A blind spot

Jihadi radicalisation and religious ideology

One area of study that has significantly grown over the past decade is that of radicalisation. How do individuals come to believe that violence is a proper response to current political problems or unjust social conditions? How do these ideas translate into actual violence—or do they? As violent non-state actors have come to be seen as a top national-security concern by a number of powerful nation-states, these questions have taken on particular urgency: after all, terrorist and insurgent movements are notoriously difficult to defeat by military means alone.

Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s “Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us” makes a noteworthy contribution to the study of radicalisation. Both McCauley and Moskalenko are social psychologists, and they draw deeply from the research and methods of their discipline to outline twelve mechanisms of radicalisation. Radicalisation mechanisms that operate on an individual level include personal grievance based on the harm to an individual or his loved ones; group grievance based on actual harm or threats toward a group or cause the individual cares about; a slippery slope, in which small involvements build upon each other, ultimately producing larger actions and commitments; love for someone already radicalised that can pull an individual toward radicalisation; the risk and status that comes from involvement in an idealistic, and in many cases outlawed, cause; and unfreezing, where an individual who loses social connection (for example, a lonely and disconnected immigrant) can become open to new ideas and a new identity. Group mechanisms for radicalisation include group polarisation, where like-minded individuals cause each other to adopt increasingly strident views; group competition, where groups become radicalised through a process of political competition with other like-minded groups; and group isolation, where group members are cut off from others, and thus come to see only the group itself as important, and everything external as unimportant or even evil.

McCauley and Moskalenko also discuss mechanisms of mass radicalisation, where extremism becomes far more widespread. These mechanisms include jujitsu politics, where terrorist groups provoke a government overreaction that draws others to their cause; hatred, where the enemy in a conflict becomes increasingly seen as inhuman; and martyrdom, where “a successfully constructed martyr can radicalise sympathizers for the martyr’s cause.”

The book’s description of these twelve mechanisms is concise, lucid, and valuable. They make the point—which is lost in the work of such scholars as Robert Pape and James Feldman—that there are multiple mechanisms of radicalisation that may interact with each other. “Individual mechanisms do not disappear when an individual joins a group,” McCauley and Moskalenko write, “and group mechanisms do not disappear when a group participates in some larger organisation or mass public.”

Despite the book’s value, it shares a common blind spot with the preponderance of Western scholarship: an unwillingness to take religious ideology seriously as a possible mechanism of radicalisation. To their credit, the authors do note that “ideology can be important… as a source of justification for violence,” but they provide a number of reasons that they do not think it can be seen as a mechanism of radicalisation in itself. None of their negations stand up to scrutiny.

McCauley and Moskalenko first explain that the idea that jihadi terrorism is a product of Wahhabi or Salafi extremist ideology is unpersuasive because most Wahhabis and Salafis do not support terrorism. “Salafi Muslims are fundamentalists who strive to live an Islam of the seventh century; most aim to withdraw from the spiritual contaminations of the modern world and are not interested in political change, with or without violence,” they write (emphasis added).

The notion of most Salafis being quietist has been frequently trotted out by researchers, generally when they are denying connections between Salafism and jihadi violence. But though the idea has been asserted repeatedly, I have never seen persuasive or empirical proof of the matter. Thus, I have previously questioned the idea that most Salafism is apolitical; but in the past year, since the “Arab Spring” has created more opportunity for Islamist groups, it has become far clearer how dubious it is to describe this absolutely apolitical form of Salafism as predominant. In the past the quietist strain of Salafism may have been more a product of opportunity (the fact that more active Salafi groups were suppressed by regional governments) than of the kind of intense ideological commitment that many academics assumed. A recent Washington Post report on the Middle East in the wake of its revolutions notes that one significant social dynamic has been the Salafis pushing, “sometimes at the ballot box, sometimes at the point of a gun,” for the creation of “societies that more closely mirror their ultraconservative beliefs and lifestyles.” The rise of Salafis creating this change through both political parties and vigilantism did not follow some ideological seismic shift within Salafism, but rather emerged when Salafis found greater freedom to operate openly. Further, we have not seen the kind of massive outcry from quietist Salafis in response to these developments that we might expect if most Salafis really did shun either violent or non-violent political change.

So McCauley and Moskalenko misdiagnosed how Salafism should be understood, a fact that has grown more obvious since their book’s publication; that fact alone might suggest that their assumptions about ideology should be revisited. The authors present no study, sources, or data to support their assertion that most Wahhabis and Salafis do not support terrorism—but even if that assertion is true, it is true also of other radicalisation mechanisms that they do include. Many governments throughout the world commit grave injustices against their own citizens, and indeed, McCauley and Moskalenko argue that this is the case of the U.S. in its post-9/11 anti-terrorism mechanisms. Yet the vast majority of people who have either personal or group grievances do not turn to violence: indeed, the number of people who can be described as having potentially radicalising personal or group grievances almost certainly dwarfs the number of Wahhabis and Salafis in the world. Many people seek risk and status yet few turn to terrorism for these ends; Similarly many like-minded political groups are in competition with each other for followers and prominence yet few turn to violence. Why, then, is religious ideology thought to be uniquely over-predictive?

