Jihadis under your bed
Last night’s shocking Channel 4 documentary reminded me of the age-old relationship between opinion-formers and power. From Biblical Pharaohs and Roman Emperors to the modern nation state, there have always been some ideologists in the service of the ruling elite, propagating their necessary myths, eulogising their policies, and demonising their perceived threats. Whilst I try my best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, I found myself running out of excuses for this particular production. At worst, it was a shocking service to power on the eve of more restrictions on civil liberties in the form of the imminent ‘counter-extremism’ measures. At best, it was a conviction-driven, horribly-timed, coincidence.
As the first few minutes unfolded, and the heads of countless learned activists slowly seeped into their hands, I predicted the rest to be a thinly veiled promotion of state doctrines; namely, the purported connection between dissent and political violence. Whether it was intended or accidental, I was upset that my prediction came true – to some extent. The entire film was a one-sided, 46-minute manifesto for the academically-refuted doctrine that the presenter ended with, which was lapped up and repeated by other right-wing journalists elsewhere:
“It’s clear that the connection between non-violent extremism and terrorism is absolute. It seems to me that it’s a vital link required to create a terrorist executioner.”
And there it is: that superstitious myth that has been refuted comprehensively by the annoying tedium of evidence-based enquiry. Forget the last 30 years’ empirical studies on people actually involved in “terrorism”. All you need to reinforce this, or indeed any superstitious or bigoted narrative, is a carefully cherry-picked example of a person who happens to be classified as a ‘non-violent extremist’ somehow ending up in ISIS. Then, studiously avoid any specimens that refute the stereotype or give an indication of the statistical insignificance. Now you can draw over-generalised, grandiose pronouncements about a large group of people to your heart’s content, from Muslims to socialists to Black activists to anti-fracking demonstrators.
The Imaginary Conveyor Belt
John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, comments that:
“The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research … [First], the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And second, there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don’t necessarily hold radical beliefs.”
Anyone aware of the basics of the scientific method would identify those as being crucial control measurements required to suggest any valid correlation—let alone causation—between “radicalisation” and “terrorism”.
Other than it being well-established fiction, this narrative that non-violent “extremism” leads to “terrorism” is poisonous for many reasons, some of which have been seen in the bigoted and outright racist reactions on social media. As researcher Marc Sageman (formerly of the CIA) stated, this propaganda is,
“the same nonsense that led governments a hundred years ago to claim that left-wing political protests led to violent anarchy.”
It is also the same excuse authoritarian regimes have used for decades to swell state power and restrict civil liberties and dissent. This is exemplified by the infamous, and partly illegal, COINTELPRO operation led by the FBI to manipulate and disrupt social and political movements in the USA in the 1960s. Democracy Now! has extensive coverage on it and its aftermath. As Professor Arun Kundnani explains regarding the fictitious strands of modern radicalisation theory:
“[O]ne of the consequences of adopting these models is that if you think that ideology is the root cause of terrorism, then you’re going to look for expressions of ideology as your indicators, that give you this predictive power that law enforcement agencies obviously ought to have in order to intervene at an early stage. So you start to look for indictors that are to do with someone’s religious and political opinions, which are the expressions of the ideology, or things like changes in the kind of clothing that they wear, or growing a beard. These are the ways in which supposedly this ideology is being expressed and that’s why you then end up with a situation where you say, “Okay we want to make sure that we have such an intense level of surveillance in the community that we believe has this problem—i.e. Muslims in the United States—we want to have such a high level of surveillance of that population that we can know when someone is displaying these indicators of political and religious opinion.” And that’s what we’ve seen happen.”
Then comes the insidious part. There are, of course, many rational people without access to actual data who naturally wish to distinguish themselves from the bigoted far-right or neocon statements blaming Islām or the general Muslim community for the likes of ISIS. However, with the way the current propaganda is framed, instead of being permitted to challenge the fundamentally flawed basis (that non-violent radical beliefs cause “terrorism”), most rational and moral people are pushed to endorse it and can merely declare most Muslims as being nice, peaceful moderates. It is only the “extreme” ones that give the rest a bad name.
Whilst their intentions may be commendable, when they declare that ISIS is a ‘perversion of Islām’, and those who support their ‘twisted ideology misinterpret the Qur’ān’—which is factually correct—it is problematic if they fail to challenge the dangerous myth that the ideology or misreading of the Qur’ān they condemn is what takes an otherwise ‘normal’ individual and pushes them towards political violence, in the first place. In other words, they are still blaming ideology instead of the host of actual, empirically-determined, causes of political violence, and perpetuating the same dangerous consequences as the rhetoric of the right-wing bigots.
