Why ‘deradicalisation’ is not the answer
On Tuesday, the British home secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced the development of a nationwide ‘deradicalisation’ programme to tackle people who have supposedly been drawn into violent Islamist extremism in Britain. Muslim community groups and councils will be allocated £12.5million, in addition to the £40million the government has already committed to the ‘prevent’ element of the national counterterrorism strategy made public in July 2006. The funding will be used for projects that will ‘challenge and resist’ the ideas and outlooks deemed to have informed recent acts of terror in the UK.
This strategy will fail for the simple reason that the government has yet to fully appreciate what the influences are that they seek to alter. In addition, officials have no idea as to what it is they would wish to alter them to.
The simplistic model that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 was that the West was confronted by a resurgent form of political Islam emanating from the Middle East and further afield. Subsequent events, including the London bombings on 7 July 2005, led to an almost begrudging recognition that many of the perpetrators of terrorism had been educated in the West, if not born there.
This still allowed for the possibility that their ideas were largely foreign in origin, or that their outlooks were alien to the presumed norms prevailing in the West. Hence the continuing focus on the form that these ideas take – couched in their jihadist rhetoric – or appeals to defending an ill-defined sense of ‘our values’ or ‘our way of life’. The UK government has failed to confront the true content of what these ideas expressed: a rejection of all things Western, rather than a positive affirmation of anything else.
Nor has the government offered an alternative vision of what we stand for as a society, beyond rhetorical references to freedom and democracy. However, the espousal of such values jars with current proposals to extend the period that alleged terrorists may be held without charge (from 28 to 42 days) - from a prime minister, Gordon Brown, who was never elected by the people.
The truth is that the sources of self-styled Islamist terrorism are more likely to be found within our own shores and within our own communities as anywhere else. It may be more likely, for now, that British Asians will act upon these ideas – with the benefit of an enhanced sense of victimhood that they may have picked up within the British education system. But as the steadily increasing number of white faces appearing on the counterterrorism radar suggests, this need not necessarily be true for much longer.
If this sounds rather harsh, let me illustrate what I mean by way of an example. A good friend of mine recently spent a day in the law faculty of a prestigious British university. The distinguished professor she spent time with advised her that nowadays students are not the same as they once were. They were no longer expected to read numerous books, write long essays or memorise case law. Rather, they are presented with handouts of Powerpoint presentations to read and they keep a weblog of their activities.
That evening, my friend attended the Islamic society meeting in the same university. There, she encountered many of the same students she had met earlier in the day (when they had been disinterestedly sending texts on their mobile phones during the law seminars). Now, however, the students appeared eager to learn. The cleric who ran the meeting expected them to recall specific lines from the Koran and to be familiar with all aspects of Islamic jurisprudence.
Maybe somebody should ask Jacqui Smith who here is the ‘radicalising’ influence? Is it the foreign mullah who ran the evening class, demanding attention and commanding respect, or was it the jaded Western intellectual who deep down believes that there is no truth that can be taught, that not too much should be expected of young people nowadays, and who in any case would not wish to damage their ‘self-esteem’ through challenging them in class?
I use this vignette to suggest that the roots of so-called ‘radicalisation’ are much wider and deeper than can be addressed by a prejudicially targeted programme focusing on ill-founded notions as to where such ideas might emanate from. Indeed, rather than targeting Muslim communities and monitoring Islamic society meetings, the authorities would be better off observing and monitoring their own contemporary culture.
Far from there being a layer of vulnerable young Muslims who are preyed upon by various hotheads, what we find, time and again, are passionate, intelligent and energetic individuals who somehow fail to find any meaning or purpose to their lives from within the confines of contemporary Western culture. Most of these are neither disconnected nor alienated from society, and rather than being ‘radicalised’ from the outside, they actively look for something to join. Nick Reilly, the supposed simpleton whose rudimentary device exploded in his face recently in Exeter, is proof that it is almost impossible to ‘recruit’ anyone of note into terrorism.
In short: a few, fairly intelligent people, deprived of a sense of purpose, will go looking for answers in radical Islam. These are Western people looking for some alternatives to the bankrupt intellectual and political culture around them. Those who are apparently ‘recruited’, on the other hand, are mostly idiots.
In focusing on so-called ‘extremists’ and ‘radicals’, the authorities and security agencies manage to miss that which lies right under their nose. What’s worse, the very language they use belies their own difficulty. By accusing someone of being ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’, they effectively give up on any attempt to address the content of what people supposedly believe, targeting instead the extent to which they are held to believe it. This is like saying, ‘I don’t care what it is you believe in, so long as it is not too much’, which in its turn is an admission that they themselves believe in nothing.
At a talk given to the Smith Institute in London on the evening of her announcement regarding the proposed ‘deredicalisation’ programme, Jacqui Smith suggested that ‘lacking a positive vision, al-Qaeda can only define itself by what it opposes’. Talk of projecting yourself on to others! She and her cronies would be better off outlining what kind of Britain it is that they do want to live in, rather than obsessing over a handful of dangerous idiots whose ideas and outlooks would seem entirely unimpressive were it not for the vacuum that they confront.
First published by spiked, 5 June 2008