‘ISIS has declared war on Europe!’, ‘If this is not war, what is it then?’, etc. Yes, my friends, ISIS has declared war on Europe; however, it did not happen yesterday, but over a year ago. Europe simply did not want to believe it. Now it is starting to. Whereas I myself, while serious about making such a statement at the time, am rather doubtful now. This is not a war – not in terms of the number of victims nor the scale of military operations. It was just what it was: a coordinated terrorist attack. And it needs to be fought against not by military means, but by intensifying the anti-terrorism fight.
There are two things not to be done now.
Firstly, panicking. The actions in response must be balanced, thought through, fast, and merciless. I would refer to how George W. Bush acted when terrorists destroyed the twin towers. While liberals suddenly forgot all their liberal ideas and required bloody revenge on Muslims or who really knows on whom (Al Gore, who lost the presidential elections by a thin margin, called for using nuclear weapons when it wasn’t even known who should be the target yet), Bush rushed to meet local Muslims to calm them down and did not hurry the response actions until the circumstances became more or less exactly known.
Secondly, we should not rake over the coals, such as: ‘It’s our (e.g. or their own) fault’, ‘We interfered with their business (e.g. kicked the hornet’s nest)’. While this is simply not true, such an attitude is very harmful psychologically: we are not guilty of these events in any way, just as the attendees of the concert or the football match in Paris weren’t.
If we delve into the depths of history, then the key issue that radical Islam cannot forgive isn’t interference in Syria or Iraq, but the crusades (should Estonians organise ‘justified terror attacks’ on Germany based on this logic?). Islamists demand their lands back, and these do not only include Israel, but also a large part of the Balkans and Al-Andalus (understood not just as Andalusia, but the whole Iberian peninsula). The discussion of historic bills in the context of Paris terror acts would be totally inappropriate.
A few more things should be warned against. Firstly, Islamophobia. Muslims are among the victims of this terror act. The absolute majority of Muslims are, in fact, peace-loving and dignified people. They must not be insulted or excluded. A marginalised Muslim community is a potential nursery for radicals.
Really, I would like to bring it to attention that a larger part of the Islamists’ victims are Muslims themselves, and that in the European Union, which is a secular structure, representatives of all religions and ethnic groups must feel equally safe. Currently, it is the Muslim people who are the most vulnerable.
There are over a billion Muslims living in the world, and only the tiniest few of them are radicals and terrorists. However, there is a serious problem with Islam and terrorism. Namely, Islam is a total religion (NB: not totalitarian! What I mean is that Islam is not just a faith, but also a legal, social, dietary, etc. system that regulates everything from what is appropriate to wear to, for example, the rules for composing music and writing poetry), but it does not have a centre (This holds particularly true for the Sunnis who form the absolute majority of Muslims).
One or another Islamic religious leader may condemn terrorism, but they always find a spiritual leader among some sheikh, imam, or mullah – when one side claims that Islam is peace-loving, the other side responds that it is exactly to securing the peace that non-believers have to be eliminated.
There is one thing that the global Muslim community (umma) has not done in connection to terrorism – the announcement of an authoritative fatwa. Well, the Muslim leaders of India declared a fatwa against ISIS, but for the terrorists rooted in Iraq, Syria, and Europe its authority is close to zero. It is noteworthy that the two most authoritative spiritual centres for the Sunni Muslims – Al-Azhar University in Cairo (known as the Muslim fraternity’s alma mater) and Islamic University in Medinah – are remaining silent. Both have issued rather vague messages that can be interpreted as being in favour of terrorism. I think that declaring the authoritative opinion of these spiritual centres would benefit the global Muslim community.
Update: The most important thing has slipped my mind, so to say. Terrorism aims to spread fear. However, there is no single reason for us to follow terrorists and become really afraid of them. Let them be afraid!
Mihhail Lotman is a member of the Semiotics Research Group at the University of Tartu and Professor of Semiotics and Literary Theory at Tallinn University. In Tartu, Lotman also teaches in the international master’s programme in semiotics.
The Estonian version of this post originally appeared on Mihhail Lotman’s blog.