The Radicalisation of Youth in the UK and Beyond: Causes and Effects

Liberal life, violent ideologies: the anomalies of Europe’s youth being attracted to extremist dogma

A Speech by Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary of India, delivered in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom on March 24, 2015

Let me begin by making some general observations, which may not be scholarly but which express a commonsensical reaction to the topic that we are discussing this afternoon.

It is indeed anomalous that European youth, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, should be attracted to such a cruel ideology as the one represented by the Islamic State.

That non-Muslim European youth should be beguiled by such an inhumanly violent set of beliefs is truly astonishing.

As regards European Muslims, it defies logic that having been brought up in liberal, democratic societies which guarantee human freedoms, especially freedom of thought and speech, they should be attracted to the kind of obscurantist thinking that is espoused by jihadi groups.

It is not easily comprehensible how the liberal societies in which they live, the liberal education they have received in secular institutions, should have left such little impact on them.

That the non-Muslim Europeans should feel so alienated from the societies in which they live and the values that underpin them baffles an outsider, despite the  sociological, economic and other explanations given.

One can be critical of the policies of one’s country, believe passionately in one’s view about what is right or wrong, but to join groups abroad that have such little regard for human life and are capable of such cruelty as we have seen, is another thing.

One can feel strongly about injustice being perpetrated against another people, of violence being inflicted on them in the name of geopolitics, but to join groups that are dubious in their origin, are not led by particularly pious people or individuals with a known record of public service, is difficult to understand.

Worse, the ideology that these jihadi groups espouse is totally at variance with what the rest of the world believes in. Their ideology is anti-modern, anti-progress, anti-women, anti-minorities. It is devoid of economic ideas. It does not offer any forward vision of society. It harks back to what might be seen as a society advanced for its times in some ways, but to many today would seem a backward, violence ridden tribal society with inequitable and primitive laws that existed several centuries ago. It is contrary to the vision of a globalised, interdependent and prosperous world.

Logically, there is nothing in this ideology that could attract any reasonable human being, even if there are many reasons to criticise and even condemn what is happening in the world today in terms of military interventions and the continuation of international institutions and structures of power based on inequality between nations.

Let us be clear. The problem we are facing is limited to forces within the Islamic world that believe in a certain kind of violent theology. It is not a generalised problem affecting all communities.

There are people belonging to other religions and communities that could have similar grievances against the state of the world today and societal trends, but they are not taking invoking any kind of religious ideology to protest violently.

Europe has immigrant populations from various parts of the world. It is not as if one immigrant community is favoured over another and entitled to benefits that are denied to others. Why is that the radicalisation problem is confined to elements in the Muslim community alone?

While other religions do not have texts that can be interpreted or misinterpreted to justify violence against others with a different set of religious beliefs, Islam has. It serves no purpose to overlook this in the name of political correctness. It is true that the vast majority of Muslims all over the world do not support the kind of inhuman violence that the extremist groups use against others. It is also true that the majority of the victims of jihadi violence are Muslims themselves.

The religious texts cannot be erased, but they can be interpreted in ways that are compatible with international life and relations between different communities in an interdependent world. Attempts have been made by some prestigious Islamic institutions to erode the religious basis of the ideology brandished by jihadi groups, but with little impact so far.

The core of the problem lies in Salafi or Wahhabi ideology that is the foundational ideology of Saudi Arabia. That country and some other Gulf states have used their enormous oil wealth since the mid-1970s to propagate this highly puritanical version of Islam all over the Islamic world.

Throughout the Muslim world, religious institutions have received Saudi funding. The interpretation of Islam promoted by this funding was Wahhabism or Salafism, which, in its harshest form, preaches that Muslims should not only "always oppose" infidels "in every way," but "hate them for their religion ... for Allah's sake," that democracy "is responsible for all the horrible wars of the 20th century," that Shia and other non-Wahhabi Muslims were infidels, etc. According to an expert, more moderate local interpretations have been overwhelmed by this Saudi-interpretation of Islam, especially Sufism.

The ideology of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is a direct product of this Salafi ideology. It is a different matter that Saudi Arabia itself is now being targeted by the IS. This is more a political development than a religious one.

