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.

EDL Bradford

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.

anjem choudary

‘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.


  1. Really useful article.

    It cuts off the top branch of the tree of ‘Islamophobia’ (a word that I dislike), or anti-Muslim prejudice – that, in the UK, Islam itself is the cause of terrorism (by Muslims).

    I’d be interested to hear your views on other related issues:

    In the UK, do Muslims generally approve/disapprove of headline issues such as death for apostasy, ‘sharia law’, FGM, strongly anti-equality ideas such as veiling, ‘honor’ violence etc? That is, is the mainstream version of Islam in the UK generally ‘moderate’ progressive and compatible with a secular society?

    In the UK, is it the case that a a large ‘moderate’ population is allowing the socio-religio-political agenda to be set by a much smaller ‘conservative’ wing (i.e. the MCB)? Is there any grass roots movement combatting this tendency?

    Is Islam itself a primary cause of terrorism outside the UK. E.g. Iraq, India, 9/11 etc?

    Pakistan is an example of a country where a highly ‘aggressive’ form of Islam seems to have taken hold of the majority of the population (i.e. 63% of the population support death for apostasy). Why should I not base my assesment of the Islamic faith on Pakistan?

    I agree with your stated postions on a number of issues such as the need for a secular society and a fully secular education system; the belief that the model of ‘multiculturalism’ in the UK has led to ghettoisation rather than integration and other related issues.

    As an atheist I find all religions equally wrong in their view of reality, however not all equally dangerous in their contemporary teachings.

    I am struggling to find a line between ‘Islamophobia’ (criticism of the religion) and ‘Muslimophobia’ i.e racism.

    My problem is that I do not see a majority of Muslims speaking out against certain views (such as those above) which are taken to be those of Muslims in general.

    Now, in one sense this could be very much ‘my problem’, in that I am not paying attention to the right sources and am therefore missing the loud ‘progressive’ Muslim voices. But if that is the case then I would say that it shows that the voices are not loud enough.

    (I have heard this week of a Muslim march in solidarity with the family of Lee Rigby, which is a good example of what is needed. I believe that it was very small).

    We saw this week that Anjem Choudhary was on Newsnight (which is probably a bad editorial decision). Is there not a ‘moderate’ group who can say to the BBC, “Listen to us! We have (some large percentage) of support in the British Muslim Community which is 10/20/50 times greater than Choudhary.”

    In fact I have just found a survey by Policy Exchange which say that 74% of young Muslims believe that women should choose to wear the veil. (

    I don’t know whether this particular survey is any good, however the figure is shocking and once again leaves me struggling to adopt a generally favourable attitude towards Muslims in Britain.

    • Felix, the answers to the questions you ask would probably be the stuff of half a dozen posts ☺, so let me briefly deal with just one – the question of Muslim responses.

      The response of Muslims to most social issues – from women’s roles to religious schools – are as diverse as those in any community. A recent Pew global survey of Muslim attitudes was fascinating for the national diversity it revealed. On the question of the veil, for instance, the figures for those who thought women varied from 92% in Bosnia and 90% in Turkey down to 30% in Nigeria and 29% in DRC. Muslims in most countries surveyed say that a wife should always obey her husband. But I am not sure that the figure would be very different among non-Muslims in those countries either. In other words, in both these issues, it is not just Islam but the national and cultural context that is important. We should also be wary of imputing too much meaning into polls such as the Policy Exchange one you quote. A recent poll suggested that the majority of Britons thought Islam incompatible with the ‘British of way life’. That does not mean that anti-Muslim hostility is sweeping Britain.

      It is true that Anjem Choudhary is forever on our TV screens. This is not because he represents any more than a handful of people, or because there is no moderate figures that disagree (though many refuse to debate him on the grounds that it only affords him more publicity; a misguided, though understandable, stance in my view). Rather it is, bizarrely, seen as good media. At the same time, as I have argued many times, the multicultural viewpoint has helped elevate the most reactionary figures to being the ‘authentic’ voice of a community. This has inevitably shaped perceptions within Muslim communities too.

  2. Rune Bjerke

    “What Islamism provides to those drawn to it is not religion in any old-fashioned sense, but identity, recognition and meaning.”

    I feel that there is one thing missing from this list, though: it gives them a JUSTIFICATION for their actions – one that is coming from the highest authority there is (as they would see it). This factor is what makes this really scary and potent, as it says “put any qualms you may have aside, for this is more important”.

    Some of the core texts of the Qur’an also contributes to the mix; verses like the ones about those who die for the cause of the religion is more or less guaranteed a ticket to Heaven. (And, of course, all the other verses of swordwaving and warmongering)

    This provides both for an ‘enzyme’ and ‘catalyst’ for the mixture of factors bubbling in the glass: desperation, identity, psychological unstability and all these things would probably not be enough for this mix to explode or become dangerously potent alone, but add a droplet of religious justification or promises of Heaven, and you have something that is hard to control and ignore.

  3. I can’t, don’t, and won’t ever blame them for their disenchantment with western supremacist mentality, hypocrisy, ideals and religions. I may not agree with some of their methods, but my heart goes out to them in their frustration and rage, all the same.

    I find it difficult to sympathize with arguments that they somehow need to be ‘controlled’, ‘handled’, ‘persuaded’ or otherwise coerced and merged into our western way of living, thinking, doing and being (squishy, global consumerism puppets who couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag if their lives depended on it).

