One of the least noticed developments in counterterrorism is at the same time the most important. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, has said that ensuring national security would be at the heart of France’s diplomatic activity and he set eradicating “Islamist terrorism” as his core foreign policy goal. This is remarkable. Not because Macron refers to terrorism as a considerable problem, but because he referred to “Islamism” (the ideology that interprets the religion of Islam as a political programme) as the source of inspiration for contemporary terrorists. This may sound strange, but important political leaders have, up until now, been extremely cautious about the causes of contemporary terrorism. “Cautious” is perhaps not the right word. They have made every effort to be as fuzzy as one can be. Former president Obama spoke of “violent extremism” and within the Obama administration it was a great taboo to talk about the ideas that terrorists themselves refer to as their source of inspiration. In denying all religious inspiration, most political leaders are amateur theologians. They claim to know better what motivates terrorism than the terrorists themselves.
Macron is a huge source of inspiration for me. Since 2010, in my book Het monotheistisch dilemma (the monotheist dilemma), I have tried to analyse the ideas of terrorists. Religion is an important factor. In my newly published book, In Naam van God (“in the name of God”, written together with Dirk Verhofstadt), I defend the thesis that the sort of terrorism we are confronted with nowadays is religious in nature; we call it “theoterrorism”. That does not mean, of course, that terrorists give the right interpretation of their religion, or that all, or even the majority, of religious believers are involved in terrorist acts. But we cannot deny the religious nature of the terrorists’ motives. Theoterrorists really have the idea that they execute the commands of God. That makes the struggle against theoterrorism totally different to all the previous sorts of terrorism we have had to deal with.
Our governments are, unfortunately, not quite successful in coping with theoterrorism. Most governments (supported by most, if not all, terrorism-experts) continue to approach terrorism with the intellectual tools they used in previous confrontations with terrorism. Politicians time and again repeat that terrorists are “extremists” and that their ideas have nothing to do with religion. Because of their flawed analysis of the root causes of the terrorist mind-set, counterterrorism has little effect.
According to my perspective, counterterrorism has to also become cultural. We have to confront the terrorist ideology with a counter-ideology. The central elements of the ideology of theoterrorism (divine command ethics, anarchism, theocracy and martyrdom) have to be analysed and contradicted by the central ideas that support liberal democracy.
Recently, a paradigm shift in the approach of political leaders seems to have taken place. Donald Trump (USA, I did not dare to begin with him, reader, you would not have read further) and Emmanuel Macron (France) openly talk about the religious nature of the new terrorist challenge. What are the chances this paradigm shift will result in a new approach to terrorism? And will this new approach be more promising than the old paradigm? I hope so. And, honestly, I think so.