Saudi Arabia is an ally of the West. It is too important a country for a variety of reasons to become the object of meaningful pressures by the West to contain and reverse the Wahhabi forces within and their international radiation without.

The emergence of the IS and the fact that European Muslims and non-Muslims have joined its ranks is the pressing reason why this subject has now come to the fore today.

Some would argue that it is western military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria that have caused the emergence of the IS. President Obama has observed a few days ago that the emergence of the IS can be traced to US intervention in Iraq. The intervention in Libya and the chaos that has followed there has facilitated the flow of arms to jihadi groups in the region. The western determination to oust Syria’s Assad and support given to opposition groups there has, by creating civil war conditions in the country, created space for extremist Sunni groups to occupy swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and declare an Islamic Caliphate. The anti-Sunni policies of the Maliki government in Iraq have their responsibility in contributing to the rise of the IS.

It is significant, however, that western intervention in Iraq occurred years ago and since then the US has withdrawn its troops from that country. In Libya, there has been no physical occupation of the country by western troops, and virtually all Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, supported Gaddafi’s ouster. It cannot therefore be convincingly argued that European Muslims are joining the IS as a protest against these interventions.

Part of the explanation may lie elsewhere. The IS is a Sunni phenomenon. It is violently anti-Shia. Those Muslims in Europe who are going the IS are Sunnis. They may actually be wanting to contribute their mite to the assertion of Sunni power against the Shia power in Iraq and Syria.

Have European Muslims joined the IS because they have not been integrated sufficiently in the societies they live in and are discriminated against in terms of employment etc? While discrimination and racial prejudice may be a reality on the ground, it is hard to believe why these elements would therefore want to join a jihadi organisation in Syria/Iraq to kill Yazidis, Kurds, Christians, besides beheading western hostages.

According to a scholar, part of the challenge is that Muslims are not integrated into European society. Their community is on the Internet and social media. Young Muslims ... feel part of the [online] community and not always a part of their community European nations are still culturally Christian, with the result that some young Muslims become increasingly alienated from European society. There is no reason why this should be so, because as a minority they should psychologically adjust to the objective circumstances they are placed in.

There is introspection in Europe whether radicalisation denotes a failure of multiculturalism and that the answer lies in greater integration of the Muslim communities with the rest of society. Well, the British followed a policy of multiculturalism and the French that of integration. Both seem to have failed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has branded, way back in 2010, the concept of multiculturalism in Germany as a failure.

In my view, multiculturalism gives the Muslim community space to live their lives as they want within certain bounds and should be seen as a tolerant policy with roots in in a liberal democracy. Integration means a more focused effort to make this community accept the values and culture of the host state. That policy has many arguments in favour. The adoption of a jihadi ideology cannot be ascribed only to the failure of either policy.

It is instructive that those who have been radicalised are educated, are often professionals and many are adept at using the latest communication technologies. They don’t fit in with the profile many have in mind of uneducated, unemployed youth with no future veering towards these destructive ideologies.

Whereas radicalisation has been long attributed to Europe's high youth unemployment rate and limited economic mobility, the Charlie Hebdo massacre shows, in the view of a scholar, that Islamic recruiters focus on certain personality traits and not employment status to radicalise young men and women.

The idea that economic deprivation causes young Muslims to be drawn towards terrorist groups is also now contested. In the UK, for instance, young middle-class Muslims with college degrees and high salaries have joined militant groups.

According to a report those radicalised tended to have in common – besides their cosmopolitan backgrounds, education levels, linguistic facility and computer skills – is the element of displacement. Most who joined the jihad did so in a country other than the one in which they were reared, be it Algerians living in France or Moroccans in Spain

Another scholar notes that those radicalised have westernised backgrounds. There are  amongst them no Palestinians, Iraqis or Afghans, whose countries have been occupied or ravaged by foreign forces.

Another scholar has described the reasons why some youth, both Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans, are pushed towards extremism, and I quote: “They are rigidly devout, they want some status, they want to look cool, they have some problems with their lives, they are unsatisfied with some perceived insults or frustration, they are aggrieved about something, they like the idea of carrying weapons, they feel victimised, they feel humiliated, so there is a host of factors which may differ from one [person] to another… They have rigid thinking -- they see things as black and white, they think in unsophisticated ways, they think in extremes or absolutes, they are filled with anger [and] hatred, and some of these actions [give] them excitement, adventure.”  This explanation may sound plausible, but why this phenomenon should have emerged so virulently now and not before is not so clear.

