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Europe after the Terror Attacks in Paris – A Socio-Ethical Reflection

Europe after the Terror Attacks in Paris – A Socio-Ethical Reflection

Marianne Heimbach-Steins

Not only Europe, but the whole world was shattered by the terror attacks of January 7th in Paris. Some commentators identified them as the European 9/11. Terrorists trained by “Islamic state” or “Al Queda in Yemen” had attacked the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”  killing twelve people; a day later a second attack was directed against a Jewish supermarket with again several victims among civilians and policemen. The young terrorists were French citizens radicalized under Islamist influence.

Since the attacks the atmosphere has changed in our societies. A huge wave of solidarity with the victims swept over France. The victims were, first and foremost, those who had been killed, the surviving journalists and cartoonists of the magazine, but also French society in general, which had suffered a severe attack against its integrity and security. The political leaders and the public in France, in Europe and from other parts of the world re-affirmed the ‘republican’ values of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. They demonstrated a broad alliance to defend these values and treasures of modern civilization – symbolized by the picture of the European leaders marching together in Paris which were broadcast around the world.

At the same time deep ruptures divide the population, and forces of intolerance and hatred against the “others” among us are experienced more aggressively than before. In France, there have been many instances in which Muslims and their institutions as well as Jews and Jewish places have been attacked and damaged. The French nationalist right wing party “Front National” did not join the broad alliance of solidarity.  Indeed it was not wanted as a participant by other political forces, although the President of State had made efforts to integrate all political forces in the national alliance of solidarity. In Germany the recent movement “Pegida” (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident), which is deeply influenced by right wing, nationalist (and partly national-socialist) ideas, loudly nourishes the widespread resentment against Muslims, migrants, asylum-seekers and non-citizens in general. Whereas their weekly demonstrations in some German cities (namely in Dresden in the east of the country) attracted thousands of people, after the Paris attacks a much stronger opposition against intolerance appeared and performed protest marches in several cities, including Berlin and Cologne. In Munster one of our students of theology spontaneously initiated a demonstration for tolerance and solidarity which attracted 10,000 participants.

What is at stake in this heated social atmosphere? There are, I think, at least three major issues challenging our societies in general as well as theological ethics: (1) the potential of religion for peace and social cohesion, (2) the need for social and cultural inclusion within immigrant societies, and (3) the deepening gap between winners and victims of the neo-capitalist global economy which seems to be the most explosive charge threatening peace and prosperity in our interconnected world.

(1) The Paris terrorists claimed a religious legitimization for their deeds. By referring to Islam (they claimed “revenge” for the prophet Muhammad) they did great harm to all Muslims, discrediting their religion. To protect Muslim communities in European countries many voices quickly stated that the attacks had ‘nothing at all to do with Islam’. Even though any attempt to legitimize terror by reference to religion is an unjustifiable misuse of whatever religious belief, in my opinion others rightly pointed to the violent potential within religious (not only Muslim) traditions rather than simply deny any possible connection between religion and violence. The status of religion in our societies is deeply questioned – not only after this experience of terror. Many of our contemporaries doubt about religion in general, and specifically about Islam: Is it compatible with a modern, liberal, democratic, human rights-based society? Is a religion that claims an absolute truth capable of tolerance and recognition of the ‘Other’? Should religion as a relic of the ‘dark medieval age’ not rather be totally erased from modern society? Those generalized doubts about the potential of religion to peaceful coexistence can often be heard these days. But those who speak out in this way nourish anti-religious intolerance and push an ideological secularism which is different from the fundamental creed of the secular state as institutional framework of a pluralist society. What our societies urgently need is a climate of open discussion about religion(s) and the potential of religious beliefs as sources of orientation, identity, engagement and solidarity, but also of ideological misuse and seduction. The religious communities and the churches need to realize more clearly their own role and responsibility to participate in the public discourse.

(2) Since Islam in Europe is mainly an immigrant religion the popular resentment against Muslims is mixed up with hostility against “strangers”, migrants, asylum seekers. This nourishes an aggressive opposition against everything and everybody suspected of threatening ‘our’ security, wealth and the collective identity of ‘our’ society. There is a huge lack of awareness and a lot of suspicion without real fundament, namely about the impact of immigration on the social systems in Germany. Unfortunately political actors sometimes reinforce these wrong notions and use them in a populist manner for their own interests. In Germany anti-migrant and anti-Islamic resentments are cultivated mainly in those regional, social and cultural contexts where people do not actually meet and know “real” migrants and do not often meet Muslim co-citizens. There is an urgent need to cultivate mutual recognition in terms of different religious beliefs or world views, of ethnic and cultural belonging and of the right to have a place where one can feel at home. Social disparities as well as cultural divisions must not be ignored or underestimated. The institutions of education, but also the social systems are highly challenged as means of integration and participation for all citizens. What is at stake is the societal potential of inclusion as such and the strategies to identify and to solve open as well as hidden conflicts between the diverse groups living more or less close together. 

(3) The recent developments have brought to light a dangerous potential of intolerance and hostility. These dynamics point to deeper problems of a more and more disparate and divided society. Muslims, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are made scapegoats. What drives many people to anxiety, fear of insecurity and doubt about their future perspectives comes from other sources. There is a feeling of powerlessness and of being exposed to economic forces threatening the stability of one’s life and of the social systems expected to continuously guarantee a certain status of social security, income and quality of life. Even without clearly analyzing the dynamics of neocapitalist global economy many people realize that it threatens the cohesion of our societies as well as the cohesion of Europe as a political and economic unit (not to speak of the global centrifugal forces). The creation of a climate of openness for welcoming people from abroad, refugees from the Middle East and migrants from Africa seeking humane conditions of living in Europe is not an easy task in this atmosphere. No doubt it is a major political issue.

The discipline of Christian ethics with its universalist approach of love, solidarity and justice, based on the gospel of Christ and on the image of all human beings as children of the same Father is deeply called to reflection and to action. The discretion of spirits is required to analyze the complex challenges and to clarify the contextual shape of the option for the poor and a practical solidarity with those who are threatened and needy in order to nourish a visible presence in the public domain in favor of a clear vision of a truly inclusive society.


Marianne Heimbach-Steins is professor of Christian Social Sciences / Christian Social Ethics at the University of Munster/Germany.