fertile ground for extremists, experts say

Manipulation of religion for political agendas growing, conference told

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 06:  Women picnic as they celebrate the festival of Eid at Southwark Eid Festival in Burgess Park on July 6, 2016 in London, England. Thousands gathered at Southwark Eid Festival in Burgess Park to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid which marks the end of 30 days of dawn-to-sunset fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.  (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Europeans’ dissatisfaction with a broken traditional political model is being exploited by extremists, creating a distinct new challenge to the continent’s security, the annual Globsec security conference in Bratislava heard on Thursday.

Experts at a discussion titled Fuel to the Fire: Weaponising Islam in Europe, expressed fears that the manipulation of religious teachings for a political agenda had acquired a new force.

States that have been hit by political turmoil have become playgrounds for extremists.

“Islam is not a threat to Europe for very historical reasons. Europe has been living with Islam for 500 years,” said Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for European Perspective and Security in Paris.

The politicisation of Islam “is challenging our cultures”, he said. “What is new is some have a political agenda rather than a cultural or social agenda.”

Another contributor to the panel, Halkano Abdi Wario of Egerton University in Kenya, said what was developing in Europe had been seen in failed states that collapsed into civil war.

“When the state is no longer working well the chances of individuals rising up to instrumentalise Islam is high,” he said.

In recent European elections, far-right parties took more votes than the old centrist left and right movements in France and Italy.

A continent-wide trend of polarisation has emerged. We have the crisis of states not functioning as well as they have,” Mr Abdi Wario said.

That led to a rise in the number of disaffected people in some Muslim communities.

Mr Dupuy said some European governments had quietly welcomed the exodus of Muslim citizens to areas of conflict where ISIS was spreading its territorial footprint in recent years.

That was a miscalculation that avoided tough social adjustments that are needed to heal divisions.

“They were content for people to go and live in a place that was split by violence,” he said.

“A certain number of French citizens did not believe they had access to the same rights of the republic.

“That is what we have to address.”

Mohamed Abdel Rahem, a scholar at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, said European states were victims that had not resisted extremists that used religion as a cloak for violence.

The reality was that the problem lay with impulses to inflict harm.

“People who commit crimes try to justify these crimes by the colour of their religion,” he said. “We do not accept people who under the name of religion decide to commit crimes.”