Parallel paths: radicalisation and terrorism

Demos' latest report, 'The edge of violence', sets out a new agenda for counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation strategies in Canada and Europe. While it breaks important ground, it leaves significant questions unanswered, argues Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal.
Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
16 April 2010

I've just been reading Demos' latest report, 'The edge of violence', on radicalisation and terrorism in Canada and Europe. Its authors, Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Michael King, have made a significant contribution that’s certainly worth a read, particularly on account of an innovative methodology and the unearthing of new material in the form of interviews with Islamist radicals and terrorists in Europe and Canada.

Underpinning the entire report is the argument that radical Muslim critics of the state who do not advocate violence should not be lumped together with violent terrorists when devising counter-subversion and counter-terrorism strategies. That this should be a novel contribution to the field is more an indicator of the immaturity of the discourse on radicalisation than a credit to the authors.

The distinction is in direct conflict with Britain's current counter-terrorism strategy, Contest II. Launched in March last year, Contest II promised to "challenge those who reject the rights to which we are committed, scorn the institutions and values of our parliamentary democracy, dismiss the rule of law and promote intolerance" - a remit that includes the very radicals (of the non-violent variety) that the authors of ‘The edge of violence’ have set out to stress are not appropriate targets of blunt government counter-terrorism strategies.

These non-violent radicals may prove our most valuable partners in preventing terrorism, the report suggests. While some doubts are raised about the willingness of radical, non-violent critics of the state, and in particular its security apparatus, to cooperate in policing, this remains one of the firm suggestions of the report.

At present, the assumption that violence is the natural endpoint of Islamist radicalisation seems to provide a legitimation for the security services to continue the controversial work of counter-subversion - shied away from following the outing of phone taps on non-violent organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1980s. MI5 "do not currently investigate subversion", but might be available for such work "if our monitoring of emerging threats suggested an increase in the subversive threat". It is easy to see how the imposition of a Caliphate or Sharia law could come to be deemed subversive, or, as it was frequently defined, 'a threat to parliamentary democracy'.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the report is the acknowledgement of the limited power of government to prevent extremism developing. Of the host of recommendations included in the report, a large number are accompanied by provisos warning against bungling state interventionism. For example, on the recommendation that al-Qaeda-inspired materials be de-mystified and de-glamourised rather than banned, the authors warn that "These recommendations are primarily aimed at non-government organisations and individuals". The implementation of the suggestion that we set out to satirise and poke fun at violent organisations "needs to come from non-government organisations and agencies" and requirements that Imams speak the national language "are already being created and implemented by some local communities themselves".

Instead, the report suggests that the place for active counter-terrorism is at the point where violent attacks become the practical goals of extremists. Of course, identifying this point is difficult and strategies to nip attacks in the bud may retain their popularity even if such pruning has been shown to cause the numbers committed to violence to multiply.

The report of course focuses in great detail on the Muslim communities of the select European countries and Canada and their relationship to the state, but largely absent is the importance of the interrelationship of non-Muslim and Muslim communities in these countries. There are no recommendations on measures to better integrate different religious communities and increase common understanding.

Some of the most recent headlines in this area have been generated by worries that the money invested in Britain's Prevent counter-radicalisation strategy had angered other communities who resented these ethnically and religiously targeted investments, feeding into BNP-sponsored concerns that Muslims received 'special treatment' while the white working class was ignored. This failure seems to be tacitly acknowledged, with the recommendation that social programmes to target deprivation should not be labeled as counter-terrorism strategies, even if there are links between employment, education and the propensity to commit terrorist acts, as the report shows.

I fear that some of the recommendations of this report may attract a drubbing in the press, detracting from the important distinctions it advocates. The suggestion that potential terrorists be sent on summer camps, presumably at government expense, as part of a range of “exciting alternatives to al-Qaeda” for example, writes its own headlines. Worse, it shows a lack of awareness of the fallout from the Prevent strategy described above and is in danger of contradicting the more important recommendation that social programmes are not co-opted, and thereby tainted, in the service of counter-terrorism.

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