Rethinking Radicalisation 13 May 2015

David CameronThere is a theory popularised by the Quilliam Foundation that becoming a terrorist is like stepping onto a conveyor belt. You start as a normal, friendly and thoroughly non-violent person, and this conveyor belt takes you to varying extremes, until at the end, you emerge a hardened terrorist willing to kill.

Thus you go from a religious person, to a conservative religious person, to a radical religious person until finally becoming a violent radical religious person.

It’s very popular in certain circles, particularly a few offices in Whitehall, and for many it makes a sort of intuitive sense.

Sara Khan, director of counter-extremism organisation Inspire, said on a Panorama aired on Mon 12th January 2015 the following:

“What non-violent extremists are very good at doing is that they take people by the hand, and they take them to the front door, and what they do at the front door is, violent extremists open up at that door.”

It’s a view shared by Adam Deen, founder of the Deen Institute who also appeared on the Panorama documentary, as well as those associated with the Quilliam Foundation, such as Maajid Nawaz. It’s a view that also has popularity with Michael Gove, Theresa May and many others in Parliament, and it forms the basis of their counter-terrorism approach.

I did think for a while the idea had gone out of fashion, and expected it to die a quiet death somewhere. I was clearly wrong, and the Panorama documentary showed me just how prevalent the idea has become. Perhaps most worrying is that Cameron’s outlined plans for cracking down on radicalisation are all based upon this conveyor belt theory, that argues non-violent extremism is the basis of violent extremism.

Here are five basic reasons why non-violent extremism is not the cause of terrorism.

Radicalisation Might Not Even Exist

Radicalisation is a buzzword that, like ‘brainwashing’, shouldn’t be taken at face value. Professor Mark Sedgwick who has spent years researching ‘radicalisation’ and has published on it widely, says the following:

“Clearly, if you take any individual who has committed an act of violence, or an act of terrorism, there was a sequence of events that got them there. So in the case of an individual, clearly, you can trace a path to radicalisation.”

“But the idea that there is a clearly distinguishable process, like falling in love or getting old, that one can label as radicalisation and study and understand, is something I am dubious about.”

Not All Terrorists Are Former Non-Violent Extremists

A leaked Whitehall report into non-violent extremists had the following to say about the conveyor belt theory…

“We do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence … This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.”

Andrew Gilligan, writing on the report (published by The Telegraph in July 2010), noted that…

“The Whitehall documents admit that a “minority” of terrorists have been involved with non-violent extremist groups such as al-Muhajiroun”

So just to stress that last bit, a minority of terrorists were once involved with non-violent extremist groups. This fact alone is enough to bury the conveyor belt hypothesis, write it an obituary, mourn its loss and move on in life.

Terrorists Might Not Even Be Radical

Dr Matthew Francis runs the website, aiming to provide access to academic research on terrorism to a wider audience. He makes the following point…

“There are radicals that aren’t terrorists, but you also have terrorists who are not radical. It is important to make sure that these concepts are divorced. These things can vary, and it is important to separate them.”

What turns people to violence, particularly political violence, is never a straightforward issue, and simplistic narratives can make it even more difficult. Linking “radical” with “violent” might be tempting, but it isn’t supported by the evidence.

Focusing on Ideology Can Ignore More Important Causes

Dr Suraj Lakhani is a researcher into counter-terrorism and extremism, he wrote the following summary on what motivates young people towards violence…

“This is not just about the eternal rewards people mention when talking of “jihad” (though these are extremely important). It is also about those involved with these types of activities feeling special and significant; it is about them tapping into the perception held by certain people that extremism is cool; and it is a chance for them to be able to demonstrate their masculinity and define a distinct identity for themselves. It gives them an escape from their potentially normal and predictable lives.”

Also, while we’re on the topic, here is a quote from his PhD on the conveyor belt theory…

“radicalisation should not be considered as a ‘conveyor belt system’ where once an individual steps onto the ‘conveyor belt of radicalisation’ they will naturally become a terrorist.”

The Theory Threatens Our Civil Liberties

The idea that non-violent extremist views can themselves lead to violence has encouraged the government to decide certain non-violent views should be criminalised. This is dangerous, not just for Muslims, but for all of British society.

Those arguing in favour of the conveyor belt theory are allowing, and in some cases even encouraging, the government to introduce thought-policing. Theresa May’s plans to outlaw non-violent extremists should send a shiver down the spine of any liberty loving individual in this country.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, currently supported by both Labour and Conservative leadership, has been widely condemned as counter-productive and dangerous by leading experts on tackling terrorism, as well civil liberties groups and campaign groups—many of whom coalesced under the banner of “Stop The Bill”.

Few issues are as evocative as violent extremism, and there are few issues where so much is at stake. It means it is more important than ever that our decisions as a nation on the issue are led by evidence and research rather than narrative and rhetoric.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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