29-year-old Anders Primdahl Vistisen, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Denmark, serves as vice chair of the EP’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is also active in the body’s Special Committee on Terrorism, and the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs.
In his interview with Majalla, Vistisen discussed concerns about radicalization among Europe’s Muslim communities and the potential for new European-Arab partnerships to help address the problem. He explored the factors that have led European policy elites to call for swift normalization of relations with Iran, and the difficulty of fomenting a change in attitude. He also highlighted the distinctive qualities of Danish political identity, and what they bring to bear on the continent’s new challenges post-Brexit.
Q: To what do you ascribe the phenomenon of “foreign fighters” from Europe to the jihadist battlegrounds of the Middle East?
A: I think many of the problems we experience today with radicals and foreign fighters goes back to the days of migration and guest workers in the 1960s and ‘70s, when most Western European countries took in a relatively large number of Muslim migrants. We have not been able to help a large enough proportion of these individuals make a positive contribution to society. Now we’re reaping what we sowed back then, as these guest workers’ marginalization creates a breeding ground for Islamist fundamentalist tendencies within Muslim communities in Europe. So it’s a historical problem for many Western European countries, and up to now, no good solution has been formulated.
Q: How would you go about more effectively enfranchising Muslims on the continent?
A: First of all, we need to be more clear in our own values and expectation for migrants coming to Europe, in that we can see that Europe failed significantly in integrating and assimilating these migrants into our societies. There are two factors: Sometimes there is a lack of willingness to adopt to new cultures, but on other hand we have made it easier in many of our countries to not engage with surrounding societies. Many countries have welfare models, with these migrants not able to hold down a steady job, and now we come to the fourth generation in some countries, and see the same statistical problems in relation to connection to the work force, how many of them are outside the scope of a normal society, the middle class, and a tendency to be overrepresented in crime statistics. All in my view stems from not having done right from the beginning, and now there is a vicious cycle. Certain ethnic groups’ children are even less integrated into the work force than their parents.
I think we also need to be less naive in our approach to the Muslim faith. Certain mosques and individuals have had very free hands in radicalization. We know certain mosques are very well represented in the statistics of where foreign fighters have gone to pray, and where terror cells met and coordinated their efforts. We’ve also been too naive with respect to people’s interpretation of the Muslim faith, and that’s a problem we need to be more aware of. It’s very worrisome, for example, that Islamist extremists can preach in the West in ways they’d never be allowed to do in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and so on. We’re more naive than many of the Muslim countries when it comes to these matters.
Q: Are you in favor of European states’ training or certifying mosque preachers?
A: Unfortunately, many governments are very afraid to go into the training of Imams, because they are vulnerable to the criticism of restricting freedom of religion, or cracking down on minorities. So there is a reluctance to go into this — but it is so necessary. I think there’s inspiration to be drawn from certain Muslim countries. We’ve seen a number of Muslim countries finding models to certify imams and make sure that the teachings are moderate, and I don’t understand why we haven’t taken more of a lesson from these experiences. Before Erdogan we saw for many years, in Turkey, government oversight that ensured that religious fanaticism could not gain ground in Turkey. It was similar in Morocco and some of the other moderate Sunni Arab states. But here in Europe, we have even examples of prison imams — being paid by states in Europe — who have been very active in radicalizing Muslim communities, and some terrorists have been radicalized in prison. So I think this naiveté needs to be addressed.
Q: Have allied Arab and Muslim states been asked to help counter radical teachings on the continent?
A: I have not experienced concrete examples of cooperation between European countries and Arab states in this regard. One thing that makes it difficult also is that there has been an arms race between different Muslim states in funding Muslim cultural centers in mosques all over Europe, which has maybe made them a bit uncritical toward who they are cooperating with. Some are from Sunni Arab states, but also Iran, Turkey, and other countries have engaged in officially funding some European cultural centers and mosques. And there I’d try to convey the message to those states with which we have positive cooperation that they should be very careful when they do this and be sure it’s done in the right atmosphere and in a spirit of cooperation for the Muslims that live in Europe — and that they are enabling integration and not preventing it. So that’s an area where I think we need to have a very close dialogue and maybe also common understandings.
Q: Help us understand why so many European political elites have been warming to Iran so swiftly.
A: What we’re seeing in Europe is a great naivety when it comes to Iran. What we’re seeing certainly in the EU is, we’ve now invited the foreign affairs committee of Iran to come to Brussels, of all things to discuss counter-radicalization — a great paradox. But there’s also a great naiveté when it comes to Iran’s role in Syria, how it comes to influencing the Muslim Brotherhood, and other countries in the region. And I think our allied states in the region can rightfully accuse us of approaching this with naiveté and also with an approach that’s driving away the countries in the region that historically and today are most willing to work with Europe and our interests. So I think Europe is still stuck in “Obama Syndrome” — when he praised the so-called “Arab Spring,” and was uncritical of some of the leading forces in those revolutions. I think the Obama approach to the Mideast from the beginning was a mistake, and Europeans are still stuck in the notion that you can make peace with Iran and normalize relations with Iranians on all political levels. I think this is something that’s a wrong approach to take and can drive away some of our natural allies. … The question is, is Europe willing to change these policies.
Q: What is the mechanism by which European policies toward the Middle East might change?
