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Research uncovers why conventional wisdom on radicalisation fails

The reasons behind radicalisation and violent extremism are far more complicated than politicians and the media are presenting to the public according to new research at the University of Exeter. 

Political scientists at Exeter have examined the causes and effects of violent radicalisation during a two year project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).   

The research focused on North Africans living in the UK, France and Spain.

The findings of the project are to be published in the latest issue of the Chatham House journal, International Affairs.  It shows there has been a  growth in political interest in ‘radicalisation’ in both the UK and US.  But understanding who becomes a terrorist and why they do so is still dominated by unproven assumptions about the relationship between ideas, Islamic theology and violence. The research claims the faulty logic of ‘conventional wisdom’ on radicalisation, which emphasises either Islamism or specific theological orientations as causes of Islamically inspired terrorism, is creating ineffective policy and alienating swathes of British Muslims.

According to the findings in the report, ‘radicalisation’ as a topic is plagued by assumptions about the role of Islam and guesswork over the role of integration and segregation in occurrences of terrorism.  The research found that elements of the media, politicians and academics still revert to stereotypes and generalisations when trying to explain home-grown terrorism in the UK - how a ‘good Muslim or Asian boy’ became a suicide bomber. 
The project assessed the impact of how the legacies of colonial representation and current political, social and economic marginalisation affect perceptions of terrorism and the West.  It examined how Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians living in Europe understand national and religious memories of past injustices. While these are important themes used by those seeking to recruit individuals to participate in terrorist violence, the authors argue that the existence of grievances are not enough to explain why individuals become terrorists.

One of the case studies in the report highlights the differences between two brothers one of whom when on to become a member of the Crevice Cell bombers.  The brothers, of Algerian heritage  got deeply involved in different ways within a particular mosque, but only one became a terrorist.  The case study illustrates the problem of applying simplistic conventional wisdom that suggests a simple combination of extremist ideas and grievance is causing terrorism. This case helps to highlight how each brother reacted differently to these kinds of factors.

The researchers argue that it is only by engaging in a systematic examination of terrorism that the inherent unpredictability of terrorism becomes evident. The report’s findings show that reasons why people get involved in terrorist acts cannot be solely hung on conventional wisdom.  In understanding what is actually causing an individual to participate in high-risk, potentially deadly activity in the name of Islam, or in their eyes to defend Islam against western intervention, it is necessary not to trace group membership or ‘exposure’ to certain ideas, but to understand fundamentally why these ideas gripped the particular individual.
Dr Jonathan Githens-Mazer, lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter explains, ‘While it remains an attractive proposition for politicians and the media to find a silver bullet to end terrorism, those that rely on a simplistic conventional wisdom continue to fail to explain why this terrorism happens.  If identity issues and exposure to extremist ideas are factors in one case, why isn’t this combination causal in all cases?’
He added, ‘It is illogical and dangerous to assume that identity issues and or ideology are causing terrorism in the current era.  Despite the clear failure of  conventional wisdom to explain participation in terrorism, policy makers, the media and some academics keep emphasising causes and rationales that are simply unproven against research. It is time for us to ask: what value does conventional wisdom have in understanding terrorist violence at all?’
Dr Robert Lambert co-author of the research, said ‘It is important to counter the conventional wisdom about radicalisation so that we can more accurately observe the true nature of an existing terrorist threat.  Without a clear definition of the terms and ideas of what we are trying to observe and understand, a ‘we know it when we see it’ approach to understanding radicalisation becomes lackadaisical and promotes stereotyping.’
He added, ‘ It justifies a policy-making and media approach to radicalisation that promotes emotional and politically driven feelings about who poses a security threat over a scientific, empirically derived form of knowledge and understanding about what this threat actually is or is not.’

Date: 6 July 2010

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