Arabs and the Berlin attack: One month later

Arab News, January 24th, 2017

  January 24th, 2017

Arabs and the Berlin attack: One month later


On Jan. 19, a 30-day memorial ceremony was held in the German Parliament to reflect on the horrible events of Dec. 19, when a truck was deliberately driven into the Christmas market beside Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, taking the lives of 12 people and leaving 56 wounded.

During the speeches and discussions that took place in the framework of the memorial event in Parliament, and during the many TV interviews, the consequences of the attack appear to be that there is a need for further serious measures to be taken in Germany in order to be sure that such activities will not be repeated.

The need for extra security measures that must be immediately executed in full is rational and clear. Nevertheless, the importance of additional special plans, which need to be put in place in order to avoid this type of tragedy from happening again, is also crucial. It is important to take other special measures in the fields of economics, society and culture.

Security measures that are taken within a country have limited potential as they are appropriate to a certain degree, but when they are applied in too extreme a way they run the risk of changing the nature of the country into a “security state,” and creating significant additional financial burden while posing limitation limitations.

Throughout history, one can easily learn that when countries started to increase their military and security activities, it many times ended up resulting in war or other forms of violent conflict both within and between countries.

The presence of Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, in Europe has grown in recent years to an impressive level, and is predicted to rapidly increase in the coming years. Many have either already become European citizens, or are able to legally stay and work in Europe. The number of refugees and asylum-seekers is also increasing in a way that Europe has never seen before.

Luckily, the security challenge today is not with big groups of Arab Muslims, but with small numbers of individuals within these communities that can be seen as a risk. We need to remember that most Muslim Arabs are not engaged in violent activity, and are fully integrated as constructive parts of European and Western societies.

It is thus important, particularly these days, to keep these communities positively engaged, and not alienate parts of them or go against them. This can be done by taking certain measures and initiatives to come closer to Arab Muslims and build solutions with them.

With this in mind, programs involving elements that can economically benefit those communities, and programs promoting further engagement between the Arab community and Europeans, are now more vital than ever. At the same time, programs that will build bridges between Western and Arab countries are important, and will support state efforts to achieve sustainable calm and security.

These activities will help take the sting out of the deconstructive ideology and narratives that are being promoted by both sides within and outside Europe, calling for segregation as opposed to bridge-building.

The challenge with conducting such programs that are building economic and cultural bridges between groups is primarily financial. Decision-makers often cannot see the immediate benefit or clear result, and so prefer to use their budgets and time on security measures that tend to have clearer definitions and more concrete short-term results.

For example, by initiating a military attack on a city, very often it is possible to acquire control over the city or region. Or by installing sophisticated systems of closed-circuit video cameras across cities such as London, one can prove a greater degree of control over crime and the movement of individuals.

Another challenge in building cultural and economic bridges is that target audiences are very often segments within communities that are not interested to learn about the “other” group or cooperate with them.

For example, within any society or country one can find groups of people that can be considered “city people” and those that can be considered “village people,” groups that are more conservative and those that are more socially sensitive, and groups that are more religious and those that are more secular.

If all these factors, especially the strong heterogeneity of these communities, are not taken into account, it will be more challenging to achieve better results. Despite the challenges in initiating and conducting these programs, the challenges facing a society that does not conduct such programs will be much bigger, as these issues will simply grow and come back to haunt us in even greater ways in the future.

“Cultural diplomacy practices” have a long tradition of using elements of culture in order to build cultural bridges, and should be the first choice of decision-makers and those in positions of power. Now is the time to develop powerful programs and activities to assure greater cultural diplomacy between and within the Arab world and the West.

It is time to engage more people in positions of power in the Arab world and Europe in cultural diplomacy programs. It is time for Western societies to apply cultural diplomacy programs in their communities. Cultural diplomacy is no longer an optional activity to be done on the side, but a high-priority strategic vehicle that must be applied immediately and constantly at every level of our societies.

Mark C. Donfried is director general at the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.