A: The difficulty is that Europe doesn’t have one foreign policy, even though the EU likes to say so. European states have differing interests. Some are far from the region, while the southern European states are closer. For some, the history of colonial ties influences their political thinking today. Some have very little exposure to the region at all and mostly take a more idealistic political estimation of the situation in the Middle East. What we concretely try to do is balance these voices that are for Iranian government rapprochement, and also try to balance the hostile environment in the EP — a majority from time to time. The EP decided unilaterally to recognize a Palestinian state outside the scope of any agreement between the parties. This process — these acts — are making it very difficult for Europe to act as a neutral and honest broker in the Mideast, as we’re seen by many as being prejudiced in our approach.
But we’re seeing now though that certain countries are becoming more pragmatic. Of course in Europe there’s a great concern toward the migration question, about the need to adopt a more pragmatic approach. And recent developments in Turkey have made it more apparent to the EU, that it needs to address other concerns of traditional friends in the region, and also decide who we want to have as friends in the region. But Europe has a schizophrenic approach to these things. We almost always criticize the human rights situation in Arab countries but almost never the human rights situation in Iran — which makes it difficult for Egyptians, for example, to decode the European approach. I understand that this from an outside perspective looks uncoordinated, but it’s the reality of the situation.
Q: To what extent do European business aspirations factor into policies toward the Middle East and particularly Iran?
A: It’s not my impression that there’s a particularly great interest in trade relations with the Middle East and North Africa to be honest. Of course we’re willing to make partnerships. It oftentimes feels like our trade interests say that we’d like to have open trade with Europe. Of course there’s talk about exploiting the situation with Iraq and Syria — not so much the EP as bilateral relations of European states that have oil interests vis a vis the states in question. Most of the time it’s the other way around, however, where we have a request to open up the European market coming from the region.
In the Iranian case, it’s different, because oftentimes, for countries with which we have normal relations — like, with which we don’t have sanctions — there’s already a certain amount of bilateral trade without a [bilateral] deal. But in the Iranian case, because Iran was under sanctions for so many years, there’s been some pressure from major industries in Europe to try to capitalize on the deal. So in the Iranian case, there’s been different interests also in trying to open up, even as the President of the United States changed to a more critical tone toward Iran. That component is there as well. But I think the majority saw the Iran deal as their opportunity to create history. To go around the world and win Nobel peace prizes. I don’t know any colleague in the foreign affairs committee who doesn’t have his own private peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians, and thinks that their solution is the only solution. I actually think they genuinely believe that they’re creating peace and promoting moderate developments in the Iranian regime, and that they live in that delusion.
Q: Some have observed that shared concern over Iranian expansionism has brought together a new coalition of actors in the Middle East.
A: The only good thing that the Iranian deal achieved was to push together regional states and Israel in a common security interest. That’s the first step toward normalization of ties between regional states and State of Israel. I think we’ve seen — if you look for it, you can see many signs that this approach would happen, and I think the best thing we can do from Europe is not to highlight it too much. We don’t want to push the regional states to confront this change in policy before they feel ready to do so themselves. The only thing we gain from putting an international spotlight on it is to force them to renounce the State of Israel once again, which we don’t have an interest in. So I think it’s a positive development. I think the day there will be peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be the day that the Palestinians understand that there’s no willingness from surrounding states to prolong the situation — that they understand the need to broker some form of realistic peace with Israel. If this rapprochement can continue, it will be a longer term progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The rapprochement we see now is a very good way to do that — cultural and academic exchanges to begin with, opening up more on the business front, and we all know of some talks on the security front, which is very positive. Such developments could have a very good outcome for the entire region, because they could potentially lead to a more realistic renewal of the peace process than we’ve seen for many years.
Q: What distinguishes Danes politically from their European neighbors?
A: The Danes have the fortune to be the Scandinavian gate both to continental Europe and to the British isles. So Danish culture has always had a dual influence: Anglo-Saxon on the one side and continental European on the other. The Danes are a hybrid in the EU, in that they traditionally have been Euro-skeptical together with the Brits, but at the same time, we have of course a very Scandinavian outlook, which is something we’re quite proud of. The only good story to tell from our occupation during WWII was the survival of the Danish Jews from the Holocaust. So that put us in a different situation than most of our European neighbors. Q: How does the duality you described effect Danish perspectives on Brexit?
A: We were linked together with the Brits in 1973: an attempt to bring in the UK and Denmark and Norway together through the EFTA [European Free Trade Association] union we had. We always had them as an ally in many key questions — federalism, lower budgets — a lot of key developing things in the EU have always brought Danish and British governments together to a certain extent. I think Danes are unhappy to see the Brits go. I think Danes understand the British sentiments, but from Danes’ perspective purely it’s a problem. So we want to see as close an alignment between Britain outside the EU at the EU as possible. It’s one of Denmark’s most important trading partners, but also as a security question, Denmark is a very firm major ally and we’re more skeptical of European defensive initiatives than others. We see NATO as the primary security guarantor of Europe, and we feel that this initiative would probably damage the coherence of NATO, and it’s a paradox for us that countries that spend too little on defense now want to duplicate their efforts in two different directions instead of living up to NATO obligations. France and Germany in particular have always been reluctant partners in NATO strategies, and for us it’s just a natural way for these countries to assert themselves, and using a very unpopular American president as a stepping stone to do so is of course good political tactics. But we’re very worried that that will be the reasoning behind a European approach — away from the trans-Atlantic bonds that have been there since WWII. And that would be a very unfortunate situation.