Islamist militants, scholars, and leaders castigate Western society for what they see as immoral secularism. Islamists have claimed that such unrestricted free speech has led to the proliferation of pornography, immorality, secularism, homosexuality, feminism, and many other ideas that Islamists often oppose. This might explain the appeal of radical propaganda to impressionable and emotionally unstable western Muslims and non-Muslims.

Because this discussion is being held in London, I would like to refer at some length to the December 2013 report from the UK Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism which has defined extremism as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

This ideology, it says, draws on the teachings of the likes of Sayyid Qutb. Islamist extremists deem Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war on Islam’. They seek to impose a global Islamic state governed by their interpretation of Shari’ah as state law, rejecting liberal values such as democracy, the rule of law and equality.

Their ideology also includes the uncompromising belief that people cannot be Muslim and British, and insists that those who do not agree with them are not true Muslims The report says that “We have been too reticent about challenging extreme Islamist ideologies in the past, in part because of a misplaced concern that attacking Islamist extremism equates to an attack on Islam itself. This reticence, and the failure to confront extremists, has led to an environment conducive to radicalisation in some mosques and Islamic centres, universities and prisons.

It is often too easy for extremist preachers and groups to spread extremist views which can lead people into terrorism, while at the same time being careful not to contravene existing laws on incitement to violence or glorifying terrorism. Extremist propaganda is too widely available, particularly online, and has a direct impact on radicalising individuals.”

The poisonous messages of extremists must not be allowed to drown out the voices of the moderate majority.

Extremism can flourish where different parts of a community remain isolated from each other. More integrated communities will be more resilient to the influence of extremists.

Extremists take advantage of institutions to share their poisonous narrative with others, particularly with individuals vulnerable to their messages. The government must do more to address extremism in locations where it can exert control, such as prisons, and increase oversight where it is needed, such as some independent and religious schools.

Extremist preachers use some higher education institutions as a platform for spreading their messages. Universities must take seriously their responsibility to deny extremist speakers a platform. This is not about the government restricting freedom of speech – it is about universities taking account of the interests of all their students and their own reputations when deciding who they allow to use their institution as a platform.

Europe is terrified about its citizens joining the IS and returning home to stage murderous attacks. About 2,000 Westerners are believed to be fighting with militant groups in Syria and Iraq, including 1,600 from Britain, France and Germany.

In January 2014, the then French Interior Minister and current Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, warned that France and Europe were about to be "overwhelmed" by the phenomenon of European jihadis returning home from Syria. He said that threat represents "the greatest danger we will have to face in the coming years.” The number of returned Syria fighters in France was estimated to be over 200. There are at least 101 returned Syria fighters in Belgium,

As a result of these developments, the backlash against Islam in Europe is growing. The grass roots organisation Pegida has for weeks been organising demonstrations against the Islamisation of Germany. The German authorities have tried to prevent people from participating in these rallies, but without success.

Apart from the usual police dispositions, France has deployed its armed forces for combating the terrorist menace from returning jihadists.

The challenge to western democracies posed by the radicalisation of their youth is complex. No easy answer is available.

It is a foreign policy problem at one level, in that it is linked to policies towards Muslim countries and the problem of dealing with the external sources of disruptive Islamist ideologies.

The role of Turkey in supporting the IS and keeping the doors open for European recruits to jihad to move into Syria and Iraq needs to be addressed.

Whether the phenomenon of radicalisation will end with the elimination of the IS is not clear. The threat from Al Qaida has not disappeared either.

It is a domestic problem as it involves the proper handling of Europe’s immigrant population, especially those born in the country and feeling entitled to treatment as full citizens in every way.

It involves control over the social media or monitoring it more closely without compromising the right to privacy and freedom of expression.

It means tighter anti-terrorism legislation without diluting the rule of law.

Finally, a word about radicalisation in India. We have the second or third largest Muslim population in the world, but we have detected only 18 cases of our Muslim youth joining the IS. In some cases the parents have pleaded with the government for help in bringing them home. Perhaps there is somewhere a lesson to be drawn from this.