Why Deradicalization is Not the Answer

Speaking at a National Security Symposium organized by the Valparaiso University Law Review last month, Thomas Durkin and David Nevin, lawyers for Guantanamo detainees, said that until we understand the motivation of those who use violence, we will not be able to curb the recruitment.

Thousands of Westerners have heeded the terrorist call over the past few years.  Christianne Boudreau, the mother of Canadian Damian Clairmont (who died for ISIS earlier this year), wants to do something.

She is not alone. Sgt. Renu Dash, of the RCMP public engagement team, says that one of the signs of radicalization is that “their understanding of geopolitics is not what we would say is the standard.”  In fact, Western governments, law enforcement agencies and various community groups hope to identify and nip the problem in the bud.  Such efforts (aimed at families and communities) are well intentioned and necessary if done properly as part of a comprehensive effort. But as experts such as John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, point out, deradicalization initiatives could be counterproductive if ill conceived.  He told Rolling Stone last year, “The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research.”

Indeed, radical ideas are not crimes.  Imagine a world without Gandhi, MLK or Mandela.

Horgan, a criminal psychologist, and others argue that too many programs are “poorly conceptualized” and fail to see the critical distinction between merely harboring radical views and the adoption of violence as a strategy. It is highly idiosyncratic and involves the complex interaction of various personal, social, economic, political and ideological factors.  Sometimes, mental illness may also be in the mix (as suggested by the mother of the Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau).  In fact, a few “radicals” that I have counseled were diagnosed Schizophrenics.

The process and reasons for violence are idiosyncratic, circumstance driven and sometimes even opportunistic. How to prevent the shift to violence will be elusive until the why is given more attention without caving in to political correctness or blind patriotism. Belittling and minimizing the role played by hawkish Western foreign policies and draconian anti-terror initiatives on radicalization as well as Muslim defensiveness and denial are of equal concern. At the same time, blunt generalizations and reductionism hurt more than help.

Violent radicalization must be confronted without undermining social cohesion, violating human rights and deviating from core democratic ideals.

Many studies including those carried out by the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and the Triangle Center on Terrorism at Duke University confirm that most violent radicals are motivated by a cause as opposed to religion and see it as a military tool.  Indeed, most have a poor understanding of Islam, but are empathetic to the plight of the oppressed. That said, extremist ideas (including viewing people as believers and unbelievers) combined with resentment and a victim narrative can provide the cognitive opening that can be exploited by violent preachers who provide the chapter and verse to justify “heroically” responding to injustices.

The community is best positioned and equipped to tackle cognitive radicalization.  Since 9/11 it has repeatedly condemned violence in the strongest of terms and recently even came out with “United Against Terrorism.”

However, more needs to be done to challenge some of the existing violent  narratives.  Imams must be more pro-active in undermining some of the teachings in classical texts glorifying violence and martyrdom, by emphasizing the ethical/peaceful vision of the Quran. This can only be done by deconstructing and contextualizing the violent rhetoric in some of the teachings and interpretations adopted uncritically by too many. Any government involvement will be counterproductive.

Before others get too smug, violence is not just a Muslim problem. In fact, non-Muslim terrorism has claimed more victims in North America since 9/11. The worship of guns, guts and glory and its reinforcement in popular culture truly have long term human consequences. Indeed, after noting that the Ottawa shooter, Michael Zehalf-Bibeau, spent hours playing violent video games, his mother Ms. Susan Bibeau wrote “I doubt he watched much islamic propaganda…”

Within the community, the deprogramming efforts will have some effect (with the young, those who have not been coopted yet and those disillusioned), but they will fail to stymy the resort to violence among the already converted (who will discount such Imams as “soft” or “liberal”).  Moreover, these efforts risk coming off as minimizing the legitimate grievances (domestic and foreign) and undermining their anger by treating it as irrational or a cognitive state that can be brainwashed out of them. This will only backfire. It will certainly not help in cutting the fuse to violence.

In contrast, disengagement, which focuses on dissuading radicals from terror tactics through attitudinal change has more promise.  In fact, Hogan’s interviews with former extremists found that “while almost all of the interviewees could be described as disengaged, not a single one of them could be said to be “deradicalized.”

Disengagement does not require a disavowal of radical beliefs and acceptance of western values. Moreover, acknowledging and striving to change the violent and discriminatory policies (foreign and domestic) and validating their beliefs, facilitates disengagement from violence. Such openings for dialogue and interaction outside their circles can be used to help divert their energies toward peaceful and constructive ways to challenge the establishment.  In addition to supporting a cause, other big motivators are group identity, belonging and standing up for your “core” group. As the American Psychological Associations notes, the existing body of research into political and group dynamics (including gangs) provides fertile material in this regard. These studies must be mined to help us address how to deal with motivation and to convince such people to disengage from violence.

Faisal Kutty is an assistant professor and director of the International LL.M. Program at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana. He is also an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto.

Faisal Kutty, is an associate professor of law and director of the International LL.M. Program at Valparaiso University Law School and an adjunct professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. He is also a co-founder of KSM Law for which he serves as counsel. He blogs at the Huffington Post and his academic articles are archived at SSRN.