The independent resource on global security

Otherness and the power of exclusion


The recent attacks in Paris reminded European nations of their own vulnerability. In a matter of hours, the City of Lights was thrust into chaos by radical extremists bent on inflicting pain and destruction. That competent public agencies in one of the world’s most secure states were unable to predict the series of deadly civilian assaults is, indeed, terrifying.

On social media, an outpouring of support for those affected revealed solidarity among nations and peoples pained by a common loss: #PorteOutverte, #PrayforParis, #VivelaFrance and tricolour flags adorned Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles. French embassies around the world were flooded with flowers and candles from a grieving global public.

On the national level, however, the tragedy evoked a different kind of response. French President François Hollande declared a national state of emergency and closed the country’s borders. Right-wing politicians across Europe and the US called for similar measures and demanded a re-evaluation of migration and asylum policies.

The threat posed by ISIL and other terrorist groups is real, but the reasons behind their growing numbers in Europe require a much more nuanced response than populist parties would have you think. Unlike in developing countries, where violent extremists exploit legitimate grievances among those suffering from poverty, poor governance and constant insecurity, radicalisation in the West relies heavily on social exclusion.

The appeal of extremism in fragile and conflict-affected countries, though concerning, comes as no surprise to most Europeans. Yet I often hear friends express confusion about how terrorists are able to recruit in countries like Sweden, France and the UK, where people have education, healthcare and human rights. “What more do they want?”

The answer contradicts everything we think our democracies are already achieving: They want to belong. The living standards, human rights and relatively high levels of freedom that Europeans enjoy do not preclude social exclusion.

This is not a rant about racism or privilege, nor is it an examination of counter-terrorism strategies or immigration policy. Rather, without justifying any form of indiscriminate violence, I hope to start a discussion about how exclusion manifests itself in peaceful, tolerant societies and its implications for our collective security.


Social exclusion

Sweden is a peaceful, tolerant country by any standards and, as individuals, I find Swedes to be kind and welcoming. The country’s migration policies are the model of openness and correspond to a strong focus on integration. Yet even in Sweden it takes a long time before immigrants reach the point where they, too, are considered Swedish.

While subjectively less open, France’s institutions strongly uphold the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity that are enshrined in its national motto. The challenge is that, unlike equality and tolerance, social inclusion cannot be legislated. Social inclusion is a cultural process in which identity plays a very strong role.

As individuals, we identify with certain people, places and ideas based on commonalities and experiences. The priority and grouping of racial, religious, linguistic, gender, class and national identities vary in different contexts. Sometimes we assign identities to others based on physical characteristics and social constructs. This (often subconscious) process can be harmful if it’s used to promote ‘otherness’ by pitting identity groups against one another or ascribing greater social value to particular identities.

Migrants, minorities and people with observable disabilities are acutely affected by this kind of covert social exclusion. Otherness is often conveyed via unwanted attention (stares, pointing, whispers) and can therefore be perceived in the absence of individual acts of discrimination. Media portrayal of identity groups and political messaging that embrace negative stereotypes further isolate these groups and can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies wherein the ‘other’ assumes the negative qualities that are projected on him/her.

Violent extremists offer marginalised individuals acceptance, purpose and camaraderie, as well as an opportunity to punish the society that excluded and undervalued them. Though ISIL invokes Islam to confer righteousness to its fighters, any ideology could be misused by extremist groups to legitimize terror tactics.


Security Implications

In the near-term, temporarily pausing refugee flows may reduce the risk of additional terror attacks in Europe by limiting exposure to potential foreign terrorists. It might also make it easier for European nations to respond to refugees flows in the future. 

However, closing national borders and increasing exclusivity in the midst of an intense humanitarian crisis could have devastating long-term effects on European security. Such responses do not differentiate between terrorists and migrants with legitimate asylum claims. Furthermore, the xenophobia and racism that will undoubtly accompany reactive nationalism in the coming months stand to exacerbate radicalisation within Europe. Our political leaders have a responsibility to facilitate public dialogue on complex social processes, security threats and humanitarian crises.



Kate Sullivan was the Programme Coordinator for the Peace and Development Programme.