When it comes to difficult policy issues, complex social problems or emotive subjects, nothing is more attractive than the offer of a simple solution. The problem of terrorism touches upon some of the most difficult issues in our society: the boundaries of privacy; the nature of citizenship; the limits of free speech. Terrorists often perceive our society in a manner that is totally alien to us, and ostensibly seek to establish a world vision that we find repugnant. Understanding why they do so is profoundly difficult. It is not surprising that the history of our failure to understand terrorism has been characterised by our search for a simplistic explanation to it.
One such answer, common for much of the late twentieth century, was that terrorists were mad. A plethora of policy experts, academics and civil servants crafted, refined and proselytised a succession of theories that all sought to explain terrorist motivation through psychological defect. Particularly in the seventies and eighties – and sometimes even today – this seductive explanation has been touted. Some scholars have argued that all or most terrorists are insane, while others have suggested that terrorists are motivated by psychopathic disorder induced by childhood trauma. It was even suggested that terrorism was caused by defects in the inner ear, or that religious fervour led to chemical imbalances and subsequently violence. Things like exposure to radical materials or peer groups might have been regarded as contributory, but at the heart of the problem, madness has often smoothed over the cracks in our understanding.
Since these arguments were taken seriously, our understanding of terrorism has moved on a great deal. Yet today, a similarly simplistic answer that is occasionally given – guardedly – is that Islam itself is to blame. Some commentators suggest that the text of the Qur’an or the faith itself plays a significant role in motivating Islamic terrorism. Tony Blair regards the root cause of Islamic extremism as ‘a doctrine of fanaticism’, a competing religious ideology. There are no stronger advocates of this explanation than the militants themselves. In a recent ISIS recruitment video, former Cardiff medical student Abu Muthanna al Yemeni declared that “from Bangladesh, from Iraq, from Cambodia, Australia, UK, nothing has gathered us except to make Allah the highest.” During an interview with VICE news, Brighton-born fighter Amer Deghyaes explained his decision: “I came to Syria to answer the call of duty, and that is to give victory to the religion of Allah.”
In reality, however, there is no such root cause within Islam. The text of the Qu’ran and Islamic history is a factor, insofar as it presents a context that helps define the action that radicalised young Muslims take, and how they percieve their own role. But it is just a factor. When a young man commits himself to fight in Syria, he does not do so as a result of a deep theological understanding. Two British militants travelling to Syria in May this year bought, as their final literary purchases before leaving the UK, Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. A 2008 Security Service analysis suggested that British Islamist extremists are regularly theologically illiterate. Often, British Islamist extremists have not even regularly practiced their faith. Religious violence might be the manifestation of an Islamist terrorists’ radicalisation, but the religion itself cannot seriously be regarded as the predominant cause.
No single factor can. There are instead a number of related motivations that can lead young British Muslims to religious violence. There is a strong emotional pull to the narrative of Muslims being attacked and abused by the West, which can elicit feelings of solidarity without reference to theology. Peer pressure plays a role. In certain groups, self-styled Jihadists are regarded as cool. This cool factor and the machismo associated with it is displayed clearly in the posturing selfies taken by Islamic State fighters, showing off their guns, gold and SUVs. A significant part of certain young people’s attraction to emotive Islamist messaging can be the otherwise healthy youthful preponderance towards radicalism that, if well directed, could be of great social benefit. Some have a desire for more direction and purpose in their lives, associated with a feeling of alienation from wider society. In the same ISIS propaganda video that Abu Muthanna al Yemeni featured in, fighter Abu Bara Al-Hindi perhaps more accurately conveyed the motivation of some militants: “Oh my brothers living in the West, I know how you feel, when I used to live there, in the heart you feel depressed. The cure for depression is Jihad.” These are just a few of the factors that can catalyse radicalisation.
When we reject the idea that Islam is the reason that a minority of British Muslims turn to religious violence, we can begin to understand what lies behind radicalisation. Then we can pursue real ways to reduce the power of violent Islamism. Ensuring that Muslims are properly represented in public life, and working to build a British identity inclusive of them. De-glamourising violent ideologies through open debate, satire and counter-messaging. De-securitising social issues that affect Muslim communities. These efforts are not the simple, single solution we have been looking for. They are the complex solutions we need.
Louis Reynolds is a researcher at Demos, the cross-party think tank, and specialises in citizenship and extremism.
Image by Wikimedia available in the public domain.