    That they refuse to be swallowed up by the filth that mostly represents western values and politics, is worth applauding.

    “Extreme ideas”, I can empathize with, too, in this sick, sick, world where there’s precious little but token ‘change’ and lip service, where one nation so desperately crawls up the arse of another for fear of economic retribution that they so readily sell out their own culture and traditions.

    But perhaps that’s just my own distant, disenfranchised roots talking.

    Still, the question begs to be asked: exactly who was it who died and made the West god of All Things Right and Proper?

  4. Aloevera

    Interesting essay: modern disaffection/non-belonging–combined with the “contagion” of certain friendships/social interactions–leads to “angry identity” and for some–resorting to terrorism.

    I detect the thinking of writer/scholar Olivier Roy here.

    But, there is another whole domain of sociological/anthropological study focused on the way growing awareness and discontent regarding personal positioning and fulfillment of needs play out to make for a contemporary sense of “selfhood”. There have many writings touching on this stage (but ever developing) sense of selfhood–such as Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (1991) or Liah Greenfeld’s Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (2013)–(not all of which I agree with)–but I think this general angle is an important one–often missed or not even visible to many commentators–in the quest for understanding the phenomenon of terrorism.

  5. HelpfulPedant

    Very interesting and useful piece.

    One part I’m struggling with tho’ is the notion that ‘identity politics’ equates to ‘viewing the world through a cultural or ethnic lens’. Surely this is dependent upon what form this identity taks? It rather begs the question, as far as I can see – why is political identity becoming more cultural / ethnic? You seem to apportion some of the blame on this on ‘multicultural policies’ but it isn’t apparent to me how you arrived at your conclusion.

    • Kenan Malik

      One way to think about this is that 30 years ago the key faultlines in the world were ideological. Today they are defined primarily in terms of culture, ethnicity or faith. Why? Partly because movements for social change, from national liberation movements to social democratic parties, have disintegrated, or abandoned their original vision. People have become disenchanted with the very idea of social transformation. As a result they have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. When people think of social solidarity, they do so less in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – than in terms of cultural or ethnic belongingness. The politics of ideology, in other words, has given way to the politics of identity. Multiculturalism is both an expression of this change and a driver of it. For discussions of multiculturalism, its roots and its consequences, see this, this, this, this and this.

  6. Namab

    Marc Sageman is not describing the same reality most of us recognise. We see people taking a literal and fundamental reading of their holy books, listening to hate filled speeches and even going abroad for jihadi training. This is a far cry from a few friends holding discussions with each other.

    The proposed solutions – banning organizations, closing down madrasas, imposing broadcast bans on those with ‘disgusting views’, pre-censoring online hate speech, increasing state surveillance, might actually work if rigorously applied.

    The main message of this piece of writing seems to be:
    The beheading of a soldier by Islamists is nothing to do with Islam.
    The murder of people on 7/7 by Islamists is nothing to do with Islam..
    All past and future atrocities by Islamists is nothing to do with Islam.

    This article smacks of Islamic Apologetics.

    • Kenan Malik

      For some people, it seems, any attempt to think rationally or clearly about terrorism amounts to Islamic apologetics. The irony is that the proposals you champion would go a long way to creating the kind of illiberal, authoritarian, closed society that Islamists want. Yours is but a mirror image of the Islamist argument.

    • Guy

      You say you’ve seen this. So what have you done about it? If you mean you’ve been told it happens, that is very different to what this post suggests.
      If you think a crackdown on fundamental freedoms is worth it to avoid the infrequent risk of this type of attack then you are giving away a lot for a false sense of security.
      And obviously it’s all the things you have suggested that solved the problems in Ireland, rather than dialogue..

  7. Dan O

    This is a great piece. Thanks!

    I am inclined to agree with the author that radicalization comes from the individual, and this kind of disconnection from larger society can/does occur in all human subpopulations.

    I agree removing hate speech will not “fix” the problem. Unfortunately the only “fix” I see is not a palatable one: Separation of populations.

    We can of course do things to increase or decrease rates that a tiny minority will “go postal” but it seems improbable that we can do anything to dramatically change the human condition on this point. Some humans in every population will “go postal.”

    And one person can kill many, many others if the are thoughtful about it.

    So we have a stark choice. Accept calamities as just a part of modern societies. Or separate groups in ways that limit access…. (as well as limit access within ones own population to weapon-like things)

    NOTE: I am not really arguing that muslims are on average more likely to be radical, I am just saying that when they ARE radical, there is a ready made “story” for them to play the hero in.

    As long as that story is prevalent, mixing Muslims and non-muslims will result in mass deaths — and these mass deaths will be the least preventable since they will come from people that were “ordinary citizens” right before the calamity.

    I don’t actually like the solution I am proposing. I know even this “solution” will not be foolproof. But I can say I do not envy Europe’s percentage of muslims, and I think America’s relative safety (despite its foreign policy making it the largest target of Muslim ire) is simply mathematical isolation from large numbers of would be ideologs.

    politically I am not sure what I am proposing. but I feel we cannot ignore the basic math here:
    ProbabilityOfRadicalization * NumPeopleWithAccess * Effectiveness =

    I think the only numbers we can affect by more than an order of magnitude is the middle one, and maybe the latter one. Human motivation is too complex to “fix”


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