2016 was a fine year for Islamist terrorism and an even finer year for Western political distraction. While Islamic terrorists repeatedly succeeded in carrying out mass-casualty terrorist attacks, as well as a constant run of smaller-scale strikes, the political leadership of the free world continued to try to divert their public.
The most striking example of the year came in the summer with the French debate over whether or not to ban the "burkini" from the beaches of France. The row erupted in the days after another 86 people were murdered in a jihadist terrorist assault -- this time in Nice, France. With no one sure how to prevent access to vehicles or any idea how many French Muslims might want to follow suit, the French media and authorities chose to debate an item of beachwear. The carefully staged decision by an Australian Muslim woman to have herself filmed while wearing a burkini on a French beach ignited the row, which was eagerly seized upon by politicians.
At the local and national level, the decision to discuss the burkini allowed all the larger political issues behind Europe's growing security problem to be ignored. In the wake of Nice, there should have been a fulsome public discussion over what if anything can be done to ensure that people who have been in France for many years -- in some cases their entire lives -- are not indoctrinated to hate the country so much that they drive a truck through a crowded sea-front on Bastille Day. Or there could have been a wide public debate over whether, with so many radicalised Muslims already in France, it was a wise or foolish idea to continue to import large numbers of Muslims into this already simmering situation.
As it was, neither of these debates did occur, and no meaningful political action was taken. Instead, the issue of the burkini sucked all the oxygen out of the debate, leaving no room to discuss anything more serious or longer term than beachwear.
Across the continent in 2016, it appeared that other politicians realised the enormous advantage of such distraction debates. For instance, in the Netherlands in November, the country's MPs voted for a ban on wearing a burka in public places. Prime Minister Mark Rutte apparently found this an enormously convenient debate. Not only did it temporarily reduce some of the pressure that his government is feeling at the rise of Geert Wilders's Freedom Party to the top of opinion polls, but it also distracted attention from the years of mass immigration and lax integration demands which have been a hallmark of the Dutch experience.
After importing hundreds of thousands of people whose beliefs the Dutch authorities rarely bothered to question, the public would be satisfied -- the Rutte government hoped -- if only the small number of Dutch Muslim women who wear the burka were prevented from doing so. The Netherlands will have to see whether its implementation of such a law works any better than it does in neighbouring France, where "white knights" routinely show up to pay the fines of women fined for violating the burka ban there.
The Rutte government was not the only one to adopt this cynical strategy. Its most cynical deployment of all came in December, with the announcement by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, that she would ban the burka in Germany.
As with the Dutch government, Merkel clearly hoped that in throwing this tidbit to the German public she might head off the threat that the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), among others, now poses to her party in this year's election. But the move also raises the question of just how stupid does Angela Merkel believe the German people to be? It would seem that Merkel hopes that with this burka ban the German public will forgive or forget that here is a political leader so devoid of foresight that she unilaterally chose to allow an extra 1-2% of the population to be added to her country in a single year, mainly Muslim, mainly male and mainly young.
This is a Chancellor who, even having previously admitted that Germany's multicultural model had "failed," revved immigration up to unprecedented and unsustainable levels. Now, like her counterparts across the continent, she must hope that the German public are satisfied by this burka morsel and that, as a result, they will return Merkel and her party to power so that they can repeat whichever of their mistakes they choose in the years ahead.
It is possible, of course, that the European publics are wiser than their leaders and that they will see through these cynical and distracting tactics. There are extremely good reasons to ban any garment which covers a person's face and allows them to wander as an anonymous stranger in our societies. There are some -- though fewer -- reasons to ban wearing a burkini on a beach. Certainly the governments of France, the Netherlands and Germany are within their rights to instigate and enforce any and all such bans. Such moves, however, are but the smallest register imaginable of a problem that seems far beyond this generation of politicians.
The burka and burkini, like the headscarf, are only issues because millions of people have been allowed, unchecked, into Europe for years. The garment is merely the simplest issue at which to take aim. Far harder are the issues of immigration and integration. It is possible that Europe's politicians cannot answer these questions because any and all answers would point the finger at their own failings. Or it is possible that they have no answers to the problems with which they have presented the continent. Whichever it is, they would do well to reflect that in 2017, the European publics might get fed up with the distraction tactics of talking about clothing and instead seek answers to the challenge we now face, as well as retribution at the polls for the politicians who brought us here.
Douglas Murray, British author, commentator and public affairs analyst, is based in London, England.