The Radicalization Thesis

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Members of Parliament resumed business as usual after the March 22nd attacks at the House of Commons and Westminster Bridge. The anxieties from the likes of Sky News—to the loss of tourism (capital) and people taking selfies (narcissism)—have not yet been allayed.

The Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, began his speech in the Commons by stating that we “recommit ourselves to the values our Parliament represents … decency, goodness and tolerance.” The Prime Minister, echoing the sentiments of both the legislature and her government, described this as an attack on “our way of life.”

Similarly, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, condemned “those who attack us” for hating our freedom and democracy. Following him were the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, who identified the prima causa as motivated by a hatred for our liberal values of tolerance and the rule of law.

BBC journalists following the event emphasised events as an “attack on our democracy”—momentarily breaking the illusion of their impartiality and become explicitly embedded in the soft jingoism that is often the prevailing response to these atrocities. Indeed, almost without exception, all members of House of Commons have interpreted this act of political violence as one which was exclusively compelled by an ideology antonymous to British values.

That the attacks were heinous is uncontroversial. What is more contested, however, will be both the political capital sought from opportunistic rendering of the events and the determination of its causes. While the dust is still settling, families are grieving and an investigation is underway. An unravelling of the Prime Minister, governments, and MPs statements reveal not just mere condemnation but a hasty and problematic anticipation of what underpinned the attacks.

Common to most of these expressions of the political establishment is a presumption that the attacks were primarily or exclusively ideologically motivated and that latent in these expressions (and despite some members of the House warning against extending responsibility to the entire Muslim community) is the reification of a clash of civilizations framing. Wrongly identifying the causes of this act of violence as either of these means any strategy to counteract it will be similarly misguided.

To suggest that the attack’s prima causa was purely ideological or that it was based on a fundamental clash of civilizations misunderstands what causes these forms of political violence. The shifting explanatory discourses surrounding political and terrorist violence are brilliant surmised in a report by a leading scholar, Arun Kundnani. The dominant narrative around the causes of terrorism post 9/11, the report states, was initially geared around the irreconcilable cultural differences between an enlightened West and a regressive (and Islamic) east (known as the clash of civilizations thesis, popularized by Samuel Huntington and brilliantly refuted by Edward Said).

The parameters of any counter-terrorism policy, therefore, required military interventions in the so-called Orient. However, policy circles began to soon identify the shortcomings of this explanation (though not entirely disposing of it) and the radicalization thesis began to emerge as the dominant explanatory paradigm. This stated that extreme ideas were “a conveyor belt” toward political violence, now prevailing as the current UK government’s understanding of how terrorism is caused (one should not, however, see the shift toward the radicalization thesis from the clash of civilisations thesis as an abrupt change and indeed elements of the latter are often embedded in the former).

The report criticises both these approaches for the lack of their empirical credibility and their ignorance, according to many experts, of other key factors such as structural violence and foreign policy. Indeed, one of the leading security experts, Robert Pape, in a study of suicide bombers, concluded that the dominant motivation for these style of attacks were primarily geo-political.

Statements from the political establishment have in fact combined both the clash of civilizations and radicalization thesis in attempting to understand what motivated the attacker outside Westminster. In their eyes, support for the clash of civilizations thesis is evidenced by the targets. Admittedly, targets are telling in some respects. This attack was a direct affront to the center of UK legal power—our sovereign parliament that is able to legislate on whatever it wants, create the supreme law of the land, and cannot be bound by an external institution (without its consent, of course)—something which has featured prominently in the public consciousness with recent Brexit litigation.

It made sense therefore, to describe the attacker as despising “our freedoms” and forms of political organization. A similar explanation was used for the Bataclan attacks in France, in which the focus on cafes and music venues were considered anathema to the barbaric and uncultured perpetrators. They were uncultured because of course music venues, cafes, art, poetry, dance, and song do not exist in many of our orientalist representations of the Muslim world—nor does an aspiration for its own indigenous form of democracy.

However, while it may be true that some perpetrators of this kind of political violence adhere to ideas that consider such things as alien decadence, this is often the language through which they express frustration with structural violence or foreign intervention. Few “nascent terrorists” wake up in the morning wanting to commit acts of violence against the United States or the UK because of their forms of political, economic, and social organization. But if the British made bombs rain on Yemen or US carries out drones strikes in Pakistan or Somalia, this vocabulary of rejecting alien decadence can partially rationalize acts of violence against foreign aggression, whether real or perceived.

Such attributions of “extreme ideas” or “clashing civilizations” between the attacker and the attacked as the exclusive causes of these forms of violence are a betrayal of the present and past. The history of the world has been far more porous than tales of such a schism would lead us to believe.

Tanzil Chowdhury has a doctorate in Law from the University of Manchester, where he teachers in Public Law, Counter-Terrorism and Jurisprudence. His current research adopts a genealogical approach to the UK's legal power to declare war and commit troops abroad. He also co-founded the Northern Police Monitoring Project and the Greater Manchester Law Centre. You can follow him on Twitter @tchowdhury88.