By Shada Islam
The recent massacres in Norway highlight the urgent need for an intelligent, well-informed international debate on the shared challenge of countering violent extremism.
European and Asian governments grappling with different forms of extremist ideologies, including the rising popularity of far-right parties and groups propagating hate and intolerance, can set the ball rolling by using their regular Asia-Europe Meetings (ASEM) to discuss the challenge.
Events in Norway are a powerful reminder that no country is immune from the evil acts of extremists, whether perpetrated by “lone”, unhinged, gunmen such as Anders Behring Breivik or members of Al Qaeda, its affiliates and other terrorist organisations.
The killings in Oslo and Utoya are also a powerful illustration that in an inter-connected and globalised world, where people and ideas move rapidly across borders, no country can tackle extremism on its own. “Almost no week goes by without an act of terrorism taking place somewhere in the world,” says the United Nations.
Equally importantly, Norway’s tragedy should spark a strong global debate on combating rising intolerance and the challenge all countries face in establishing – and maintaining – societies which embrace and encourage diversity and give full freedoms and fundamental rights to minorities.
So far, the focus is on combating cross-border terrorism, with governments working together within the United Nations and on a bilateral level on developing strategies against Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
The United Nations oversees the implementation of the assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo imposed by the Security Council on individuals and entities associated with Al-Qaeda. The International Civil Aviation Organization has set international standards to protect airports and aircraft while the European Union, the World Bank and other organizations have rules to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism.
And last but not least, NATO forces in Afghanistan are fighting Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives while the Alliance’s ships undertake regular anti-terrorist patrols in the Mediterranean.
The EU and the US, among others, are engaged in active discussions on countering radicalization – but the focus inevitably is on “Islamist” groups, especially so-called “home-grown” American and European radicals of Muslim descent (or Muslim converts) who run the risk of being recruited by Al Qaeda.
Such initiatives as well as many similar bilateral actions helped the exchange of counter-terrorism data, intelligence and information. Increasing cooperation among police forces, security services and legal organizations has led to the foiling of many terrorist plots.
International discussions, however, now require a stronger focus on inconvenient truths which are much too often swept under the carpet: the rise in many parts of the world of groups and organizations which fuel hatred and violence on religious, ethnic and cultural grounds.
As Cecilia Malmstrom, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, has said, Breivik’s manifesto “is a product of a very disturbed man, but unfortunately we recognise some of these sentiments in Europe today”.
“I have many times expressed my concern over xenophobic parties who build their unfortunately quite successful rhetoric on negative opinions on Islam and other so called threats against society. This creates a very negative environment, and sadly there are too few leaders today who stand up for diversity and for the importance of having open, democratic, and tolerant societies where everybody is welcome,” she said in a post on her personal blog.
In Europe, Breivik’s actions should be a wake-up call for police forces as regards the growing power of neo-Nazi groups and other far-right, often anti-Muslim and xenophobic organizations which fan the fires of hate and often encourage violent action. Breivik said in his rambling blog that he drew inspiration from Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders who has compared the Koran to “Mein Kampf” and from US extremists.
Asian governments must take stronger action to combat rising ethnic, religious and sectarian violence, discrimination against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups. Groups such as Laskar-e Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harakat ul Mujahedeen, with links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, continue to wreak havoc in Pakistan and India. In South-East Asia meanwhile, governments are grappling with organizations such as Jemaah Islamiah, Abu Sayyaf and Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia.
Asian and European leaders meeting in Beijing in 2008 agreed to “take concerted action to further promote inter-faith understanding and exchanges” – and the 7th ASEM Interfaith Dialogue will be taking place in Manila in October.
The ASEM summit also promised “leadership in working towards building a world where different cultures and civilizations co-exist in harmony, equality and mutual respect”.
Policymakers, religious leaders and scholars from both Asia and Europe hold regular inter-faith discussions in which they underline respect for “values universal to all civilizations such as solidarity, tolerance, recognition of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
The discussion should now move beyond relations between cultures and civilizations to cover what happens within societies and what governments can do at home to promote tolerance of diversity and to counter extremist views, whatever their origin.
ASEM can become a forum for not just an exchange of views but also sharing of best practice information – the strategies that work and those that do not – in building more tolerant societies.
In addition to religious leaders, the debate should be extended to include representatives of media, teachers, minorities, human rights groups and other non-state actors which have a broad societal outreach.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has said his country’s response to the deadly attacks will be to become more democratic and open. Already the inter-faith services held across Norway in response to Breveik’s murderous acts have been an example of how an open society should respond to such issues.
Norway has applied to join ASEM. Even before it does so, ASEM partners can help turn Mr Stoltenberg’s pledge into reality.
Shada Islam is a journalist in Brussels with a long experience of EU-Asia relations. This is a part of a series of articles being published by Ecorys Research and Consulting, as member of the COWI Consortium which is under contract to the European Commission, to look at different aspects of the multi-faceted Asia-Europe relationship. This article represents the views of the author and does not commit the European Commission in any way.