It has been a year of unfolding statistics. Some 400,000 refugees have attempted to enter Europe this year, many fleeing the war in Syria. A much smaller, yet equally significant number have travelled the other way.
Some 4,000 Europeans have, over the past few years, left to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). We know why people want to flee Syria – but what draws thousands of young Europeans to a brutal, sadistic organisation like ISIL?
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The conventional answer is “radicalisation”, a process through which extremist groups, or “hate preachers”, indoctrinate vulnerable Muslims with fundamentalist ideas – the first step on a path leading inexorably to terrorism. What makes people vulnerable is that they are poorly integrated into society.
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Radicalisation is a concept that has caught the imagination of many politicians and shaped much domestic counterterror policy in Europe and elsewhere. The trouble is that most of the assumptions of the radicalisation thesis are untrue.
For instance, a 2008 British MI5 study on extremism in the UK that was leaked to the press observed that “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly”.
Nor is it to true that would-be jihadis are particularly poor, uneducated or poorly integrated. Researchers from London’s Queen Mary College found no link to “social inequalities or poor education”, while Marc Sageman, a former CIA operative who is now an academic and counterterrorism consultant to the US government, argues that terrorists are often among “the best and brightest” from “caring, middle-class families”.
But if the conventional radicalisation thesis is without foundation, much of the criticism that surrounds it is also flawed. Many critics argue that it is not religion but politics that drives aspiring jihadis to terror. Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries, they suggest, has pushed many Muslims into the hands of the jihadists. This, however, is merely a different form of the radicalisation thesis. Where the conventional thesis focuses on the “pull” factor of fundamentalist Islam, such critics stress the “push” factor of Western foreign policy.
Simplistic narratives about 'radicalisation' miss the complex roots of homegrown terrorism. Conventional solutions, such as banning organisations or censoring speech, betray liberties without addressing the issues that make extremism attractive to some in the first place.
European recruits for ISIL are certainly hostile to Western foreign policy and are devoted to their vision of Islam. And yet, the “radicalisation” argument looks upon the jihadis’ journey from back to front.
It begins with the jihadis as they are at the end of their journey – enraged with the West, and with a binary view of Islam – but for most jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria were rarely taken for political or religious reasons. The journeys were, rather, a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is an existential form of alienation.
There is, of course, nothing new in the search for identity and meaning. What is different today is the social context in which this search takes place.
We live in more atomised societies than in the past, in an age in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions and in which moral lines often seem blurred and identities distorted.
In the past, social disaffection may have led people to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to anti-racist campaigns. Today, such organisations often seem to be equally out of touch.
Politics of identity
What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics but the politics of identity. Identity politics has, over the past three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms.
These developments have shaped not just Muslim self-perception but that of many social groups. Many individuals within white, working-class communities are often as disengaged as their Muslim peers, and similarly, they see their problems not in political terms, but rather through the lens of cultural and ethnic identity.
Hence the growing hostility towards immigration and, for some, the attraction of far-right groups. Racist populism and religious extremism are both expressions of social disengagement in an era of identity politics.
There is, however, something distinctive about the Islamist identity: Islam is a global religion, allowing Islamists to create an identity that is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world, from Afghanistan to Palestine, and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement.
Most homegrown jihadis possess, however, a peculiar relationship with Islam. They are often as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from Western societies. Most detest the mores and traditions of their parents and have little time for mainstream forms of Islam. It is through the internet that most jihadis discover both their faith and their virtual community.
How should we respond? Simplistic narratives about “radicalisation” miss the complex roots of homegrown terrorism. Conventional solutions, such as banning organisations or censoring speech, betray liberties without addressing the issues that make extremism attractive to some in the first place.
There is an uncomfortable question we need to ask: Why is it that so many intelligent, resourceful young people find an ideology that espouses mass beheadings and slave labour more appealing than anything else society has to offer them?
Until we are able convincingly to address that, the outflow of European jihadis will not be staunched.
Kenan Malik is a London-based writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His latest book is The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. Previous books include From Fatwa to Jihad, shortlisted for the 2010 George Orwell Prize. He writes at Pandaemonium: www.kenanmalik.wordress.com
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.