Road to radicalization

Since the murder of British solider Lee Rigby on a busy street in Woolwich, southeast London, there has been widespread condemnation from all corners of British society, including Muslim organizations. In this article, Dr Ilyas Mohammed uses the Woolwich attack to address the question of how one becomes involved with Islamist groups.

According to The Independent’s article of 25 May entitled “EDL marches on Newcastle as attacks on Muslims increased tenfold in the wake of Woolwich machete attack which killed Drummer Lee Rigby”, Islamophobic hate crimes are occurring more than 10 times their usual rate since the attack.

The killing has prompted the public to ask questions regarding the motivations behind the attack, how the two suspects, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, acquired their “extremist” ideas, and why they acted on them by engaging in violence. These questions are not new, they were asked after the 7/7 bombings and the 2006 Transatlantic plot.  

The question of “motivation” is simple to answer, in a video of the incident one of the suspects explicitly identifies as Muslim and can be heard telling Ingrid Loyau-Kennett that Rigby’s killing was because of British foreign policy. However, the more troublesome question, which has perplexed academics and policy makers for over 10 years, is how does one become “radicalized”?

This term is often used to mean both holding extreme ideas and acting on them, but this is problematic because not everyone who espouses such ideas ends up engaging in violence. A better way to answer the question would be to ask, separately, as terrorism expert Marc Sageman argues, what is the process by which one acquires extreme ideas, and what is the process through which one is led to engage in violence?

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Road to radicalization

Often it has been argued that individuals acquire extreme ideas and engage in violence because of a literalist interpretation of Islam in the vein of that promoted by hardline preachers. According to Sageman these “radicalized” individuals are already part of the protest community, which encompasses a variety of groups, including Islamists, and a plasticity of ideas that often cross groups.

Consequently, the move from being part of the protest community to becoming involved with an Islamist group is not a huge leap. In my interviews with individuals affiliated with Islamist groups in the UK, I found that Islam is a veneer rather than the kernel behind their acquisition of extreme ideas and involvement in Islamist groups.

The interviewees were motivated by both moral-outrage and the cumulative impact of emotions generated by hearing about and watching videos that detailed violence and abuse being inflicted upon their fellow Muslims, especially women and children. The emotional impact in some individuals is such that it takes the form of “vicarious humiliation”.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, an expert on terrorism, argues that feelings of humiliation are often experienced by proxy and internalized by diaspora Muslims in Europe. The experience of humiliation in some cases prompts interest in a politics that provides a sense of pride, restores personal and community dignity, affirms their masculinity, as well as giving them emotional gratification. In a very small number of cases the humiliation also acts as a powerful catalyst – not only to acquire extreme ideas or become involved in Islamist groups but also to engage in violence associated with these ideas.

Central to the appeal of any extremist group and the compulsion for one to act on their behalf is a narrative that manipulates and makes full use of the same kinds of emotions that bind families, groups, communities and nations together. This is clearly illustrated by the success of Islamists and right-wing groups based in the UK. They have successfully been able to impart vicarious humiliation and identification with the pain of those members of their communities that are suffering/suffered upon others. This has created the emotional conditions within some individuals such that, they have been compelled to join and in a few cases act independently or on behalf of groups in violent ways.

If the British government and for this matter other Western governments want to prevent individuals from acquiring and acting upon extreme ideas, then they will have to construct a narrative that accounts for the concerns raised by, and is emotionally more powerful and appealing than that provided by extremist groups. If this does not occur, then no amount of banning or silencing of extremist preachers will prevent individuals from acquiring and acting on extreme ideas. The battle with extremism is not of ideas but one of emotions.    


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