Pope Francis with the Sunni Muslim Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyib in May: “Our meeting is the message,” said the Pope (© MAX ROSSI/AFP/Getty Images)
It is not an exaggeration to say that terrorists are waging a global war in which all of us are caught up. It is not just Baghdad, Tunis or Karachi where there are major atrocities but New York, London, Paris and Brussels as well. Nor are we facing only organised militants, who may be recognisable, but “sleeper cells” in European and American cities, “lone wolves” radicalised online and terrorists disguised as refugees.
How is this highly unconventional and diffuse threat to be met? We should be grateful, of course, to our security services, the police and the armed forces for their ceaseless vigilance in keeping us safe; but what else needs to be done? First of all, we need to recognise the global nature of the threat and, therefore, the global means necessary to neutralise it. In some cases, this will involve armed action to prevent genocide or in support of those trying to prevent terrorism on their own soil, knowing that those attacking our friends overseas could soon be attacking us.
We should not, however, underestimate “soft” measures such as helping countries like Pakistan to eliminate the teaching of hate in school textbooks or in deradicalising madrassas through inspections, widening the curriculum, the teaching of other religions with some academic rigour and proper accreditation of the qualifications they offer. As far as the new media is concerned, the extremist narrative must be combated there not only by taking down material from the internet but by providing young people with alternative views of the world. It should go without saying that what is done in and for the wider world can also be most useful here.
The danger in the West comes not only from Islamist extremism but from a fascist backlash that could, at worst, unleash a kind of civil war between different kinds of violent extremism, exactly what groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda want. It could also lead the West to abandon the very values of human dignity, equality and freedom which it should be defending from this new barbarism.
One of the fictions we do need to give up is that of state neutrality and the idea of a public space in which there are only formal rules of debate and decision-making. It is good to know that the British government, at least, now recognises the need for fundamental values. These are not, by the way, just derivatives like democracy, individual freedom, the rule of law and tolerance but values such as the inalienable dignity of the person, equality, freedom and a commitment to truth. They include also awareness of accountability, which is not limited to human tribunals, the importance of deferred gratification for personal development, as well as service to the nation and a sense of vocation, of being called to our work in life and not doing it only for pecuniary reward.