On Violent Extremism

Full text of my talk on the ‘violent extremism’ panel, The Wilberforce Society Annual Conference 2017: Global Disenchantment, St John’s College, Cambridge, 4 February.


The Wilberforce Society, my fellow panellists and to you the audience, many thanks indeed for the kind invitation and the opportunity to be with you here today.

Left to right: Tahir Abbas; HE Nestor Osorio, Colombian Ambassador to the UK and former Permanent Representative to the UN; Mr Nigel Inskter, Former Head of Special Operations, MI6; Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG, Member of Council, Chatham House and Former Director of the FCO.

In the ten minutes I have, I would like to talk about an important issue facing societies in the current period. This issue relates to the concept of violent extremism, but this topic cannot be seen in isolation. Indeed, violence is a by-product of other illnesses in society. It rarely occurs on its own, whether it is the context of violence towards women, towards children, towards minorities, towards any group or idea seen as alien or opposite to the self. The latter evokes the question of identity – a theme I will return to throughout my talk…

While these violent tendencies are not new, and it is true one cannot see any of them operate in a vacuum, the violence that is the reality of the world today has many different local and global features – and with all the resultant impacts it has for communities, societies and nations the world over. Much of the violence we see relating to the notion of violent extremism emerges in the context of societies where there is an acute democratic deficit – where the voiceless and ‘left behind’ see an opportunity to hit back at ‘the cosmopolitan elite’ (code for Jewish and other minority groups), often responding to populist notions put forward by charismatic politicians who snub the very same cosmopolitan elite by playing on fears of différence, immigration or terrorism.

Whether it is far right or radical Islamist, the root causes of violent extremism are political, and not necessarily ideological. The ideology only comes into play when additional layers of meaning are added to the rhetoric to provide greater buy-in for the would-be radicalised. We have also seen these tendencies grow over time as a response to the immediate but they are also part of an evolution during the last two decades, mirrored by the digital age. Both far right extremists and radical Islamist are conflicting over notions of local vs global identity, are fearful of their future in post-industrial societies, and scathing of differences in relation to a set of core political notions regarding identity, where both are responding to each other. Indeed, they reinforce each other, fuel the fires of each other’s rhetoric, and are unable to see their worlds beyond the immediate survival and growth of their own group.

The nature of violent extremism among Islamists and far-right groups is also changing because of the importance of the internet – first, in bringing people together under various political and ideological banners – and, now, in enabling operations and terrorist incidences that create havoc and sow discord among all. ISIS, for example, is now increasingly encouraging its followers not to migrate to the utopian vision that is the so-called Islamic State but now asks them to stay in their countries of birth, especially in the west, and carry out attacks on local populations. Far right groups are galvanising their efforts in the light of populist politicians and shock results like Brexit and Trump. The rise of the alt-right in the USA and the position of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist at the White House suggest that Trump has, arguably, surrounded himself with white nationalists, white supremacists, and anti-Semites and Islamophobes galore. This will embolden other populist leaders vying for political power in 2017 – namely in Netherlands, Poland, France and Germany.

The war on terror and the war on terror culture that has ensued since then has not always helped to fight violent extremism – in fact, at some level, it has sustained it  by feeding into the narratives of radical Islamist groups – confirming the idea that the west’s main target is Islam when, arguably, the focus should be on would-be radicalised individuals as would-be terrorists and criminals. The recent utterances from Trump will do little to counteract the dominant perception among radicalised Muslims. in the Middle East. While intentions were noble, efforts in Iraq, Syria and Libya have been disastrous – and on so many fronts. This has not only destabilised an entire region, it has also led to tremendous loss of human life and destruction of world heritage. The conflict in Syria has displaced 5m people and resulted in the loss of half of million lives. The Syrian crisis has seen the greatest flow of refugees since the Second World War. It has also led to issues within hosting countries, at both national and political levels, from concerns in relation to the question of ‘what do we do about this problem’ to scorn, resentment or indifference on the part of prominent political figures and media elites.

The question of religion and extremism is always asked – however, it is a bit of a red herring. We know from how ISIS recruit online that they do so by focusing on the narratives of Islamophobia and the idea that the west is not willing to accept Islam. They then move onto such notions that it is the duty of good Muslims to help a major humanitarian cause. Once the pliable have been emotionally and intellectually weakened, the Islamist strain of thought is added. Indeed, at this point, there is a long way back for the now radicalised young person on the verge of violence extremism. The tools of violent Islamists do not hark back to some medieval concept. Rather, these groups have never been averse to technology – it is no surprise the ISIS videos are slick and captivating for the vulnerable mind.

One of the problems of political violence is that it occurs within a political space, one that is formulated by elites at the centre, who work in the interests of dominant influences, whether corporate or geopolitical, and where there is often not enough said or done in relation to local matters – hence the huge regional divisions in Britain, ever widening as neoliberal economics strengthens the core at the expense of the periphery. One possible solution to all forms of extremism is empowerment – that is providing the tools, means and opportunities for otherwise estranged young people to engage in society, to have a stake in their futures and to recognise diversity as an asset. At the same time, it is quite apparent that western nations are in dire need of immigrants to buttress the pension pots of generations to come – there is also a tremendous skills shortage in many different sectors – and this is not going to change very soon. Political disillusionments occur alongside economic and cultural dislocations – and it is the multi-layered nature of various exclusions that stems from both individual and universal notions of identity that exacerbate the tensions.

Moving forward requires a greater understanding of these inter-linkages and how uneven policies have the effect of potentially making matters worse rather than better. The reality of terrorism is that it does not work (on its own) – the terror of the act is quickly displaced by the power of governments to hit back hard – further fuelling the rhetoric of would-be terrorists. In order to break the vicious cycle of violent extremism, it is important to break the cycles of political, economic and cultural exclusions – evening out the opportunities to the many, not the few, and for policymakers to temper their rhetoric, especially when it affects the narratives of the radicalers and the would-be radicalised violent extremist.

Many thanks for your time. I look forward to your thoughts and questions. Thank you!

3 thoughts on “On Violent Extremism

  1. The links between geopolitics, identity and extremism are brought to the fore in this nuanced and thoughtful contribution.
    The constructive suggestions re empowerment are also much needed and give a practical way forward in addressing this complex issue.

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