Talking about security, religion and radicalisation

Talking about security, religion and radicalisation

By Henry Rex

Recently, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Uncertainties met to discuss the rise of radicalism in religion, in particular radical Islamism, following an increase in the radicalisation of people in the United Kingdom through social media and other influences. 

The meeting heard from three distinguished speakers including Dr Andrew Glazzard, a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI who specialises in counter-terrorism; Professor Kim Knott, a Professor of Politics Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University and one of the Partnership’s Leadership Fellows; and Jonathan Russell, Political Liaison Officer at the Quilliam Foundation. The meeting was chaired by John Glen MP. 

Discussions opened with an exploration of assumptions many make about radicalisation and terrorism, including that terrorism is only carried out by radicals, that the ideologies and beliefs behind terrorism must be inherently violent and that Islamism is the cause of most terrorism in today’s world. The discussion highlighted there are problems with these assumptions, and to tackle radicalisation we must avoid universal and simplistic theories of extremism. Some radicals are non-violent, some extremists have mainstream views, and between 1976 and 2006 the most lethal terror group in the world was the Peruvian Shining Path group.

Importantly, evidence shows the relationship between ideas and actions is non-linear. Social environments drive actions and indoctrination often comes after a person joins a group, not before. The social environment contributes to the radicalisation as much as the ideas themselves and the recurring narrative of extremists is that their group faces an existential threat, so they must fight. This creates what is known as an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’, and once the concept of us and them is constructed and reinforced radicalisation can take hold.

In tackling these assumptions we need to realise that ordinary people can do extraordinary things and that any political theory can produce extremists, with the notion of martyrdom being universal. We need to combat the us versus them narrative.

Discussions then turned to the various forums where radicalisation can take place. In light of recent events, significant emphasis was placed on social media, however, radicalisation often takes place in face to face contexts. It is an emotional and social process that takes place among families (kin to kin) and among friends and colleagues (peer to peer). If we want to better understand the process of radicalisation we need more research into how messages and ideas are shared amongst family and peer groups. 

Throughout the meeting, it also emerged that the public discourse in the United Kingdom also presents significant challenges. Talk of ‘grooming’ and ‘brainwashing’ undermines analysis of the actual process of radicalisation. It is important that we review the process, including exploitation of grievances and the us versus them narrative, and not simply focus on the manifestation. It’s equally crucial that we not only focus on the medium via which messages of radicalisation are shared, but work to understand how we can undermine the narratives themselves.

Henry Rex is a Policy and Communications Officer at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge.