If right-wing pundits are to be believed, the recent tragic bombing of the Manchester Arena and this weekend's attack in London represent the latest episodes in a distinct form of violence previously unknown to Europe. The idea that terrorism is new to Europe overlooks a number of facts, not least that the very word was invented in France—terrorisme being associated with the Jacobins coming to power and the French State's subsequent Reign of Terror in the 1790s.
Rather than terrorism being new to Europe, the opposite is true. As the colonial histories of the British in Kenya, the Belgians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the French in Algeria demonstrate, few things are more European than acts of violence aimed at civilians, designed to stoke fear and panic that they could leverage for social control.
On Fox News, Tucker Carlson warned his viewers, "If you care about America you won't let it become Europe," bizarrely implying that mass violence against citizens is unknown on United States soil; Carlson then claimed that, outside of the isolated examples of Northern Ireland, Italy, and the Basque Country, terrorism was new to Europe. Carlson went on to blame "multiculturalism" and demographic shifts (code words for Islam and Muslims) as the root causes for the recent horrific events. Echoing Carlson, the Daily Mail also blamed "mass immigration" under Tony Blair and the "Leftist doctrine of multiculturalism" that allegedly resulted in violent migrant communities "cut off from our values and traditions."
Human movement and cultural exchange have been defining features of English life since at least the days of Empire.
This view of the so-called "death of Europe"—the end of Western civilization at the hands of invading Muslim hordes—is being propagated across the political right with increasing frequency, often bridging the (blurry) line between overt white nationalists and supposedly more respectable and serious right-wing commentators. After the Nice attacks in July of last year, Newt Gingrich declared: "Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be: Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported." (Gingrich has apparently forgotten that a person can be American, "Western," and Muslim all at the same time.) The Spectator's Douglas Murray echoed the standard Islamophobic position among the right-wing commentariat, that Islam is incompatible with the non-violent Enlightenment values of the West, and argued emphatically that "Islam is not a peaceful religion," adding: "The world would be an infinitely safer place if the historical Mohammed had behaved more like Buddha or Jesus." In his latest book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identify, Islam, Murray goes as far as to imply that, unless it "ejects" what he calls "the new migrants," Europe will effectively be committing civilizational suicide.
Factually, what Carlson asserted about terrorism is simply not true. Just about every major European country has experienced political acts of violent struggle, especially during the 1960s and '70s, such as the attacks carried out by the Red Army faction in Germany and right-wing groups such as Organisation Armée Secrète in France. Europe presently has a number of white nationalist groups that have produced terrorists such as Anders Behring Breivik, who single-handedly killed 77 people in July of 2011 in Norway. Like Carlson, Gingrich, Murray, and the Daily Mail, Breivik blamed Islam, multiculturalism, and political correctness for undermining Western civilization and for posing an existential threat to Europe, which he imagined as naturally white and Christian.
England, of course, has experienced terrorism for decades as a result of the so-called "Troubles" stemming from the colonial occupation and political partition of Ireland. Indeed one of Manchester's major shopping malls, the Arndale Center, which is less than a mile from the Manchester Arena, was itself bombed by the Irish Republican Army in June of 1996. The IRA placed explosives in a lorry in what was the biggest bomb detonated in Britain since World War II, injuring over 200 people.
The English even have a day dedicated to religious-based terrorism and "home-grown bombers," called Bonfire Night. Each November in England, people light bonfires and fireworks across the nation to mark Guy Fawkes' attempted assassination of King James I during the opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605. At the time, Fawkes and his co-conspirators were fighting for the rights of Catholics not to be persecuted by Protestants. Even before the film V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes had become a revolutionary anti-hero; now, Guy Fawkes masks are worn by radical activists and protestors across the globe.
The selective historical amnesia that casts the horrific acts in Manchester and London as without European precedent is directly connected to the widespread refusal to acknowledge the broader context of the current moment of violence. Britain’s colonial past and recent military interventions into Afghanistan and Iraq, and latterly Libya and to some extent Syria too, alongside the documented forms of torture and murder of civilians by British forces in recent times, provides a better starting point for asking why such attacks have taken place than the contested arguments over whether or not Islam is inherently prone to violence. As the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn put it recently, while it is wrong to suggest that such terrorist attacks can be "reduced to foreign policy decisions alone," Corbyn correctly pointed to "the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home." Military interventions in the Middle East, deep-seated Islamophobia in the West, and self-serving foreign policies did not force these young men to commit mass murder in the name of Islam, but no analysis as to how such attacks might be stopped can ignore these geo-political facts if it wants to be taken seriously.
Yet, despite the hyperbolic language from many in the media, England is no more "reeling" now than it was for most of the 1970s and '80s, when the threat of IRA bombings was a feature of everyday life. We need to push back against the false history of a violence-free Europe that existed before "the Muslims" arrived; Muslims, of course, have been Europeans for centuries, and Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was a British-born citizen, not an immigrant—much like nearly all the men involved in similar atrocities in recent years.
It needs to be stated emphatically that multiculturalism and migration are not new to England; rather, such human movement and cultural exchange have been defining features of English life since at least the days of Empire. The quintessential English cup of tea, we should remember, is itself created from the fusion of tea leaves from India and sweetened by sugarcane from the fields of the Caribbean. As Edward Said once said, "Who in Britain or France can draw a clear circle around British London or French Paris that would exclude the impact of India and Algeria upon those two imperial cities?"
Two days after the Manchester bombing Manchester United won the Europa League final. The successful multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith team, cheered on by Mancuians of all backgrounds, represented the true spirit of Manchester and of England. It was the Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the black French player Paul Pogba who scored the winning goals for United. After Pogba declared: "We won for them, the people in Manchester. We played for the country, for England, Manchester, and the people who died." That same defiant spirit born of tragic experience in having to deal with terrorism over many decades—to "Keep Calm and Carry on," say—is in abundant evidence right now, as Londoners defend the true cosmopolitan values of their city in a multicultural England.
If we truly wish to honor the lives lost to terrorist violence, we have to challenge the misplaced ideas that national cultures are monolithic and autonomous entities, that we are witnessing a clash of civilizations, that terrorism is new to Europe—these are urgent tasks if we are stop the cycle of destructive violence.