I took part last month in a discussion about ‘Contemporary Understandings of Radicalization’ at King’s College, London. Organised by the King’s College War Studies Society and the Remote Control Project, the other speakers were Shiraz Maher and Claire Lauterbach of Privacy International. Here is my introduction.
One of the problems with discussing the concept of radicalization is that it can mean all things to all people. In one sense it simply means ‘the process by which terrorists become terrorists’. But, radicalization, particularly as it is discussed in political and popular discourse, has also come to embody certain ideas about how that process takes place: For instance, that the acceptance of extremist religious ideas is the first step in leading people to violence; that there are certain stages through which people move from belief to terror; that there are certain tell tale signatures of radicalization; and so on.
Most of these assumptions have been questioned in academic research. Counter-terror policy has become more nuanced in recent years. Nevertheless many of these ideas continue to shape much thinking about radicalization and counter-radicalization.
Whether the thesis is simplistic or nuanced, one of the key problems, it seems to me, is that we often look at the issue the wrong way round. We begin with jihadists as they are at the end of their journey – enraged about the West, with a back and white view of Islam, and a distorted moral vision – and often assume that these are the reasons that they have come to be as they are. That is rarely the case.
Few jihadists start off as religious fanatics or as political militants. That is why their journey to Syria, or their involvement in an act of terror, often comes as such a shock to family and friends. Radical Islam, and a hatred of West, is not necessarily what draws individuals into jihadism. It is what comes to define and justify that jihadism.
So, if not religion or politics, what is it? ‘The path to radicalization’, as Tufyal Choudhury put it in his 2007 report on ‘The Role of Muslim Identity Politics in Radicalization’, ‘often involves a search for identity at a moment of crisis… when previous explanations and belief systems are found to be inadequate in explaining an individual’s experience.’
Jihadists, in other words, begin their journey searching for something a lot less definable: identity, meaning, respect. The starting point for the making of a homegrown jihadi is not so much ‘radicalization’ as social disengagement, a sense of estrangement from, resentment of, Western society. It is because they have already rejected mainstream culture, ideas and norms that some Muslims search for an alternative vision of the world.
It is not surprising that many wannabe jihadis are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who discovered their faith only relatively late. In both cases, disenchantment with what else is on offer has led them to the black and white moral code that is Islamism. It is not, in other words, simply a question of being ‘groomed’ or ‘indoctrinated’ but of losing faith in mainstream moral frameworks and searching for an alternative.
Disengagement is, of course, not simply a Muslim issue. There is today widespread disenchantment with the political process, a sense of being politically voiceless, a despair that neither mainstream political parties nor social institutions seem to comprehend their concerns and needs, a rejection of conventional ideals and norms that seem detached from their experiences.
All this has inevitably shaped how young people, and not just of Muslim backgrounds, experience their alienation, and how they are able to act upon it. It is necessary, therefore, to understand both what connects Muslim and non-Muslim disaffection, and what distinguishes them.
In the past, disaffection with the mainstream may have led people to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to labour movement organizations to anti-racist campaigns – that was certainly my story. Such organizations helped both give idealism and social grievance a political form, and a mechanism for turning disaffection into the fuel of social change.
Today, such campaigns and organizations often seem as out of touch as mainstream institutions. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics, as it may have in the past, but the politics of identity. Identity politics has, over the past three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms.
Partly because of these changes, the notion of what it is to be Muslim has also changed. There is much talk of the ‘Muslim community’, of its views, its needs, its aspirations. But the ‘Muslim community’ is a recently-constructed concept. Until the late 1980s, few Muslim immigrants to Britain – indeed to anywhere in Western Europe – thought of themselves as belonging to any such thing as a ‘Muslim community’. One of the problems in much of the discussion of radicalization is, in my view, the lack of a historical perspective.
The first generation of North Africans to France were broadly secular, as were the first generation of Turkish migrants to Germany. The first generation of postwar Muslim immigrants to Britain, largely from the Indian subcontinent, was certainly religious, but wore its faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally, when the ‘Friday feeling’ took them. Faith was not, for them, a public identity. They may have thought of themselves as Punjabis or Bengalis or Sylhettis but rarely as ‘Muslims’.