It is even more problematic when some Muslims absorb such stereotypes about their own identity, such as their religion having the propensity to cause terrorism if merely misinterpreted. It is indeed often easier to convince a non-Muslim of the fallacy of correlating non-violent ‘extremism’ with terrorism than it is to overturn some Muslims’ mental conditioning involving the myths surrounding ‘radicalisation’. Years of Islamophobic battering has taken its toll on the Muslim mind, rendering most of us automatically defensive and apologetic when it comes to “terrorism”, with very few people actually questioning statistical significance.
Is radicalisation even real?
Are Muslims more than proportionately represented when it comes to political violence? Are there swathes of Muslims running off and joining ISIS? Or have we internalised the same few cherry-picked examples periodically plastered over the front pages of tabloids to support a racist stereotype? I would go so far as to say that we are underrepresented when it comes to our fair share of psychopaths and sociopaths that are prone to such extreme anti-social behaviour.
Psychologists estimate that 1% of the general population is clinically a psychopath, whilst around 4% are sociopaths. If there are three million Muslims in the UK that means we would expect—if we were represented proportionately—120,000 Muslims in the UK to be “completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others,” who “selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret”, according to Professor Robert Hare from the University of British Columbia, a leading expert on sociopaths and psychopaths.
We do not know the number of British Muslims that have gone off to fight for ISIS as this remains a convenient secret held by the state. First we were told tens of thousands of foreign fighters joined ISIS, then the official number became 3000, then 1500, and currently the number stands at 700 who have gone to Syria (note, not necessarily joining ISIS). Whatever the number—and though even one person would be too many—we really must question whether we are giving it the statistical significance it deserves, and whether we should allow any sane, moral adult to get away with spinning it into some kind of underground conspiracy of Muslims being institutionally radicalised en masse.
“How can you say ideology doesn’t matter when they use ideology to justify their actions?”
Many people may ask variations of the above question, since the overt displays of Islamic identity and practice is highlighted frequently by those wishing to push the fictitious radicalisation theory. The answer is in the question itself: they use their ideology to justify their actions. There is a world of difference between a cause for something and a post-facto justification. If somebody dedicated to evidence-based enquiry without an agenda watched last night’s documentary carefully, it is likely that they would have come to precisely the opposite conclusion to what was presented.
They saw disturbed young men with obvious sociopathic (if not psychopathic) tendencies and disregard for social norms, with the only mention of Islamic terminology being in justifications for already-made decisions. One of the interviewees revealingly said about an Australian boy whom he had been accused of radicalising:
“He asked me if it’s ok to behead someone. I said no. So he asked someone else.”
The programme’s propagated doctrine would suggest that it is a person’s “Radical Islām” or “extremism” that would lead to a “terrorist execution”. However here is a clear example of a supposed “hate preacher” essentially being asked for a religious justification after a decision the misguided person had already made. This is a heretical methodology which we have discussed in the past in more detail, but here it should suffice to highlight the difference between a logical cause and an after-the-fact justification.
This is precisely why the academics mentioned above have said ideology is incidental not causative. If people who have decided to commit an act of political violence happen to be Christian, they will justify it using the language, imagery, metaphors and ethical framework they are familiar with—Christianity, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army or the other so-called Christian terrorist organisations you’ve never heard of. If they happen to be Buddhist, such as the militias in Myanmar slaughtering the Rohingya, then they will use Buddhist justifications. If Hindu terrorism, then Hindu justifications. If secular, non-religious, terrorism such as neoliberal violence and destruction then likewise. And if they happen to be Muslims, then they will incidentally employ Islamic justifications. Although Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, rather an elected government, the following example about its use of force in retaliation to Israeli aggression profoundly highlights the distinction between cause and justification:
“For example, Hamas’ violence against Israeli civilians cannot be adequately explained by religious ideology. After all, religious arguments are used by Hamas to legitimise its ceasefires as much as they are used to legitimise its violence. Its decisions to adopt violence as a tactic at any point are determined by the organisation’s perceptions of the actions of the Israeli government in the context of a military occupation – just as for secular Palestinian groups. Religious ideology provides a vocabulary and a cohering identity but politics provides the impetus.”
