Understanding Radicalisation: Expert Interview with Dr Matthew Francis 18 November 2014

Matthew FrancisDr Matthew Francis is Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University on the Global Uncertainties: Ideology, Decision-making and Uncertainty project. This includes a number of projects related to terrorism and radicalisation, with a research interest in al-Qaeda, the Red Army Faction, and far-right movements. He also co-ordinates the website RadicalisationResearch.org which presents academic research on radicalisation for a wider non-academic audience.

What is radicalisation?

One of the objections when I suggested the name of the website as radicalisationresearch.org was that many experts argued radicalisation is a poor term, that it is not what our research is saying. My answer to that was that we cannot call a website ‘radicalisation-is-a-problematic-term.com’; no one would look for it. We have to work with what we’ve got.

Radicalisation is a deeply imperfect and flawed concept in terms of how it is used most of the time. But we also have to recognise that newspapers and policy makers do need a shorthand term – they can’t always caveat stuff with footnotes as we do in academia.

Part of the problem with the term radicalisation is that it is conceived of in a simple way. There is a belief that there is something called radicalisation which will explain how somebody went from a cricket-loving boy to a terrorist. In that simplistic sense, it just isn’t true.

So what can radicalisation tell us?

If we talk of radicalisation, it’s important to remember that part of the challenge is that we have such little data – when we talk of terrorists and violent radicals, thankfully there are very few of them. That of course gives us a problem – as social scientists, to develop a good model we need a good size of data. We just don’t have that as it stands.

We can take two people who have similar radical ideas, similar families, similar backgrounds, and similar relative positions in terms of economic deprivation, and yet one will not act violently and one might. It is very difficult for us to find the exact causal processes that might cause radicalisation.

What alternative paradigms are there?

Well one thing is that radical beliefs and radical ideologies and so on, are not the same thing as terrorism. Radicalism is something that can be productive, and in fact, on university campuses I would say that we need more radicalism. It is useful to separate the link between radicalism and terrorism.

When we do that, we might draw on the ideas about pathways into terrorism, rather than causes of radicalisation. Well, what are pathways into terrorism? They are things like familial networks and friendship groups. When we look at people who turn up as foreign fighters in the Middle East, we see they often turn up in clusters. It is much better to try and recruit from very small friendship networks, where everyone trusts each other, because, of course, recruiting is quite a high risk strategy.

Pathways are essentially ‘how people recruit’. This isn’t to say we should abandon the term radicalisation. Rather we should work with the term, but recognise its limits, and perhaps we can move on to something more useful in the future

What role does religion play in this?

The problem of understanding religion and violence is partly the problem of understanding religion as a category. My approach was to recognise the inconsistency of the use of religion, and I went to the idea of ‘the sacred’.

If we talk about the sacred and non-negotiability, we can apply this to both religious and secular ideologies and areas of thought. This allows us to use a consistent category that we can clearly understand and gets around some of the problems associated with religion as a category.

I looked at a number of groups, some of which were involved in terrorism and some of which were radical but not violent, and tried to find what was different, and what prompted the move to violence.

What are the factors that are important in a move to violence?

Key areas were the sense of a basic injustice, a dichotomous world view, and, importantly, the traditions that individuals refer too.

We need to look at pathways into terrorist groups, as well as enabling factors. Things like the internet and modern travel means it is easier for ideas to be exchanged. The internet cannot radicalise; it cannot lead people to terrorism on its own. Good research has shown that ‘self-radicalisation’ via the internet does not exist; there must be face-to-face contact.

Likewise, looking at non-negotiable ideas is not enough. Many people don’t join terrorist groups simply because they are ideologically convinced by some cold argument. They are there for emotional reasons, which include friendship networks, and often the ideology develops after they join the group.

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.

Is radicalisation a religious or a political problem?

There is a suggestion that after 9/11, Blair said he got a Quran to understand terrorism. This quotation may be apocryphal but it illustrates how terrorism can be misunderstood. There is a problem with religious illiteracy amongst policy makers, the media, and the general public. So people assume that “yes, you can read the Quran and understand why people flew planes into the Twin Towers”. This simplistic understanding is that there must be a religious solution to this. The explanations are often far too simple.

After any terrorist attack, there will be a statement from the Muslim Council of Britain, the usual suspects the media will turn to, who will say “Muslims do not support this action” – it does give the impression that this is a religious problem. When we see Christian bombs go off in the US, we do not expect to see someone from the Episcopalian Church have to disassociate themselves from that. When the problem is seen as being to do with Islam, it is viewed as a religious problem; when it is other communities, it is seen as a political problem.

For more on radicalisation, read our interview with Dr Mark Sedgwick.

This interview was from Issue 8 of On Religion. Subscribe to our hardcopy magazine and get more articles like this for just £19 annual: –

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