By Lynn Davies
I met these other people, Muslims, and for some reason they saw something in me that I couldn’t see. They basically believed in me and they said that, ‘You can do more with yourself’.
Interviewing former extremists (far right and Islamist) about their reasons for joining and leaving extremism uncovered a complex mix of drivers. Our research in ConnectJustice, called ‘Formers and Families’, was part of a larger EU funded study with the Netherlands and Denmark. It aimed to explore the role of families both in radicalisation and in exit. Although the focus was the family, our exploration in UK found family background not to be a convincing ‘factor’ in motivation. A number of the extremists in our sample reported coming from loving and caring homes. As with many of the fighters going off to Syria, parents often did not know about their children’s journeys into violent extremism. There was no single, linear, recognizable pathway in and out. The process of radicalisation was a mix of a whole range of factors and drivers. Whether far right or Islamist, there is a sense of mission and purpose in life, wanting identity as a saviour – whether of the world or of the local community.
Together with this need for status is a search for excitement and adventure. Some came through a normalization of violence experienced in gangs before legitimizing this through a dehumanizing of particular ethnic of religious groups. For a few it was self-initiation, but most experienced skillful grooming by influencers.
Similarly, deradicalisation was a mix of greater maturity, including becoming a parent and not wanting one’s child to take this path; increasing unease at the extent, type and targets of violence; anger at being manipulated or betrayed by the groups that recruited them; and different sorts of private study which began the questioning process.
If I hadn’t researched, I’d have been a hardened BNP member, if I hadn’t the intelligence to think, this is wrong…
Overall there was a process of perspective taking, a sudden insight into oneself as an actor in relation to others:
I realised I was hating a bunch of people who were like me.
Looking at backgrounds, we found that neither school nor church/mosque attendance was protective of becoming an extremist. Experience of racism or violence at school did not help, but not all students who are harassed go on to engage in violence. Interestingly, more than one of our sample said they wished they had tackled this topic at school, as it might have stopped them.
The educational implications of our on-going study are primarily five-fold:
- There cannot usefully be a checklist of ‘signs of radicalisation’ which teachers or administrators can employ
- Extremism must however be tackled at school, with safe spaces for discussion of controversial issues and airing of divergent or even uncomfortable views (as well as safe spaces for discussion in community, church/mosque, with police and in the family itself)
- There must be a continuous challenge to simplistic, black and white versions of social or political reality and equally of binary notions of people. A nuanced, critical citizenship or history education can provide a platform for addressing such complexity.
- Normal political change is too slow for some young people: the former extremists recommended that there should be opportunities and skills training for students to create change and take up causes in a non-violent way.
- Critical media literacy can enable students to analyse how messages are conveyed and whether there is evidence for claims being made.
Analysts of journeys into radicalization will typically talk of push and pull factors, with push factors including poverty and exclusion, a sense of injustice and actual or perceived humiliation as well as boredom and lack of voice. Pull factors include the ideological attraction of the mission, being given a sense of belonging and family, a charismatic recruiter who takes a personal interest and the appeal of adventure or romance.
Education on its own will not address all these push and pull factors in extremism; but it should at least do no harm, and at best try to provide some resilience. Just believing in young people, giving them dignity and a sense of importance, as well as an opportunity to openly and safely discuss controversial political issues, is a start.