A second reason that McCauley and Moskalenko reject the “bad ideology” explanation for terrorism is that “ideas are not the same as action.” Many more people have radical beliefs than are actually involved in radical action. The fact the ideas and action are not the same is a real and important insight, but there are nonetheless two problems with their contention. First, emotions (which the authors say can be a cause of violent radicalisation) are also not the same as action, and there are many more people who have violent emotions yet do not turn to violence than there are those who remain nonviolent despite adhering to a violent ideology. The authors provide no reason the observation that ideas do not equate to action should nullify religious ideology as a causal mechanism but leave emotion in place as one. Second, in Salafi jihadi ideology, the necessity of violent action is contained within the relevant ideas themselves: a key argument advanced by the movement’s ideologues is that there is an individual religious obligation to undertake violent action in defence of Islam. In contrast, one could subscribe fully to anarchist or extreme animal-rights ideas without embracing violent action. It is possible that violent action is more likely to spring from ideas when the inescapable conclusion of the ideas is that violence is necessary. This point is by no means unambiguously true, but social scientists like the authors should not uncritically embrace the assumption that all kinds of ideas that have driven terrorism will operate in precisely the same way as causal mechanisms.

And this point—that different kinds of ideas may relate to violence in different ways—gives lie to McCauley and Moskalenko’s claim that the “bad-ideology account of terrorism” is implausible because “it is not easily generalised from one kind of terrorism to another.” This argument makes the unproven assumption that all kinds of terrorism can be explained in the exact same way and then uses that assumption to clobber causal arguments related to religious ideology. In other words, it is a circular argument that lacks a foundation.

Finally, McCauley and Moskalenko argue that religious ideology can be discounted because personal and group grievances are the true factors that “move individuals toward violence, with ideology serving only to rationalise the violence.” This argument seems much more compelling (albeit not determinative) if one only considers terrorist violence aimed at the United States or other Western countries, and ignores other manifestations of Salafi jihadi violence. What is the individual or group grievance that caused Salafi extremists in Libya to demolish sufi shrines? What grievance explains the attacks on liquor stores in Tunisia? What grievance explains the Salafi attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians?

At the end of the day, the argument that grievance is the true cause of violence, and ideology is only a rationalisation, is—like all of the authors’ other arguments about ideology’s irrelevance—an unproven assumption. I co-authored a 2009 study showing a strong incidence of Salafi religiosity prior to the turn to violence among homegrown Islamist terrorists in the U.S. and U.K. Correlation is not, of course, causation, but the findings of this study suggest that religious ideas might serve as an individual mechanism for radicalisation. Religious ideology may similarly function at a group level. In the Lackawanna Six case, for example, Kamal Derwish’s pitch to the small group he coaxed into attending an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan was strongly religious in emphasis.

And religious ideology may be a tool of mass radicalisation, too. The Wahhabi/Salafi ideology that the authors discount as a radicalisation mechanism has been heavily propagated throughout the world, dawa efforts for this interpretation of Islam receiving enormous amounts of funding from Saudi Arabia and others. Regional specialists have observed that in some places, such as the Horn of Africa, these efforts have helped to displace more moderate local Islamic practice, displacing it with a strain of the faith that is notoriously xenophobic.

This is not to say that the mechanisms in this book are clearly wrong, and that the authors should definitely have included religious ideology. Rather, they too readily discount it, providing unpersuasive justifications for why religious ideology is not a radicalisation mechanism. This blind spot is not aberrational, but is representative of the predominant view within Western social science, which has not developed sound metrics for evaluating the causal role of religious ideology, and yet tends to assure us that, for the most part, it does not matter.

Why is this the case? It seems that some projection is at play: religion is not an important motivating force for most Western scholars, so they assume that this must be the case for others, too. Also, religion as a topic makes most Western scholars extremely uncomfortable: not only do they not understand the Islamic faith well, but also dwelling too much on religious ideology surely risks accusations of bigotry. So they negate religious ideology as a causal mechanism.

But if the study of radicalisation is important—and I believe it is—it should not be cheapened by an unwillingness to explore topics that may be difficult for Western researchers to broach. Though Friction makes a contribution to the study of radicalisation, and a considerable one at that, surely religious ideology as a possible mechanism of radicalisation deserves more consideration in the future than McCauley and Moskalenko decided to give it.