How to approach the issue of radicalisation? I’m wary, knowing the opprobrium unleashed on those who demur from the orthodoxy and offer rival views on what to do now that we are where we are. Allegations of being apologists for mass murderers or retarded in one’s understanding of religion are never easy criticisms to pass off as merely unconstructive. But the ease with which such allegations fly is perhaps an indication of the polarisation of the debate on radicalisation and our failure to want to deal with causal factors and explanatory variables however uncomfortable they may be.
The UK context is particularly relevant given our own problems with radicalisation and the ‘exporter’ image we appear to have cultivated. It’s also relevant because lessons on how not to do counter-radicalisation are better developed here than elsewhere.
I’m not talking here about the claims of a weak national identity, the absence of unifying spirit, the pragmatic, laissez faire attitude to promoting British identity, British culture and British values which together suggest we need stronger social bonds, such as exist in the US and on the continent, thanks to the varieties of civic nationalism that pervade public culture.
We’ve seen plenty of that in the last few years and it doesn’t seem to have got us any farther away from the problem of radicalisation. If anything, the jingoistic, totemic language and behaviour norms that are imperiously talked about, like ‘British values’, only reinforce a sense of separatism by insisting on treating British Muslims as a perfidious minority.
Radicalisation as it has been tackled in the past has suffered from one major flaw in my view: a preoccupation with religion and theology and a disregard for social scientific method for understanding the complexity of value pluralism in secular societies. The notion of ‘non-violent extremism’ and the idea that the observance of conservative religious practice predisposes someone to engage in violent extremism seeks to criminalise, in thought if not in deed, varied expressions of religion in society. The so-called ‘conveyor belt’ theory is not only displaced by the facts, there is no single pathway to radicalisation, but it stymies the very possibility for organically developing an accommodation between religious belief and secular reality.
This was identified as early as 2009 in the report by the Communities and Local Government select committee reviewing the Prevent strand of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. That report concluded:
“There is a sense that Government has sought to engineer a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, promoting and funding only those groups which conform to this model. We do not think it is the job of Government to intervene in theological matters…”
Its observation that the strategy has alienated Muslims was repeated in a different report which concisely explained how that had happened, the aptly titled Spooked, How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism.
I would argue that the social engineering engaged in has been less concerned with a ‘moderate’ Islam and more concerned with a ‘secular’ Islam. Paradoxically, this ‘secular’ variety has also shown itself to be disturbingly illiberal. Whether we take the issue of veiling (hair and/ or face) or gender segregation, the disposition of those inclined to ‘secular Islam’ is to abhor the practice and agitate for its prohibition irrespective of the ‘harm principle’ and the virtue of autonomy that buttress liberal societies.
To be sure, I am not disinclined to those who prefer to privatise their Islamic belief or who regard it as anachronistic to veil one’s face, prefer a faith-based education or mingle in single sex forums. They are entitled to practice Islam as they choose in much the same way as those who would do the inverse.
The problem for me, and a portent of radicalisation, arises when religious orthodoxy is divested of its legitimacy as a form of religious expression. Religious communities are broad coalitions ranging from the strictly orthodox and conservative to the spiritual but not ritualistically religious. The trouble in recent years has been the preferential treatment accorded the latter against the former in the mistaken belief that by enhancing a secular Islam we bring Muslims closer, philosophically and behaviourally, to the mainstream.
The oft-forgotten issue here is that the mainstream is itself riven with complex dynamics on the question of religion in public life. One need only look at research on the perception among religious communities of a hierarchy in equality strands with many believing that faith-based attitudes are being marginalised with the law penalising religious beliefs in favour of secular norms. Value pluralism and moral conflict is as much a problem for majority faith groups as it is for minority faith groups but to their advantage, the majority don’t have to deal with the added burden of religious orthodoxy being scrutinised for inklings of violent tendencies. Nor do they necessarily have to deal with the pejorative prefix ‘political’ when exercising moral agency. We don’t hear about ‘political Catholicism’ or ‘political Anglicanism’ in the way ‘political Islam’ is rendered.
This patronising and paternalistic treatment of Islam ignores a fundamental principle in any democratic society: conflict is constitutive of politics. Under the guise of counter-radicalisation, the normalisation of Islamic belief and practice as articulated by divergent Muslim outlooks in the public sphere is being undermined in a way that forces many of the faithful out of the mainstream. This can never be healthy. The risk we run – we have run – is opening space for individuals to find subaltern outlets which they conceive as being safe and ‘pure’.
Tackling radicalisation requires the guidance of an invisible hand that is not unnerved by the presence and plurality of Muslim perspectives in the public sphere. We have laws that prosecute for incitement, on glorification of terror, on hate speech – why not use them as required instead of timorously sidestepping moral conflict in favour of a false calm?
Perhaps when we place less of an onus on theology we will come to tackle the question of radicalisation as it should be, through the disciplines of political science, anthropology, psychology and sociology that can help us identify and understand the causal factors, political and psycho-social, which explain how individuals are radicalised. And maybe, the faithful can be left to peaceably go about their business of bearing witness.
Shenaz Bunglawala is Head of Research at Mend (Muslim Engagement and Development, a faith based organisation that works to improve British Muslim participation in politics, media and public life.)
Image by Wikipedia available in the public domain.