The attacks in Brussels last week not only refocused attention on the long reach of ISIS but also raised serious questions about the future of Europe. Both Belgium and France have been accused of insufficient intelligence sharing and incompetence or neglect when it comes to integrating ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, the number of refugees coming into Europe keeps increasing, and the political situation in several countries is growing more favorable to the far right.
To discuss these issues, I spoke by phone with Ian Buruma, a longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books and an expert on European history and culture. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War. We discussed different approaches to integrating immigrants into Western societies, the allure of extremism among youths, and why there is no strong liberal voice in Europe. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chotiner: Did anything surprise you about the events of the past week?
Buruma: The way I see it is that there is a revolutionary movement in the Middle East, which is obviously older and goes back to the colonial period, but I think became more acute in the second half of the 20th century. It was, to some extent, a violent, revolutionary movement against secular police states, because that’s what most countries in the Middle East are. The strategy began to change, and the West became a direct target. The West, of course, was always associated with the corruption of the secular elites against which the religious rebellion was aimed. Once that began to happen, the strategy seemed fairly clear, whether it’s al-Qaida or ISIS, which is to escalate the violence to provoke extreme reactions and, by doing that, to gain more recruits. I think that was the strategy in Paris, and it was the strategy in Brussels.
Now, what’s so lethal about this, and that’s obviously helped by the nature of modern communications and media, is that a problem that originated in the Middle East and in India and Pakistan has created a ready-made revolutionary cause for kids in the West who really have nothing to do with the politics of the Middle East. The kids in Brussels or Paris or Amsterdam or Birmingham who join these movements do not do so in the first place because they have very strong feelings about the Palestinian issue or about Islam itself. They do it because they have their own problems, which are very much to do with their role in European society.
Let’s talk about European society. You just wrote a long piece about Brussels for the New York Review of Books. Are you surprised that this happened in Belgium, or were there reasons to think it was especially likely to happen there?
I think one shouldn’t be too deterministic about these things. It already has happened in Spain and Britain and France and Poland and so on. But there are particular problems in Belgium. First of all, there’s a very large concentration of immigrant communities, particularly in Brussels, who tend to be rather neglected. I don’t think that there is a huge amount of effort—official effort—to integrate them, to make sure that there are jobs, to strengthen opportunities and education and so on. I think there are intelligence failures, because the police intelligence organizations are so badly organized, and that’s because of the politics of the country, which is very divided. As I wrote, Brussels has 19 municipalities and there’s very little communication between Dutch-speaking authorities and French-speaking authorities and so on.
We’ve read a lot in regard to France and other places about the way Muslim communities are integrated or not integrated. Is there a specific way you think that plays out in Belgium?
There are differences between France and Belgium and Britain and their models of integration. In France, as you know, there is a strong sense that everybody is a citizen, and in public, no distinctions should be made, which is all very fine on paper, but it doesn’t help if you have to take care of particular minorities in a society. Belgium doesn’t really have that. The official attitude in Brussels can really be summed up as benign neglect. I don’t think that there’s more discrimination there than anywhere else, but I think there is no real effort to try and integrate minorities.
One of the things that you read about France is that they have this idea of French-ness, this conception of French identity, and you wonder how that’s different in a country where, as you say, there isn’t a cohesive identity.
That’s true, but I think the whole problem of identity is easy to overrate as a factor. Some of the least integrated communities in Europe, and indeed in the United States, are also the least problematic. We don’t hear about people erupting in serious violence from Chinatown, and people in Chinatowns in European cities are even less integrated into the mainstream culture than even most Africans are.
For example, the Turkish immigrants, whose history is very similar to that of the North Africans, tend to be much less of a problem in terms of radicalization. It’s not because they’re more integrated; it’s because they are better organized and crime in the Turkish communities tends to be more like the Mafia in that they’re highly structured and organized, whereas people from villages in North Africa don’t have that kind of organized society in the West. It’s much more fractured. The authority of family is probably much less pronounced. You have a lot of young men hanging around with nothing to do, no job prospects, looking for a way to give some kind of meaning to their lives, and that can, in the end, lead to very fast radicalization and extreme violence. In some ways, ISIS is their form of joining a gang.
Do these attacks change the way you conceive of the European future?
I think it’s difficult to talk about Europe, because I think there are different models in different parts of Europe, and there isn’t one European model of immigration or anything else. That’s one of the problems as far as security is concerned, and of course, it’s very much linked at the moment to the refugee problem. These are problems that cannot really be solved on a national basis. There has to be some kind of European response, and that is becoming more and more difficult, because of the rise of populism and nationalism and a strong anti-EU sentiment.
There seem to be a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about Europe right now.
I’m very pessimistic. I see a lot of these problems as global, because I don’t think that the rise of Trump is unrelated to the rise of populism in Europe. There is a wave of populism, an anti-elitism, that goes with anxiety about globalization, about many of the things that were taken to be desirable by the elites as a sort of given for many decades after World War II. The European project is one of those things. The people who are fanning anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments on the whole would also be very anti-EU because it’s all, to them, part of the same sort of elitism that believes in internationalism and globalization and free market economy and so on. It can come from the right, it can come from the left, but at the moment, it’s coming from the right more strongly.
Why is it so strong right now?
I don’t think it’s specific for right now, but I think it’s been growing certainly since the 1990s. One of the things that has happened is that the left has lost its voice. There was a strong consensus in Europe behind a form of social democracy, which the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats pretty much agreed on. It was strong partly because of the Cold War, that the capitalist world needed a strong social countermodel to the communist world. I think with the end of the Soviet Union, a lot of that began to collapse very quickly—partly because everything that was left was associated somehow with the collapse of the communist world and partly because that need to have a persuasive countermodel, a social countermodel, was no longer deemed to be so necessary.
That’s why Thomas Piketty’s book was so popular. It seemed suddenly somebody had some idea, but the left has become very impotent. A lot of the anti-EU nationalists’ anti-immigrant sentiment now has free play because the counterbalance in the past would have come from Social Democratic left, and they’re silent.
That raises the question of how the left should deal with these questions of terrorism and refugees, and find its own voice.
I think Angela Merkel, in some ways, is probably the most effective leftist politician in Europe, even though she’s a Christian Democrat, and so nominally more conservative.
And the woman who caused a lot of misery in Greece, but go on.
Yes, indeed so. I think the strongest argument in her favor, in my view, would be that yes, it will be tough to integrate a million-plus refugees from places like Syria. But the alternative to letting them in—not simply opening the border, but letting them in a controlled fashion, and making sure they can find work as quickly as possible, and so find a place in Western society—is to have them fester in huge refugee camps for decades and decades, whether they’re in Turkey or in Greece, or wherever they may be, which is an absolute recipe for future extremism. Because, if any place is conducive to gang warfare in a political as well as a criminal sense, it’s a teeming refugee camp with a generation of young people with nowhere to go.
That’s a very strong practical argument. Is there also a moral case that needs to be made on these issues?
Yes, there’s a moral one as well. One of the problems with these discussions in Europe is that people don’t really differentiate very clearly between economic migrants and refugees, and people escaping from Aleppo are clearly refugees. I think there is a humanistic case to be made to help refugees, whether they were Jews in the 1930s or Syrians today. Refugees are desperate. There is, I think, a very good moral case to be made that they should be helped as much as one could possibly do. Refugees need to be helped.