The point is; political violence is caused by a whole host of issues, not least an analysis of the political situation, and automatically giving ideology a causative status because it happens to be there is bordering on superstition.
More powers to the state
Furthermore, if someone without an agenda were to ponder over the several quotes and throw-away comments ignored by those who formed the dangerously irresponsible aforementioned conclusion, they would find another inconvenient fact diligently ignored by those that shout the loudest about so-called “radicalisation”. None of the “radical preachers” had an Islamic upbringing—however extreme or not. They were either converts or those who saw the light later on in life. This is consistent with Mi5’s report in 2008—again, apparently ignored by policy makers and right-wing press—which said that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”.
It should be noted that neoconservative politicians are not only persistently ignoring this but are actively propagating the opposite, again. Despite there being no statistically significant evidence, David Cameron, Theresa May, Michael Gove and his replacement Nicky Morgan are all curiously maintaining the myth that Muslims are being radicalised by their parents or in their schools, universities, mosques and madrassas. This pretext has been conveniently used to introduce draconian measures that would even impress Big Brother. From legislation on spying on citizens, that was recently declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), to banning certain speeches, debates, books and even the movement of some people, it has received widespread criticism by people who care about free speech and civil liberties.
The impressive irony is that the unfortunate film in question displayed the poor police standing around with their hands in their pockets, powerless to do anything to stop the anti-social behaviour of the “hate preachers” spreading their “radical Islām”; whilst the last few years have seen an unprecedented empowerment of the state arbitrarily restricting the movement and activities of citizens not found guilty of any crime, along with civilian teachers, doctors, nurses and even child-minders effectively being enlisted as unpaid spies.
Perhaps the most embarrassing blunder for those who perpetuate the myth that non-violent radical views cause political violence, and then subsequently seek to silence those views, is that precisely this is one of the empirically-determined factors in ones decision to turn to violence. As Professor Kudnani explains,
“The best way of preventing terrorist violence is to widen the range of opinions that can be freely expressed, not restrict it.”
History has shown us time and again that it is when people with radical political views feel they can no longer express themselves, without fear of suffering state force, that they turn towards violence. Furthermore, the disastrous policies some right-wing policy makers are pursuing, to ‘fix’ the ideology of the Muslims they deem to be ‘extreme’, is far more likely to make things worse. This directly fuels the suspect community mentality and feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement ISIS recruiters actually look for, along with the far-right violence and conspiracies against Muslims.
There are plenty of good reasons to oppose heretical interpretations of Islām, but the mythical correlation to terrorism is not one of them. Surely it is not beyond ones wit to oppose misinterpretations of Islām without endorsing poisonous stereotypes and false narratives about violence. The cure to bad speech is more speech, not less—that is why the group shown in the documentary have haemorrhaged over the last two decades and almost disappeared (or would have completely were it not for the constant publicity and useful sound bites they provide some right-wing ideologists).
This is because Muslim scholars and speakers have refuted their theological basis and as a result they are now largely the preserve of the dispossessed and mentally unwell. However as the Prime Minister’s speeches and press releases have shown, it is precisely those mainstream scholars, speakers and activists that are being smeared as “hate preachers” and “extremists” in an attempt to restrict their movement and speech. At the same time, those who actually call for violence and openly support ISIS are curiously given a much longer leash and access to mainstream media, perpetuating the impression of this mythical ‘problem of radicalisation’.
I would still like to give the producers of the programme the benefit of the doubt and presume that they were unaware of the rich literature surrounding evidence-based studies of terrorism. Perhaps, by following 3 Muslims out of 3,000,000, over a year or so, they intended to absolve the majority of the actions of the few, instead of pushing the out-dated, fictitious view of there being a statistically significant correlation between non-violent extremism and terrorism. Whatever the case, it is important we all try our best to dispel the darkness of bigotry and myth with the light of knowledge and facts.
 John Knefel, “Everything You’ve Been Told About Radicalization is Wrong”, Rolling Stone (6 May 2013)
 Jeroen Gunning and Richard Jackson, “What’s so ‘religious’ about ‘religious terrorism’?”, Critical Studies on Terrorism (Vol. 4, no. 3, December 2011), p. 381
 Cf. Prof Arun Kundani’s report, excerpt and link available here: https://www.islam21c.com/politics/new-study-extremism-does-not-cause-terrorism-2/