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If Europe is at war, it’s at war with itself

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at the Grand Mosque in Brussels on Match 25, as Muslims gathered for the first Friday prayers in the wake of the suicide attacks at Brussels airport and a metro station that left 31 people dead and 300 wounded and were claimed by the Islamic State.PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

The idea that somehow terrorist incidents can be prevented by military action is gaining currency even among those who should know better. French President Francois Holland has said his country is at war, and similar statements are being made in the wake of the Brussels bombings. But if Europe is at war, who is the enemy? Virtually all involved with the terrorist attacks on Paris and Brussels were either French- or Belgian-born citizens. If Europe is at war, it is at war with itself. How did this come to pass? Primarily it comes from Europe’s inability to integrate its growing Muslim population, and that’s a problem that has been going on for almost a century.

Beginning in the 1920s, Muslims around the world, almost all of them under the rule of European colonialists, began questioning why Muslim society, which used to be the most advanced in science and literature, had sunk so low. They began looking at the “defiled world around them — wild cities, shocking cultural trends, foreigners with alien ways, subjugation to the outsiders, a world that seems to be perpetually in crisis, young men and women who have strayed from time-honored ways, and have felt the urge to withdraw and some the urge to destroy, ” wrote the late Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins.


Following World War II, the European colonial powers began to give up, or were driven from their empires. At the same time, many felt the need to fill labor shortages. Britons brought in Pakistanis to fill their mill towns. The French brought in many North Africans. Germans, having lost their overseas possessions in 1919, recruited Turks. Often these labor shortages were filled by Muslims from the poorest regions, men and women who would have trouble adjusting to life in Islamabad, Algiers, or Istanbul, let alone Manchester, Paris, or Hamburg.

Soon all of Western Europe began to experience Muslim immigration, in a continent that, unlike America, never saw itself as an immigrant destination. Indeed, from the discovery of the Americas to the end of World War II, about 100 million Europeans poured out of Europe into the Americas, Australia, and beyond. Today that trend is reversed, with immigrants pouring into Europe from former colonies, a phenomenon to which Europe has not adjusted.

Typically, the first generation of immigrants just wants to work hard and get along in a strange land. The second and third generations have cut their ties to the countries from whence their parents and grandparents came, but are not completely accepted by their European hosts. This leads to alienation and sometimes to petty crime. Some find solace in the mosque, and a smaller minority in terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. There they can find that lost sense of belonging and purpose. They are now part of a movement bigger then themselves. And then there is the excitement of belonging to a secret organization, a thrill that links all terrorist organizations, whether they are Muslim or secular.


The problem for Europe is how to absorb a Muslim population that, in some cases, resists absorption. But even some who want to fit in find they cannot. I am haunted by the memory of a Muslim doctor in France who told me: “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. There is no equality, because people of talent coming in don’t have equal opportunity. If you have a North African name, you don’t get the job. There is not much fraternity because if there is no equality how can you be brothers?” And as for liberty, it can’t exist if it means one thing for some and something less for other. War is not going to solve this problem.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and the author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”