Islamist terrorists are taking advantage of Europe’s preoccupation with the coronavirus to regroup
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If the latest wave of European attacks demonstrates the enduring threat of militant Islam, it also raises troubling questions about the resolve of Western democracies to defend themselves.
At a time when almost every Western government is preoccupied with tackling the Covid pandemic, it is perhaps understandable that the threat posed by Islamist-inspired terrorism no longer dominates the agenda. Yet, to judge by the attacks in France and Austria, Islamist fanatics have lost none of their appetite for bringing carnage to European streets.
Despite the disastrous setbacks groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), have suffered in recent years at the hands of the US-led coalition, it is evident that Islamist extremists are taking advantage of the preoccupation with Covid to regroup to maintain their campaign against the West.
And, even though groups like Isil no longer have the ability to seize and control large swathes of territory, as it did during the creation of its short-lived caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it still retains the potential to carry out high-profile attacks on European soil.
Moreover, to judge by the widespread criticism endured by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks in Paris and Nice, there are disturbing signs that the adherents of political Islam are winning the propaganda war.
Mr Macron has been accused of Islamophobia after he launched an uncompromising defence of Samuel Paty, the French schoolteacher who was beheaded last month by a Chechen terrorist for showing his pupils a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
Mr Paty’s primary aim in showing the cartoon was to stimulate a discussion among his pupils about free speech, one of the fundamental pillars of any democracy. It was a controversial choice, given that the cartoon’s original publication in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 prompted an Islamist terror attack, in which 12 people died and 11 were injured. Nevertheless, Mr Macron gave a spirited defence of the schoolteacher, describing him as a “quiet hero” while denouncing the “Islamist separatism” in France that is utterly opposed to the concept of freedom of speech.
Mr Macron deserves credit for his uncompromising defence of Mr Paty. Freedom of speech is, after all, supposed to be one of the basic rights guaranteed by democratic government.
Yet, instead of receiving widespread support for his principled stand, Mr Macron has found himself accused of deliberately stoking tensions with the Muslim world, with France being subjected to a boycott by a number of Muslim states, including Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey. Elsewhere there have been protests in Libya, Pakistan and Iraq, while former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested Muslims had the right “to kill millions of French people”.
For good measure, Islamist militants have responded to Mr Macron’s staunch defence of his country’s values by launching further terror attacks, with a Tunisian asylum seeker accused of killing three people at Nice’s Notre Dame basilica and Islamist terrorists accused of carrying out a series of attacks in Vienna, killing at least four people.
The choice of the Austrian capital for the latest act of terrorism has historical significance, as it was here, in 1683, that the West, in the form of the Holy Roman Empire, inflicted a devastating defeat on the Ottoman Turks, thereby ending the last major Islamic attempt to overrun Europe.
It will require a similar display of resolve on the part of Europe’s major powers if the modern-day forces of Islamist extremism are to be thwarted in their efforts to undermine the underlying principles of Western civilisation, as they have sought to do in the continuing controversy over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
In this context it is important to remember that extreme Islamist groups like Isil, Hamas, Hizbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood are not acting in isolation. They receive government backing from countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Iran which, by providing support and funding to their various proxies, help to sustain the constant campaign against the West and its values.
In striving to uphold basic Western concepts such as freedom of expression, it is vital, therefore, that Western governments pay as much attention to confronting those countries that support the Islamist cause as the fanatics who conduct barbaric acts of terrorism.
Previously France, in common with other European powers such as Britain and Germany, has been disinclined to confront the likes of Turkey, Qatar and Iran over their commitment to the Islamist cause, preferring to maintain a dialogue with them in the hope that they might reform their ways.
Such an equivocal approach is no longer tenable because, as the row with France graphically illustrates, supporters of radical Islam will settle for nothing less than the complete destruction of Western civilisation.