Understanding Radicalisation: Expert Interview with Dr Mark Sedgwick 18 November 2014
Dr. Sedgwick is currently an associate professor of Arab history, culture and society in the Department of the Study of Religion, and program manager for Arab and Islamic Studies, at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. He has published widely, including a number of works on al-Qaeda, radicalisation and extremism.
What is radicalisation?
Well, the basic question is – does it exist?
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.
Which of course puts a large question mark over the way the media and politicians talk about preventing radicalisation?
It does indeed. I think there are all sorts of things going on behind that discourse, and that discourse often gets different things confused. The whole question of integration is often confused with the question of radicalisation. Yet actually, one of the key things behind this discourse is pure wishful thinking. It would be really nice if there was a single, simple, process that could be identified and prevented; sadly, there isn’t.
What are the alternative ways of understanding acts of terrorism?
Radicalisation is a new idea. No one had heard about it 12 years ago or so, but there are other things that we’ve all known for many years.
One of them is that if you have a political conflict, you have to analyse it as a political conflict and look for political solutions. This is true whether one is talking about domestic terrorism or what is happening in Iraq.
Why is the so-called Islamic State doing what it is doing? Why is it succeeding? Well, there are political explanations, as the US government understood when it recognised initially that the Iraqi government had been proceeding in the wrong direction. And in order to defeat the Islamic State, there was a need for political change. In that sense, they recognised a political solution was required for this political problem, and without this political solution, other things were not going to happen. That is one thing – just do basic, old fashioned, political analysis – what is actually going on here?
Many would say modern terrorism is a religious problem, or a religious issue, that needs a religious solution.
That is a fashionable view, but I think it is fundamentally wrong. Primarily, I don’t think it is religious terrorism that we are seeing. Very few things in life are purely religious – we know from centuries of the study of religion that there are other things going on behind religion.
The Reformation did not happen because people had a religious idea, it happened because of long and deep-seated issues. Certainly there is a religious element in this, but it is not caused by religion.
But the idea that it is a theological problem is an idea that has supporters, and I’m slightly worried to say Tony Blair was one of them. It is strange that someone in such an important position can be so naïve.
The world doesn’t work like that. Yes, there are sometimes religious elements, religious identities, and religious discourse, but primarily, terrorism is a political activity. All forms of terrorism are a political activity; all forms of terrorism are fundamentally political. There may be political ideologies involved, national identities involved, and religious rhetoric involved, but fundamentally it is a political activity.
You’ve written about the use of the term radicalisation in the improper context – I believe you talked about the security agenda, the foreign policy agenda and the integration agenda. Could you elaborate?
In government, different people are interested in different objectives, and they all come together under the heading of radicalisation because everyone can agree radicalisation is a bad thing.
Yet what different people understand as radicalisation is not only different, but at times contradictory.
For example, if a country has an ally who has a problem with a particular group, the country would want to combat that group, in terms of foreign policy. So Britain has a good relationship with Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood, and so the Egyptians, the Saudis and a few Gulf guys, say to Britain, ‘could you help us in our struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood?’ And so we have this astonishing working group, and a report which is investigating the Muslim Brotherhood with no cause.
It is incredible because we have a foreign policy imperative to recognise the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat, and that makes sense if my concern is my relationship with Saudi Arabia. If my concern however, is domestic radicalisation, I certainly don’t want to proscribe the Muslim Brotherhood – they are the moderates. We would want to include them in the political process, not exclude them, because that radicalises them (as one definition of ‘radical’ is to be outside the political process).
That is one nice example of how different agendas can compete and contradict one another.
And you also get the idea that if somebody is being un-British, that this is somehow a threat to the security of the state. Yet this is logic more appropriate for Stalin than for a liberal democracy.
For more on radicalisation, read Dr Matthew Francis’ interview.
This interview was from Issue 8 of On Religion. Subscribe to our hardcopy magazine and get more articles like this for just £19 annual: –