In The Hague on 28 November, European Eye on Radicalization (EER) held an event in partnership with LINKS Europe, an organization founded to support peace and conflict resolution, particularly by facilitating dialogue. It was fitting that the conference took place in The Hague, an open, welcoming city devoted to peace. And the urgency of EER and LINKS having brought together several-dozen experts to discuss issues around radicalization—including the effect of conflict and the potential for building bridges between East and West in countering radicalism—was underlined by the attack in The Hague, and the terrorist incident in London, at the end of last week.
There were a number of themes that emerged at the conference, some providing insights to old problems and others providing a basis for further study.
The role of Islam in radicalization is perhaps the most publicly discussed and controversial issue. Some argue that Islam is the root of the crisis. While increased overt religiosity and adoption of such symbols can be indicators of a radicalization path beginning, just as often Islam can provide resilience against radicalization.
In Europe, an important issue at present—and likely to get bigger in the future—is the rise of the far-Right, an extremist movement whose violent offshoots are increasing in number. The relationship between Islamist extremism and the far-Right is symbiotic: the existence of the threat from each ratifies the narratives of the other and provides recruitment opportunities with vulnerable communities. There is also an overlap and borrowing of tactics and ideological approaches. The blend of traditionalism and revolution found in the work of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini is echoed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb.
While there has been significant coverage of the European far-Right, however, the European far-Left is an extremist movement that has received much less attention. Yet the far-Left has made a direct tactical—and even ideological—alliance with the Islamists. Human values around the individual have been shed in favour of communitarianism and identity politics. A notable example is Britain, where the leader of the main opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn, emerges out of this milieu. This synthesis of the regressive Left and Islamism, whether represented by the Brotherhood or the “harder” forces like Tablighi Jamaat, and the lack of seriousness from the liberal mainstream in dealing with this unholy alliance, is enabling the far-Right to present itself as the only guardian for native populations.
In Europe, these cultural conflicts provide the seedbed for extremist movements. In the Middle East, it is actual warfare that enables the extremists to infiltrate and expand among communities and even whole populations. Syria is the clearest case, where an uprising against tyranny was allowed to descend into a sectarian war where Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) could position themselves as vanguards for a Sunni population under assault. Other states such as Nigeria have similar dynamics at work. The “Arab spring” had seemed to hail the end of the jihadist movement, providing the peoples of the Middle East with alternative routes to change. In the decade since, the savagery of the counter-revolutionary movement has convinced many that violence is the only way to change—and it is the jihadists who offer themselves as the conduit for this rage.
Many Westerners believe—in various ways—that the jihadist threat and the terrorism against them is their fault. The problem is that this does not stack up with the facts. Of the four jihadi mobilizations in the West—Afghanistan in the 1980s, Bosnia in the 1990s, Iraq in the 2000s, and Syria in the 2010s—only one could plausibly be attributed to Western action, Iraq, and it was far from the most significant of these.
The data on the jihadi mobilizations in Europe also tells a different story than many people believe: marginalization of immigrants and minority populations is a constant, but even within countries there are only specific hotspots where Muslims are moved to join jihadi groups. The difference is the presence of recruiters and charismatic leaders. It is for this reason that states like Italy with more hardline policies on deporting radicals do not produce the backlash that some might expect. Instead, the removal of key influencers suppresses jihadi activity.
In working to counter violent extremism (CVE) and prevent violent extremism (PVE), it is difficult to accomplish if it is approached solely on those terms. Put simply, the conditions that lead to violent extremism have to be addressed, and this means caring about the grievances of those who are susceptible to the extremists’ message. If such people are approached through the CVE/PVE lens alone, they will be unresponsive. This raises difficult issues about both the nature and branding of CVE/PVE work, namely whether the scope of such action should be expanded or limited and how this should be presented.
The states of the Middle East have been experimenting with various answers to this conundrum, from post-revolutionary Tunisia to the more settled governments on the Gulf. All have found that security tools alone will not work; the ideology behind the terrorism has to be attacked, too. Alongside this, the Gulf states in particular have been attempting to promote an alternative, moderate discourse that can intellectually blunt the appeal of the radicals. Such counter-narratives require a carefully-tailored strategic communications approach.
Going forward, the ways in which a moderate discourse can be fostered and brought to the target audience will be one of the most important counter-extremism challenges.