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From the Hamburg Cell to Paris 2015: The Resurgence of Fear

It seems as if fear has once again taken precedent over logic in the European psyche following a terrorist attack on French soil. Eerily present are the similarities in French President Francois Hollande’s public speeches in the days after the Paris terrorist attacks and those of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel following the discovery of the “Hamburg Cell” after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 writes Andrew Chrismer.

The resurgence of violence in Western Europe over the past six months has also reopened the door to public fear about Muslims. Just last week, this was partly reflected in Front National’s regional increases, and conservative American Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s fear mongering language targeted at Muslims.

However, this return to fear within the public discourse, hastily calling for swift action on the part of governments, is following the same patterns that failed U.S. and German policymakers following 9/11. Before jumping into action, U.S. and European leaders must look to the history books for clues, so as to not repeat the post-9/11 policies that further marginalized Muslim communities, infringed on civil rights, and led to mistrust, community separation, and most importantly, perpetuated fear and illogical action by law enforcement.

As policymakers begin to take action, they must keep at close attention the policy failures of sweeping Muslim community surveillance carried out in many western countries following 9/11. For France, policymakers need only to look to their German neighbors to see what not to do in this situation. In November of 2001, a then German CDU leader Angela Merkel gave a compelling speech to the Bundestag on the verge of a major vote on sweeping surveillance legislation, calling on a “new security architecture” to be put in place. Within the new piece of legislation, the law set new boundaries and frameworks for naturalization processes, surveillance tactics, and policing measures of people living under the jurisdiction of the German constitution. Among these measures were new guidelines for immigration and naturalization processes within the federal states, as well as other discriminatory actions targeting Muslims.

Following the passage of the Patriot Act in The United States, the German measure passed in the Bundestag 565 to 40, with 6 abstentions. Massive surveillance of Mosques, Muslim community centers, and neighborhoods ensued in Germany. Police intensified their reliance on identity checks targeting Muslims following the attacks in the U.S. and the discovery that some of the 9/11 terrorists—a group known as the ‘Hamburg cell”—had planned their attack while in Germany. This reality led to law enforcement teams across Germany suspecting Muslim communities of terrorism at unprecedented levels.

Four months after the Tube bombings in London, 500 German police undertook a sweep of shops, Mosques, businesses, homes, and restaurants within the Muslim communities of Frankfurt and other large metropolitan areas. No links to terrorism were found, but over 1000 citizens were interrogated and nearly 40 were arrested, but later released without charge. Digital surveillance has also been a failure and infringement on privacy. Similarly, from late 2001 to early 2003, Germany undertook a massive data mining exercise that trawled through the sensitive personal data of 8.3 million people on the basis of a broad profile that relied primarily on religion and ethnic origin—without finding a single terrorist.

There is also growing evidence that right-wing extremism is on the rise in several major cities throughout Germany, the United States, and France. And already we can witness growing fear and Islamophobia flaring up in France much at as it did following 9/11 in Germany and the United States. Juxtaposed with Marine Le Pen’s recent indictment on charges of inciting racial hatred against Muslims, right-wing anti-Muslim populism is increasing steadily in France, the party gaining significant ground in the recent regional French elections. A new Pew Study cites 27 percent of French citizens now have a negative view of Islam. Fear after the Charlie Hebdo attacks have ushered in new right-wing fanaticism in many French regions, and the limits of tolerance, it seems, are again being questioned.

Politics of fear in our societies is giving way to logic, again legitimating policies that end up targeting and marginalizing Muslim communities at-large. As France decides how to proceed in countering violence and extremism, leaders should also understand how Muslim communities were left vulnerable to these sorts of laws in Germany after 9/11. The 2001 German legislation left surveillance discretion up to surveillance officials to identify who was a terrorist, who was a loyal civilian, who was a threat, and who was an extremist. This left the power, in many ways, up to perceptions. All this did was incite more public distrust, anxiety, and fear.

Regarding the law, German professor Martin Kutscha argued that “[w]ithout considering the prohibition of disproportionate measures, the bill [implemented] what appeared technically possible, instead of examining what is suitable and necessary…the state of emergency [being] made the norm [in Germany].”

When considering France’s options for action, we should once again look at Germany’s decisions in an historical timeframe. This legislation was enacted eight months after 9/11, when Germany was engaged in the NATO strike of Afghanistan, and the media had reported in November 2001 that many of the hijackers on 9/11 were associated with the Hamburg Cell. Fear of a “homegrown terrorist” in Germany made its way into the German psyche, while Chancellor Shröder made sharpening distinctions about the threat of these homegrowns in Germany.

The similarities between the cases of Germany in 2001-2002 and France’s revelation of homegrowns are variables to consider as France develops a plan of action in the coming months. Policies that target real threats based on logic, data, and indiscriminate policing are crucial for the future equity and inclusion of minority groups in France, and getting these tactics right are at the very foundations of a just and liberal response to an unjust and barbaric attack.

Andrew Chrismer currently serves as a program officer for the German Marshall Fund’s Urban and Regional Policy Program – See more at:

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