There is no empirical evidence that religion and ideology are primary motivators for violent extremism.
FOR at least a decade, the issue of young Muslims becoming radicalised towards violent extremism has been one of concern for academics and practitioners like me. While we work on a daily basis to find ways to prevent radicalisation or intervene in the radicalisation process, occasionally the issue grabs the attention of the international media: usually in the aftermath of attacks such as the Boston marathon bombings and the recent shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris.
Global events like these shine a spotlight on Muslim communities who are placed in the unwanted position of having to defend their religion. Calls for Muslims to be accountable, take responsibility, condemn, object, speak out, reject and prove that they do not condone criminal acts of violence often mask a more unnerving suggestion that Islam itself is to blame.
A familiar pattern emerges in the wake of violent extremist attacks carried out (mostly) by Muslim men: one that sees verses from the Quran being quoted out of context to support claims that Islam is either inherently violent or inherently peaceful. Indeed the religious texts of Islam, like those of most religions, are filled with examples that could support either.
Last week my Twitter feed became a battlefield of words with Islamic State supporters (known as Fanboys) tweeting religious justifications for the Paris attacks and the majority of Muslims responding with Quranic texts that promote peace and forbid murder.
The fact is that the role of religion in radicalisation (and deradicalisation) is grossly overestimated. There is actually no empirical evidence to support the claim that religion (any religion) and ideology are the primary motivators of violent extremism.
The point has also been made by some of the world’s most renowned scholars of terrorism who agree that other factors play a much larger role.
Factors such as anger at injustice, moral superiority, a sense of identity and purpose, the promise of adventure, and becoming a hero have all been implicated in case studies of radicalisation.
Religion and ideology serve as vehicles for an “us versus them” mentality and as the justification for violence against those who represent “the enemy”, but they are not the drivers of radicalisation.
If radicalisation to violent extremism was solely a matter of religious belief, then we would have to assume that alternative religious interpretations could steer people away from violence.
Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple. Attempts to engage young people who are becoming involved in violent extremism through religious discussion have had little success.
While the vast majority of Muslim clerics and scholars promote a tolerant and peaceful version of Islam, they compete with a minority of self-declared sheikhs who promote hatred and violence.
These sheikhs are easily accessed on the Internet and some amass a following of disaffected youth who are attracted by a sense of injustice and become convinced that Islam not only condones violence, it requires them to take up arms to prove their commitment.
They become so influenced by these teachings that they consider any other interpretations of Islam to be completely false; often labelling moderate sheikhs and their followers as apostates and allies of the West.
They completely dismiss any alternative religious interpretations and are not even prepared to consider them as part of “true”Islam.
So how do we go about stopping someone from becoming radicalised to the point that they would seek out opportunities to commit acts of violence against their fellow citizens? There are no easy answers.
Firstly, we need to understand why and how some people become violent extremists in the first place.
For some, like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who shot a Canadian soldier earlier this year, or the Kouachi brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the pathway to violence involves a criminal, violent or unstable past.
For these individuals, violent extremism in the name of a religion or ideology is a continuation, and escalation, of an already violent lifestyle. For others who appear to be well adjusted, stable, even well integrated individuals, the reasons for radicalisation are much more varied and complex.
Second, we need to identify where the individual is along the process of radicalisation. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to intervene when an individual is at the operational phase of radicalisation. These highly radicalised individuals have accepted violence and may be at the stage of planning for a violent act.
They can only be dealt with through law enforcement intervention.
But at the early stages of radicalisation, when an individual is starting to show signs of becoming attracted to violent extremism, it is possible to intervene and disrupt the process of radicalisation.
When we approach a situation where an individual is showing signs of becoming radicalised, we also try to understand what is going on in the individual’s life.
Have there been some major behavioural changes?
Are there any family conflicts that have not been resolved?
Is there a person of influence that is introducing them to radical or extremist views?
Are there issues in the individual’s personal life that have led him or her to look for ways to vent their anger or frustration?
Has the individual stopped being interested in hobbies or pastimes that used to occupy them?
These kinds of questions are familiar to the youth who face issues of identity and belonging, regardless of their religion.
Often it is those closest to the individual, their families and friends, who are the first to notice any signs of radicalisation.
One approach that has been tried out in Germany and elsewhere is the family counselling approach.
The German Hayat programme offers support and counselling to family members to help them resolve any outstanding issues and reach out to individuals so that they can influence them in positive ways.
It has been so successful in Germany that similar programmes have also been adopted in Britain, France and Canada.
The approach is wholly focussed on the family but may include the individual at some stage. It may also involve police, community leaders, religious scholars and members of the individual’s support network.
The removal of passports and legal measures to arrest and detain returned fighters are part of Australia’s counter terrorism approach.
Britain and Canada have taken similar measures.
While removing the opportunity to carry out violence is important, these measures cannot stand alone.
They need to be supported by measures that approach radicalisation not just as a security problem but as a social issue that can be prevented. — Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015
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