Explaining violent extremism

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Thirteen years into the ‘War on Terror’, and confusion still reigns about the roots of radicalisation.

The horrors visited on the streets on Paris on January 7 are the latest entry in the tragic catalogue of violence committed by Islamist extremists in Western countries since 9/11. Like 9/11, the 2004 Madrid bombings, and the 2005 Tube attacks, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket have re-ignited a cluster of deep and divisive arguments that have become entrenched over the past decade or so. What is the place of Muslim minorities in European societies? What are the limits (or non-limits) of free speech? Is there a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the free West?

Yet another profoundly important question seems to have been lost in all the commentary over the past few weeks: what drives people to commit such extreme violence? The answers that have been given have been as polarised as they are unhelpful. Francois Hollande — like Barack Obama talking about Islamic State or David Cameron talking about the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby — repeated the refrain that these acts had “nothing to do with Islam”.

On a strict reading this is absurd: Islamist ideology, as the name implies, draws on the resources of Islam to justify its political program. (I say ‘strict reading’ because it’s possible to interpret this claim as simplified shorthand for “The beliefs and acts of these Muslims are not representative of the global community of Muslims, or mainstream interpretations of Islam”.)

Islamist terrorism undeniably has something, and an important something, to do with Islam. Douglas Murray, writing in the Spectator, says that the “nothing to do with Islam” line is not merely a strategic simplification, but an outright a lie, one that political leaders knowingly peddle to the public, if for noble reasons: to distance the acts and ideas of a tiny percentage of Muslims from the other 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet.

Murray, in line with many others, argues instead that what happened in Paris “has everything to do with Islam”. In his Spectator essay, he expands on what this means: “the violence of the Islamists is, truthfully, only to do with Islam: the worst version of Islam, certainly, but Islam nonetheless” [emphasis added].

The implication, for Murray, is clear: if we fail to recognise that beliefs inculcated by the worst version of Islam are the principal cause of Islamist violence, we’ll never be able to tackle the threat of global jihad.

The force of this argument depends on the theory of radicalisation it endorses — namely, that people pick up bad beliefs from Islam (or some particularly virulent strain of Islam), then go out and kill people. Is there anywhere we can turn to find out whether the theory of radicalisation advocated by Murray has any merit?

Yes, there is. There are many academics who study radicalisation, and their theories and findings can be found in the articles and books they publish. It’s worth consulting and citing them if you’re going to make bold statements about the roots of Islamist extremism.

Although there’s no academic consensu¬s on what leads to radicalisation, most distinguish two faces of radicalisation. There’s ‘cognitive radicalisation’, or the process of acquiring extreme, possibly violent, beliefs; and then there’s ‘behavioural radicalisation’, the process of becoming someone who will actually carry out violence or terrorist attacks.

Behaviourally radicalised individuals or groups obviously pose a clear and present danger. What about cognitive radicals? How are these two aspects of radicalisation connected? Is cognitive radicalisation always necessary as a first step towards behavioural radicalisation – and if not, what other pathways are there to behavioural radicalisation? Is cognitive radicalisation sufficient to create behavioural radicalisation – and if not, what else, beyond belief-based factors, tips people over into behavioural radicalisation?

In a 2013 review of theories about radicalisation, Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, wrote:

No serious academic argues that all—or even most—cognitive extremists will go on to embrace violence. The notion of a ‘unidirectional relationship’ between beliefs and terrorism may exist in the minds of some right-wing bloggers, but it has never gained traction among members of the scholarly community. None of the widely used models and theories of radicalization suggest that beliefs or ideologies are the sole influence on or explanation for why people turn to terrorism.

Yet this is the precisely the model implied by Murray when he says “the violence of the Islamists is, truthfully, only to do with Islam”. Murray is far from alone in holding this view. Jerry Coyne, the well-known evolutionist and foe of Islam, has said of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, “it’s almost impossible to pin the murders on anything but blind adherence to religious faith”. Talking about Islamist violence more broadly, Sam Harris, another high-profile critic of Islam, has written:

Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? …. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about ideas and their consequences … Now can we honestly talk about the link between belief and behavior?

