I’m not going to pretend that I can answer this question in 800 words. I edit a website which brings together a vast amount of academics’ work addressing radicalisation and in the millions of words I’ve read there is still no outright consensus. But here are my three conclusions as to how we can prevent radicalisation:
1) Focus on what is non-negotiable – if it’s something like the desire to create a state which threatens people on the basis of characteristics such as their sexual orientation or ethnicity – then we need to challenge that. Regardless of whether it’s an Aryan utopia or a global caliphate.
2) Don’t patronise people who’ve adopted radical ideas: engage and understand their thought processes. It wasn’t magic that got them there and we’ll never understand them if we assume they were just brainwashed.
3) Become religiously literate – this isn’t about becoming religious but about understanding how ideologies and beliefs (including non-religious values) play a major role in many people’s identities. Ridiculing or ignoring that won’t make it go away.
How do I arrive at these? Well, while many people will tell you that religion is the main problem in radicalisation, this is just plain wrong. Listen to some of the new atheists and you’d be forgiven for thinking that inside every moderate believer there is a fundamentalist waiting to jump out and kill you. While that is plainly nonsense – as billions of religious people prove every day – the other extreme of that argument, that religion is always good and only ‘bad’ religion kills, is equally unhelpful. It’s led us into a predictable state of affairs where, whenever someone does something bad in the name of Islam we have to find a ‘moderate Muslim’ to make a public statement decrying it. Quite aside from the fact that the creation of a government sanctioned ‘moderate Islam’ creates a potentially dangerous binary (if you’re not with us, you’re against us). I think we need to pay more attention to the sloppy thinking that got us here.
First, even scholars of religion don’t agree on what counts as religious and what doesn’t, so how can people be so sure that some kinds of violence have religious causes? My own research has focused on non-negotiable beliefs – the kind of things that we hold to be sacred – and has shown how these can be found in religious and non-religious groups. These beliefs can influence and/or justify violent actions. By avoiding a focus on ‘religion’ we can still interrogate the role of beliefs and values, without being side-tracked into interminable definitions of what is religious and what isn’t.
Second, too often the way that people talk about religious radicalisation in particular mirrors the kind of breathless headlines we saw about cult brainwashing over thirty years ago. Back then, as now, the explanations of religious brainwashing tended to focus on the idea that someone was tricked or hypnotised into believing something bad. But this assumes that people joining cults or ISIS don’t have any agency, that they’re incapable of making decisions. I disagree. (See my previous article) People don’t just sleep walk into a suicide vest, they make a choice, a decision (generally a bad one) and while they may not have planned everything that followed and while they may even have been lied to, we’ll never prevent this from happening by pretending it’s some kind of magic process.
Third, people often tend to assume that either religion is a prime cause, or the extreme opposite, that it has nothing to do with decisions to act violently at all. One reason for these extreme views are the problems in separating religious causes from, for example, ethno-nationalist causes and I suggested one way around that, from my own work, above. Another reason is that a lot of people, in political, media and academic positions, get queasy around discussions of religion. Religion is too often seen as something which should be private and where it isn’t, is seen as an irrational threat to the rational practice of politics. This view displays a stunning lack of religious literacy and underestimates religion’s continuing public relevance. The reality is somewhere in the middle – beliefs and values play a role in radicalisation, but by no means the lead role.
These brief points come out of my own work, but this only forms part of a huge literature on radicalisation and terrorism. In fact, too often they are seen as synonymous, or as near damn it as makes no difference, whereas they are in fact different problems with different solutions –indeed it is entirely possible to be radical and not be a terrorist, and vice versa. The suggestions I’ve made here won’t prevent terrorism but they could contribute to preventing radicalisation and even to opening up constructive potential for serious democratic debate between differing ideological camps – which includes recognising the continuing active role of religion.
Matthew Francis is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. He researches religious and non-religious groups focusing on the role the sacred plays in the move to violence and is currently looking at the role of beliefs, values and commitments in decision-making at times of uncertainty. He founded and edits the website www.RadicalisationResearch.org and writes on radicalisation and religious literacy.
Image by Wikimedia available in the public domain.