No other word is currently striking more fear into the minds of western leaders than ‘radicalisation’. We see the images of the beheadings, the angry mobs storming the Libyan embassy and we are afraid. It is natural; logical even.
We all react differently in such situations: some minimise the problem: ‘Oh the numbers are small compared to the vast majority of non-radical believers out there’. Others swing to the opposite end of the spectrum proclaiming imminent doom.
Of course, we’d be naive if we didn’t acknowledge that other wider perceptions play a part in the way we approach this issue. For example, those who are concerned about immigration more broadly will see ‘radicalisation’ as good reason to be calling the UK back to its ‘traditional values’ (however they are defined). On the other hand, those who see Muslims as another down-trodden and victimised group will blame the lack of inclusiveness they believe is at the heart of British society.
All these competing perspectives have wrestled for control of our perceptions ever since the advent of 9/11 and especially 7/7. It has produced little apart from intransigent trench warfare as neither side has been willing to acknowledge the validity of the other’s position. All this has successfully produced nothing other than the vague acknowledgement of the problem. Not that nothing has happened over the last ten years or so, but let’s not mistake that for problem-solving. There have been initiatives which have been serious attempts to engage with the problem, such as the CONTEST strategy devised by the Labour government in response to radicalisation concerns back in 2003, and subsequently adjusted by the Coalition government post-2010. It has been emulated by the European Union but, it cannot be seen as a success.
Back in 2008 the Association of Chief Police Officers commissioned a report on radicalisation amongst British Muslims from Professor Martin Innes of the University of Cardiff. In his report Hearts and Minds and Eyes and Ears, Professor Innes concluded that, “Increasing numbers of young Muslim people are becoming sufficiently disaffected with their lives in liberal-democratic-capitalist societies that they might be willing to support violent terrorism to articulate their disillusionment and disengagement.”
It doesn’t compute: how can “liberal-democratic-capitalist societies” be something anyone would want to reject?
This question is at the root of the problem. We have assumed (wrongly) that the ‘democratic brand’ is something any human being would innately wish to be part of. But what if some of those values are incompatible with everything you hold to be true?
Many, if not all of the Muslims who are becoming radicalised are reading the books and sermons of Maulana Maududi, the Indian journalist (d. 1979) who was a great advocate for the reinstatement of ‘truly Islamic’ rule. In one passage in his book, Let us be Muslims, Maududi argued that Muslims could not accept two masters: they had to choose between following the law of god or the law of the land in which he or she lived. So those Muslims on the ‘journey of radicalisation’ are seeing a choice having to be made between faith and state, and are choosing faith.
Of course, they would not have embarked upon such a journey if there had not been fertile soil in which the ideas could be sown in the first place. In this case, I would say that there are two reasons why the time is good for radicalisation, one of which is Islam-particular and the other more generic.
Firstly, the ‘Islam-particular’ aspect of radicalisation comes from the combined elements of theology and victimhood narrative. There is no getting away from the fact that there are passages in the Qur’an which, if taken literally, sanction violence (such as Surah 8.12) and the conquest of territory (Surah 9.29). Moreover, literalist interpretations of scripture have been growing in numbers and significance ever since the founding of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband in the 1860s (eminent Islamic school famed for its conservative ideology) and in founding of conservative preaching movements such as Tabligh Jamaat (founded 1928). So until these scriptures are properly engaged with, there is always going to be a problem.
Secondly, there is a broad erosion of what might be termed the ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’ centre across all faiths, including Christianity, as those who are desiring spiritual succour are cleaving all the harder to their faith perspectives in the face of an apparently all-pervasive secularising culture. Moreover, particularly for young people, studies conducted in the US and elsewhere have shown that the so-called ‘Millennial Generation’ are generally switched off politically, but more switched on to causes (like the environment for example), so anyone of that generation who takes up a cause (or causes) will do so with greater vigour than those of the previous few generations. Therefore, when it comes to faith, the same dynamic is in play.
Does that mean we are doomed to experience ever greater radicalisation?
In the short term, it is likely that the trend will remain, but, given that the world will continue to shift and change, there will come a point at which people will become disillusioned with the violence and the ideology that underpins it. In the meantime, there needs to be a re-think about the tools we are using to fight radicalisation. Specifically, we need to stop trying to espouse the benefits of liberal-democracy to people who reject the premise of it and instead seek to encourage solid, faith-based narratives which will counter the work of radicalisers.
Sean Oliver Dee is a researcher and writer on Islamic issues in relation to public policy who advises government institutions, NGOs and church bodies. He is also the author of the Theos report, Religion and Identity: Divided Loyalties
Image by Wikimedia available in the public domain.