The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. I was of a generation that was even less likely than the first to think of itself as ‘Muslim’. Nor did those of Hindu or Sikh background think of themselves primarily as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’.
It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s, that the question of cultural and religious differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is, from one perspective, more integrated and ‘Westernised’ than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’.
The reasons for this shift are complex. Partly they lie in the tangled set of social, political and economic changes over the past half century to which I have already alluded – changes that include the retreat of the left, the demise of class politics, the rise of identity politics, the narrowing of the political sphere, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change. Partly they lie in international developments, from the Iranian revolution of 1979 to the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, that played an important role in fostering a more heightened sense of Muslim identity in Europe.
And partly they lie also in the development of public policies, both of multicultural policies, in a country like Britain, and assimilationist policies in France. In the past, when London was seen as the capital of Islamism and of terror groups – ‘Londonistan’ – French politicians and policy makers suggested that Britain faced a particular problem because of its multicultural policies. ‘Assimilationist’ policies, they insisted, avoided divisiveness, allowing every individual to be treated as a citizen, not as a member of a particular racial or cultural group. In the wake of the Paris, and Brussels attacks, it is an argument that no longer holds much water. Now there are many arguing that it is French assimilationism and secular policies that lie at the root of the problem.
In fact, from very different starting points, both kinds of policies have come to foster more fragmented societies and narrower visions of social identity. Both the multicultural notion of a nation as a ‘community of communities’ and the assimilationist approach of looking upon Islam as the ‘Other’ against which French national identity is established, have helped entrench the politics of identity and to accentuate the sense of ‘difference’ that has shaped social relations over the past three decades.
In the past, most Muslims, in Britain or in France, would have regarded their faith as simply one strand in a complex tapestry of self-identity. Many, perhaps most, Muslims still do. But there is a growing number that see themselves as Muslims in an almost tribal sense, for whom the richness of the tapestry of self has given way to an all-encompassing monochrome cloak of faith.
At the same time, most wannabe jihadis are, in many ways, as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from wider Western society. Most detest the mores and traditions of their parents, have little time for mainstream forms of Islam, and cut themselves off from traditional community institutions. Disengaged from both Western societies and Muslim communities, some reach out to Islamism. Many would-be jihadis, Olivier Roy observes, ‘adopt the Salafi version of Islam, because Salafism is both simple to understand (don’ts and do’s)’ and because it is ‘the negation of… the Islam of their parents and of their roots.’
Islam, like all religions, enables jihadists to imagine that they possess divine justification for even the most heinous of acts. At the same time, what Islamism provides is not religion in any old-fashioned sense, but identity, recognition and meaning. Detached from traditional religious institutions and cultures, many adopt a literal reading of the Qur’an and a strict observance of supposedly authentic religious norms to mark themselves out as distinct and provide a collective identity.
And Islam’s role as a global religion allows Islamist identity to be both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world, from Afghanistan to Chechnya to Palestine, and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. And in an age in which broader social movements and anti-imperialist struggles have largely disintegrated, Islamism provides also the illusion of a struggle for a better world.
And in an age in which traditional anti-imperialist movements have faded, and belief in an alternative to capitalism dissolved, Islamism seems to provide the possibility of both an alternative to capitalist society and of a struggle against an immoral system.
Disembedded from social norms, finding their identity within a small group, shaped by black and white ideas and values, driven by a sense that they must act on behalf of all Muslims and in opposition to all enemies of Islam, it becomes easier to commit acts of horror and to view such acts as part of an existential struggle between Islam and the West.
So, finally, what to do about all this? The stark reality is that there are no easy solutions. The problem begins with that of social disengagement and of the kinds of alternatives to which many are now led, of the narrowing of the alternatives that are on offer. Beyond policing and intelligence, at least part of the solution must lie in rebuilding those organizations and movements that once offered progressive alternatives. That may not sound as sexy as ‘counter radicalization’, nor will it be nearly so easy to implement, but it is more likely to have an impact.