If there’s any doubt what Harris think the link between belief and behaviour is, he makes it clear in The End of Faith:

As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are the member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels — and flying a plane into a building is scarcely more than a matter of being asked to do it.

There’s zero empirical, scientific support for this grand assertion (talk about having an honest conversation about the link between belief and behaviour!), which runs counter to everything that experts say.

There is also an obvious numbers problem here. Writers such as Murray and Harris estimate, on the basis of various polls, that a minimum of 15–20% of Muslims globally accept an Islamist or Jihadi ideology — making for somewhere between 240 million and 320 million cognitive extremists. A report published in July 2014 by the RAND Corporation estimated that there were 100,000 Jihadists active at the time — a terrifying number — but even if we assume that there are twice as many, that translates into just 0.06–0.08% of cognitive radicals becoming behavioural extremists.

If Harris is right — that “as a man believes, so he will act”, and “certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder” — why aren’t the millions of people who hold extreme beliefs going round killing people? As Charles Kurzman puts it, where are “the missing martyrs”? Is it really that they simply haven’t been asked to carry out an act of terrorism, or just lack the means to launch one themselves?

Nothing I’ve said is meant to imply that beliefs, especially of the religious variety, are not important parts of the story of radicalisation — Islamists and Jihadists, after all, follow a religiously infused political ideology. “Simply put, what makes some individuals resort to political violence while others do not is, in many cases, impossible to understand without looking at the ideological assumptions which they have come to accept and believe in”, writes Neumann.

Yet as Neumann qualifies, “This is not to say that ideology is always the principal reason for people joining terrorist groups, nor does it imply that every single participant in any of those waves has been ‘deeply ideological’.”

When radicalisation researchers do talk about beliefs and ideology, even in the context of Islamsist terrorism, they do not restrict themselves to religion; they include political beliefs, historical narratives of victimhood, contemporary grievances, and much else. They’re certainly not just talking about Coyne’s “blind adherence to religious faith”.

As their clear words spell out, Murray, Harris and Coyne do not have much time for components of cognitive radicalism beyond religion (and they scarcely ever talk about behavioural radicalisation, except to rightfully express outrage at its consequences). As Murray said on the BBC’s Daily Politics show the day after the Charlie Hebdo shootings:

There are a whole set of excuses which at times like this people put into the mouths of terrorists …saying it’s something to do with segregationalism or lack of integration in French society, it’s about the banlieues, they don’t like the suburb they live in so they go into a newspaper office and gun down journalists, people who say it’s about the foreign policy. They’re giving these people excuses they didn’t ask for. It can’t be stressed enough: the people who do this do not do it just for the things we would like them to have done it for … They did it because they want to enforce Islamic blasphemy laws on the free West.

Never mind that the terrorists in question did in fact cite some of these non-religious factors; Murray’s message couldn’t be clearer: these murders were carried out because the killers were cognitively radicalised with beliefs about blasphemy from a deranged version of Islam. And that’s it. It might be a gratifyingly simple explanation, but it’s also profoundly simple-minded — as much so as the narrative that the Islamists themselves cling to.

Neumann argues that “a sophisticated approach would aim to understand why certain belief systems resonate with certain populations, and—correspondingly— what combination of factors explains their lack of resonance and decline.” There’s little sign of this sophistication among today’s most prominent critics of Islam.

Sam Harris is certainly right in one respect: the time for an honest conversation about the link between belief and behaviour is long overdue. So, which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that explaining radicalism, extremism, and Islamist terrorism demands more than simply saying “it’s only to do with Islam”?

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About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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One Response to Explaining violent extremism

  1. ero says:

    Thank you for this knowledge.

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