Sociological research aimed to help, understand and prevent radicalisation in the UK
by Fran Gillow
Since the mid-2000s, the focus of the general public, sociological research and government intelligence has increasingly shifted to radicalisation. Radicalisation can be identified as a process that leads to violent extremism and, in numerous cases, terrorism. Although most radicals don’t engage in violent or terrorist acts, news reports and media coverage have concentrated on radicalised Muslims. Scaremongering has been evident ever since the London 7/7 bombings and the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. Sociologists have aimed to develop an understanding of radicalisation, however, research into this area has taken a slightly different route. Instead, it is helping to identify possible indicators and pathways that can be used in government prevention schemes.
Why radicalisation occurs can be comprehended in three ways. First, there is the geopolitical aspect. The geopolitical situation links to wider society and economic or political factors. In terms of radicalisation research, the geopolitical view is associated with inequality or poverty. The idea that people radicalise either due to a lack of material wealth or perceived injustice is a viewpoint often expressed. However, no direct link has actually been made. In fact, Walter Laquer, known as one of the founding fathers of the study of political violence and terrorism, completely rejected the theory that terrorism was linked to poverty. Further geopolitical concepts refer to wider external conflicts and Western foreign policy events such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet, the geopolitical aspect has been widely dismissed by government agencies as it offers no solution. This leads us to the second interpretation of radicalisation: Theology.
Theology places responsibility for radicalisation on religion itself. Salafism is the religious doctrine most blamed within the theological debate as the Salafist reading of the scripture is known to be predisposed to violence. The last and most popular explanation used to help understand radicalisation is psychology. Cultural-psychological factors specifically have been identified and helped to generate possible profiles or pathways for individuals that may be vulnerable to radicalisation. Psychological/individual factors can be divided into push and pull categories. So, within the push category you would include; grievances or personal victimisation. Under pull would be listed factors such as status or identification.
Many sociologists have attempted to provide in-depth explanations and possible pathways that will lead us closer to pre-empting possible radicalised terrorists. Wiktorowicz (2004) developed a theological and social model involving the idea of a ‘cognitive opening’. For a cognitive opening, he referred to as a psychological crisis whereby confusion of identity or discrimination could take place which opened an individual up to alternative beliefs and perspectives. The answer to their problems is therefore often found in religion. Related to Wiktorowicz’s work is that of fellow sociologist Sageman (2008), who focused on social networks surrounding radicalisation. Sageman placed social bonds above ideological commitment by identifying two routes to radicalisation. The first is that of a group of friends joining a terrorist organisation and the second that of an individual joining a childhood friend who was part of a terrorist group. Sageman provided a simple formula for radicalisation that was essentially suspicion by association. Both theorists have been used by government agencies to help try to prevent radicalisation.
This leads us onto the government and their interest in racialisation. Unlike the public and researchers who seek a greater understanding of the processes behind radicalisation, the government aim to stop radicalisation from occurring and therefore develop schemes to prevent it. The UK government’s counter terrorist strategy is called Contest. I have included a link below of their 2015 report for anybody wanting further information on their policies, aims and progress. Contest goal is to prevent terrorism at an early stage, part of the scheme is Prevent. Prevent works alongside sectors and institutions such as universities to help spot early signs of radicalisation. Young people who are identified as vulnerable or who show possible warning signs of being radicalised are referred to Prevent. No singular profile or pathway is used, however, psychological and theological research has been identified as helpful in spotting the early signs of a radicalised individual.
These schemes aren’t noncontroversial, though. Kundami has rightly highlighted that many of the indicators used categorise a community, which results in suspect communities being monitored. Primarily, this is an issue as it leads to focus on communities rather than the individuals at fault. Secondly, it can result in the exclusion of the whole community, which in itself may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true. So, in this sense, if a whole community is suspected of being one where radicalisation may grow and spread, they are likely to be excluded from normal political and public processes and may turn to extremist views through frustration. Furthermore, this method makes the presumption that violent terrorists tend to come from a larger pool of extremist sympathisers which leads us onto the popular debate surrounding the blurred lines between moderate and radical views. With government interference into radicalisation, it leads to questions such as whether it is a criminal offence to hold non-violent extremist views. The topic area as a whole provides a lot of subjectivity over the appropriate approach, viewpoint and law enforcement.
Additionally, the most common issue that occurs alongside Prevent is that someone is being referred wrongly. The same implications from the suspect communities can be applied in terms of self-fulfilling prophecy. However, being wrongly accused of showing the early signs to radicalisation can lead to a negative impact on self-esteem and a child’s learning. Secondly, the scheme may reduce feelings of comfort in these institutions and therefore may push objections to the system further underground.
So, as we can see radicalisation in the UK has become a talking point for many. Sociological research allows us to comprehend the process better and have a greater understanding of the individuals that do become radicalised. We have also touched on the Governments role in this area however, new schemes may be beneficial such as political empowerment of young people in the Muslim community.
UK Government counter-terrorism strategy
Kundnani, A. (2012)- Radicalisation: the journey of a concept
Mark Sedgwick (2010)- The concept of radicalization as a source of confusion
Wagemakers, J., 2016. Salafism. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.255
Walter Laqueur – Powerbase (accessed 5.25.2017)