TCS Daily

Lessons in Bilbao: Be Careful When Courting 'Moderates'

By Josi Marma - July 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Bilbao is an industrial city in the north of Spain. It is set in a valley, through which runs a river that skirts the Bay of Biscay. The oldest part of the city is made up of narrow streets, various Gothic churches, the odd Neo-Classical building and four or five-storey buildings raised in the late 19th century. It is a picturesque and evocative neighborhood, one that should attract new residents and tourists with a taste for culture.

Instead, the area is dominated by radicals. There are Basque Nationalist flags everywhere, whilst the names of the streets are rubbed out with spray and the walls of the buildings are covered in hate-inspired graffiti. Many of the individuals who frequent the area wear the uniform of anti-globalization, replete with neo-punk touches: an aggressive and militantly fringe aesthetic. Old needles can often be found on the streets.

Bilbao is not a poor city. It was an important port at one time. It has a long industrial tradition and continues to be a key centre for business. Today it is well-known for its Guggenheim Museum, although the collection at the traditional Fine Arts Museum, financed by a wealthy, cultivated and somewhat snobbish middle-class, is much better. In the past, the same middle-class residents have also afforded themselves the luxury of an opera season featuring the best singers in the world, including Maria Callas in her day.

The state of the old quarter of Bilbao is based on an age-old social problem, urban deterioration, which is quite typical of the older parts of cities. However, there is an added problem: the neighborhood's inhabitants who survive on the fringes of society are linked with the radical networks that support the terrorist group known as ETA.

Bilbao's problem, in other words, relates to the link between terrorism and democracy. Many political leaders seem to believe that once a democratic régime has been set up in a country, terrorism tends to dissipate. This is not the case. The recent attacks in London prove as much, as does the long history of IRA terrorism. We can find terrorism in Thailand, in India and in Russia. In Spain, it has been going on for almost 40 years. We might question the maturity of democracy in Spain or the quality of democracy in Russia. But nobody could question the nature of democracy in Great Britain. Whatever the case may be, all these countries are fundamentally democratic.

Whether inspired by Islamic or nationalist sentiment, the doctrine that serves to justify terrorism compromises the believer's very identity. The individual's whole life, his entire activity, is determined by this doctrine. Islamism or nationalism become the only thing that give meaning to existence. In this respect, any atrocity can be justified, even suicide for a cause. Everything else is quite simply irrelevant.

Extremist groups are supported and sustained by a larger group, made up of members whose devotion sways between feelings of fear, subjected as they are to the blackmail of violence, and sympathy. The sympathy is stronger than is usually admitted. This section of the population identifies itself with the terrorists, and although it may condemn the barbaric nature of terrorist attacks, it is willing to pardon the perpetrators and to shelter and protect them. After all, they are their own, "the boys", as moderate nationalists call ETA's terrorists.

Finally, this group enjoys social representation, one that is very often political, one that is active and tolerated. The group benefits from regional policies, from multicultural attitudes and representation in the country's institutions. This is how it achieves respectability, legitimacy and, very often, public funding. It can gain access to subsidies, since virtually all countries grant public funds to parties that achieve electoral success. And these funds can end up partly financing terrorism.

This does not mean that we should not promote democracy, especially in "rogue" states that tend to support international terrorism. But we should not be under any illusions with regard to "moderate" Islamists or nationalists. Neither should we ignore democracy's difficulty in channeling and moderating extremist ideas and movements. The victory of free society over terrorism is by no means guaranteed.


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