The Extremist Trap: Don't Sacrifice Civil Rights in Battle against Islamists
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US sacrificed its values and betrayed its civil rights. With a new Islamist threat brewing, Germany must avoid avoid making the same mistakes. Its democracy is strong enough to withstand the threat.
The world of Islamism has long since reached Germany. Salafists are battling Kurds in our city centers; they walk with their Niqab-draped wives in Berlin's Humboldthain park; they collect money for their fellow believers fighting in Syria. They badmouth the country that provides for them but which doesn't make them happy. They dream of a better world: Islamic paradise. Now they know where it is, too. Paradise lies just across the Turkish border. It calls itself Islamic State.
There, these men will allegedly find everything they can't get here in Germany: adventure, regard, a bit of power, maybe women and a reason to live -- even if they have to die for it. Around 500 German Islamists, both immigrants and converts, have thus far traveled to Syria or Iraq to join the jihad. Almost 10 percent of them have been killed. The situation looks similar in other Western countries: Around 900 French, 500 Britons and 100 Americans are now fighting for paradise. Those who survive may one day return home, as brutalized fighting machines.
Experts warn that Islamic State will seek to carry out attacks in Europe, if possible big ones such as those carried out in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. In such an event, the self-proclaimed Islamic State Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could take over leadership of the global jihad movement from al-Qaida. To achieve that aim, systematic recruiting efforts are underway in Germany -- in mosques, on social networks and among friends. German Islamists would no doubt be particularly pleased about an attack here in Germany.
That prospect provides no grounds for fear. Germany can defend itself, as quietly as possible and with all of the measures it has at its disposal.
Not a Path to Follow
We can learn from America's experience. We watched as they kicked off unwinnable wars and sacrificed their values following the deep trauma of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They betrayed their civil rights, they tortured and they destroyed the American ideal of justice with the establishment of the extra-legal prison camp in Guantanamo.
Among terrorists' strategic goals is the unmasking of a state's alleged evil side, which they purport to be fighting. This is the exactly the trap into which US President George W. Bush and his government stumbled. The US of today is not safer as a result -- it is poorer. Liberal America, which was long a beacon for democracies around the world, including Germany's, no longer exists. It is not a path we should follow.
What, then, should be done? Preventative detention for suspects? Marks on personal identification documents? Expatriation for extremists? All of those ideas are already under consideration. But most of them aren't necessary. German laws don't have to be strengthened; they are strong enough as it is. Our democracy is better fortified than many Islamists believe, despite their view that Germany is soft.
Passports have been confiscated to prevent extremists from leaving the country -- over 30 of them thus far. It would also be legal to invalidate the German passports of those with dual citizenship who lied in their citizenship applications. The same is true for those who join the army of foreign states. Still, such an honor would be too much for the so-called Islamic State. We should demonstrate that we can deal with German extremists ourselves instead of pushing them out of the country.
Up the Pressure
It is not easy to reach these men, but it is possible. Jihad groups are not unlike sects. Their followers live in their own worlds with inflexible structures and their own values and hierarchies.
The errors made in the integration of immigrants over the last 40 years cannot be quickly corrected. But there are plenty of tools still available. Programs to help those who want to get out of the scene are always helpful. And experience has shown that it is extremely effective when those who have turned their backs on Islamism confront Salafists in mosques with the realities of jihad -- with death, disfigurement, a life of suffering that often ends in prison, the anti-paradise.
The rest is social work. And pressure. Intelligence agencies monitor the scene closely to see who is traveling where and with whom they are connected. In no way is it just luck that Germany has not yet been the victim of a large attack. It is possible, and desirable, to exert even more pressure, within the legal framework. One reform, however, would be helpful: That of marking the passports of jihadists to make it more difficult for them to travel to Syria via Turkey.
This is not intended to be an all-clear. There is very little evidence supporting the idea that Germany will continue to be spared a terrorist attack. Nevertheless, we should not sacrifice our liberalism. Democracy can -- and must -- withstand such threats.
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