How do we stop young Muslims becoming radicalized? That has been the question posed by many politicians, policy makers, analysts and journalists in the aftermath of the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week. Indeed, it has been the question posed ever since the 7/7 bombings first raised the issue of ‘homegrown’ terrorism.
The idea of ‘radicalization’ as the process by which young Muslims get drawn into jihadist circles has become received wisdom within security forces and among politicians, and not just in Britain. There is a widespread belief that extremist groups or ‘hate preachers’ groom vulnerable Muslims for jihadism, in the way that a trafficking gang might groom young girls for prostitution, by indoctrinating them with extremist ideas. The way to prevent Muslims becoming terrorists, many conclude, is to silence the preachers, proscribe extremist groups and close down Islamist websites. It was not surprising to find that these are precisely the proposals now being considered by Theresa May.
The trouble is that there is little to suggest that ‘radicalisation’ is a useful way of thinking about why a handful of Muslims might become potential terrorists. Marc Sageman is a former CIA operation officer who worked with the Afghan mujahidin in the late 1980s. He is now a forensic psychiatrist and political sociologist and a counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments. Last week, in the wake of the Woolwich murder, he gave an insightful interview to the Huffington Post. ‘The notion that there is any serious process called “radicalsation”’, he argued, ‘is really a mistake. What you have is some young people acquiring some extreme ideas – but it’s a similar process to acquiring any type of ideas. It often begins with discussions with a friend.’
I don’t agree with all that Sagemen has to say. But his is an important voice and his argument about the misunderstanding of ‘radicalisation’ is important. The real starting point for the making of a homegrown jihadi is not ‘radicalisation’ but 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, 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 such as the church or trade unions seem to comprehend their concerns and needs. In the past such disaffection with the mainstream may have led people to join movements for political change, such as anti-racist campaigns or labour movement organizations. Today such campaigns and organizations seem as out of touch as mainstream political parties.
What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics, as it may have in the past, but the politics of identity. Identity politics and multicultural policies have, over the past three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms. A generation ago, today’s ‘radicalised’ Muslims would probably have been far more secular in their outlook, and their radicalism would have expressed itself through political organizations and campaigns. Today they see themselves as Muslims in an almost tribal sense. Such developments have shaped not just Muslim self-perception but that of most social groups and communities. Many within white working communities are often as disengaged as their Muslim peers, and similarly often see their problems not in political terms but rather through the lens of cultural and ethnic identity. Hence the growing hostility to immigration and diversity, and, for a few, the seeming attraction of far right groups. Racist populism and Islamism are both in their different ways expressions of social disengagement in an era of identity politics.
At the same time, there is something distinctive about the identity in which Islamists cloak themselves. For a start, Islam is a global religion. It 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. So, one of the Woolwich killers Michael Adebolajo could, after the murder, rage about British troops attacking ‘our lands’. What linked him to struggles in Afghanistan and Chechnya and Palestine was not a political movement but the cage of identity. The nature of contemporary identity ensured that all ‘Muslim’ lands were his, while Britain was necessarily an alien country. Anti-Muslim hostility only strengthened that perception.
And yet, most homegrown wannabe jihadis possess a peculiar relationship with Islam. They are, in many ways, as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from Western societies. 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. Mohammed Siddique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombers, is a classic case in point. He had rejected his parents’ subcontinental traditions, refused an arranged marriage, and wed instead Hasina Patel, a woman he had met at university. So disgusted was Khan’s family with his love-match that it all but disowned him. Disengaged from both Western societies and Muslim communities, some reach out to Islamism. They rarely arrive at Islamism by attending sermons given by preachers of hate. Rather, such ideas usually percolate through small groups of friends in gyms or youth clubs. Again, the 7/7 bombers are a case in point. It was in a gym that Siddique Khan met with two of the other bombers, Shezad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain to sketch out the plans for the bombings.
‘People focus on the “preacher of hate”’, Marc Sageman observes, ‘but often the discussion is often much more mundane. It’s among people who surround you, who you spend most time with’. The views of would-be jihadis are often acquired ‘on the Internet or in face to face interactions between friends’, rather than in mosques or Islamic centres. There has been much discussion over the past week of Michael Adebolajo’s links to the banned group al-Muhajiroun and to its former leader, Anjem Choudhary. Choudhary has a handful of followers and little relevance but seems also to have a season ticket to appear on programmes such as Newsnight and Channel 4 News. People like Choudhury, Sageman observes, ‘tend not to be implicated in any of the [major] plots or attack’. They are, however, ‘in the business of propaganda and showing that they are important.’ And the radicalisation narrative suits them very well.
What Islamism provides to those drawn to it 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. 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.
Simplistic narratives about ‘radicalisation’ miss the complex roots of homegrown terrorism. The proposed solutions – banning organizations, closing down madrasas, imposing broadcast bans on those with ‘disgusting views’, pre-censoring online hate speech, increasing state surveillance, reviving the Data Communications Bill, or ‘snoopers charter’ – betray our liberties while also helping deepen the sense of alienation and disengagement that has made Islamism attractive to some in the first place. The real issues we need to confront are issues such as the contemporary sense of social disengagement, and not just among Muslims, the corrosion of the institutions of civil society, the lack of a progressive counter-narrative, the collapse of the organizations of the left, and the continual attacks on liberties in the name of security. All this may not be as headline-grabbing as saying ‘Ban the hate preachers!’. But, then, real social change can rarely be reduced to soundbites.