The Need to Embrace Nuance and Diversity in the Fight Against Violent Extremism

Originally published by Reform Magazine February 2016. Original link here to abbreviated online version. Full version only available to subscribers (or on this blog).

For the last two years the international community has been transfixed on the rise of the terrorist group Daesh (also known as Islamic State, ISIS and ISIL). For Western communities there has been a particular focus on the seemingly shocking phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters and female migrants. It is estimated that over 5,000 Western European citizens have traveled hundreds of miles to join what we know to be a violent and brutal terrorist group. Yet despite the intense media focus and public discourse around this trend, there remain many misleading headlines and misunderstandings about processes of radicalisation and prevention.

As a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a counter-extremism think tank, my work is dedicated to understanding what radicalizes individuals into violent organizations. This type of research is used to develop projects for mobilizing positive activism to effectively counter hate-based movements, like Daesh but also looking at violent far-right movements.

When we look at Daesh and other Islamist extremist movements the question is much broader than ‘why are young Muslims being radicalised’. In fact, many of the recruits are not young, and per capita there is a high number of converts joining – people that have not been raised in Muslim families or communities. It is also impossible to make a basic profile of those being radicalised based on socioeconomic status, gender or education levels. In the ISD database tracking Western women that join Daesh ages range from 14 to 45. Education ranges from high school level to doctoral degrees.

So what is the draw towards this violent extremist movement?

The propaganda aimed at recruits is less about the violent beheading videos that make headlines and more about the promise of a better future. This narrative takes the very complicated and dysfunctional geopolitical world that we live in and it simplifies things into black and white. Good guys and bad guys seem well defined. It also offers empowerment. You can be part of the group that is fighting against violent dictators and oppressors (whether that be the Assad government, Israel or Western powers). Propaganda also twists religious verses and texts to say that this is your duty, ordained by God, and by joining this holy movement you will be spiritually fulfilled in this life and in heaven. On top of this, for many younger recruits, it offers a sense of adventure and even romance.

Adequate and plentiful counter narratives and alternative movements are severely lacking. Currently the extremist minority continues to monopolize the discourse, particularly online. It is up to the moderate majority to raise their voice, not only against violent extremism, but in support of alternative pathways that embrace nuance, diversity and acceptance.

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