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Does ideology really contribute to radicalisation?



This briefing was one of six delivered as part of a special event 'What have we learned about radicalisation?' organised by Professor Kim Knott and Dr Matthew Francis as part of a RCUK Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research (PACCS) fellowship. The full list of briefings, available as text and audio-podcasts are available here. The event brought together leading researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to discuss the latest research on radicalisation.

Do extreme ideologies really lead to violent action – to participating in terrorism? And does an individual’s or group’s ideology contribute to the process by which they come to hold extreme ideas.  In answering these, I draw on the work Professor Kim Knott and I have undertaken in our PACCS funded project exploring the role of ideas, beliefs and commitments in the move to violence.

Does ideology really contribute to radicalisation and the move to terrorist violence?

The role of ideology in terrorism is disputed not least because most of the time when people talk about ideology in such a context, they’re talking about religion, or about sources of religious ideas like holy texts. The problem is that there is no consensus as to how religion is defined, and it is unclear what is included. To what extent are ethnic, political, national and other factors part of what we mean by religion? Or is what is meant some essential characteristics that are unique to religion and religious texts and that make them more prone than other worldviews or teachings to motivate people to act violently? Are some religions more prone to violence than others? Are all religions inherently good but open to distortion (to ‘bad religion’)?  Behind these questions lie a number of highly contested assumptions (about the meaning of religion, its conflictual nature, good/bad religion etc). With so much variance as to how religion is defined, and so much invested by so many in whether it is a source of peace or violence, I quite understand why people like William Cavanaugh have challenged ‘the myth of religious violence’ and argued that the labelling of conflicts as ‘religious’ is problematic and misleading.

But there is a danger in following this kind of argument in that it can lead to ignoring the role that beliefs, values and commitments – in short, ideologies – play in people’s decisions to act violently. This includes – but is not limited to – those religious ideologies that reference eternal spiritual rewards, vengeful gods and the like.

To help avoid that error I suggest we think about ideologies in terms of the functions they provide, that is the mental frameworks – the languages, concepts, categories, and systems of representation – by which different social groups regulate and identify themselves and each other and make sense of the world. Thinking in this way, we can see that ideologies can be religious or secular, nationalist or anarchist, they nevertheless perform a similar function for groups and individuals.

Focusing on ideologies can help challenge the idea that religion (usually Islam) is always the problem (and Western secularism the solution), but it remains important to discern what role they might play in violent action. McCauley and Moskalenko’s latest book neatly summarises three arguments why they think this isn’t possible or helpful, which I challenge here:

First, they state that ideology has limited usefulness because while Wahhabism, for example, is seen as a key ideological element of some Islamist violence there are many Wahhabis who do not support terrorism. It is too simple, therefore, to assume that Wahhabi ideology can reliably be used to identify mechanisms of political radicalisation. However, this assumes both that the Wahhabi ideology of both violent and non-violent Wahhabis is the same – there may well be differences in beliefs between different groups and indiviudals – and that there aren’t other contextual factors in the decision of some to act violently.

Second, they argue that it is not easy to generalise from one kind of terrorism to another using ideology – that from anarchist, to nationalist or religious terrorism, it is difficult to identify common mechanisms. However, if we think of ideologies in terms of their functions and, as I have done in my research, focus on discourses about non-negotiable or sacred beliefs and values within those ideologies, then while their content may differ due to the context, we can still identify common mechanisms across different types of ideologies.

Third, they point out that ideas are not the same as action and so even in polls where millions justify or are sympathetic to terrorism, only one in a thousand with these beliefs is involved in action.

What role does ideology play in violent behaviour?

Their third argument is the most significant, and I am certainly not arguing for a ‘monkey read: monkey do’ model of understanding the links between ideology and violence. People don’t simply read, for example, the bible and then pick up a gun and kill someone. The bible may be a source of ideas, but as I’ve said already ideology is best seen as a social and mental framework rather than simply a set of ideas originating in a book or online. Moreover, the assumed link between the source of ideas and violent behaviour oversimplifies a process which undoubtedly contains a concatenation of factors. The influence of ideology on violent actions should be analysed alongside others, such as individual grievances, group isolation, persecution, ability, access to weapons, etc.

Thinking back to the definition of ideology I gave above – that it provides a way for groups to make sense of the world around them –  we can reasonably expect that how groups and individuals frame and respond to their particular grievances, and identify and react to others within and outside of their social networks is shaped by their ideologies, albeit in emotional and/or subconscious ways. People might have quite inconsistent beliefs, or ideas that are unorthodox in respect of their broader religious traditions, but as Scott Atran has asserted we make a mistake if we think that people who act violently on their beliefs are not morally motivated.  They are, he says, ‘extreme moralists’.

This extreme morality plays an important part in understanding why someone might believe it necessary or justifiable to consider violence, just as access to weapons might explain what kind of violence comes to take place, and ability and social networks may explain the potential roles assigned or taken up by actors in the execution of a violent event. While restricting access to weapons would be a more effective terrorism-prevention strategy than trying to find out what people think, I have shown that ideology is nevertheless an important element which requires attention in longer-term strategies preventing people from adopting extreme ideas.

Do people's ideas become more radical or do they adopt more radical ideologies?

In order to develop these longer-term counter-radicalisation strategies we also need to understand whether there is a slippery slope from some ideas to others. The evidence suggests that there isn’t. There is no necessary move from accepting the abstract idea of the rightly-guided Caliph to believing that those who fail to accept the Caliphate should be killed. But people may change the ideas they hold, and these new ideas can result in novel ways of making sense of the world. People change their ideas due to new experiences and information. I might have an idea that a particular person is trustworthy. I’ll have a different idea of that person’s trustworthiness if I find out they have cheated me. My first idea didn’t change, I just abandoned it for a new one based on my experiences.

Furthermore, research, by Hogg and Blaylock and others, has shown that often people and groups select more radical ideas at times of uncertainty. For example, on losing their job a person might join a group that scapegoats immigrants as being responsible for taking all the jobs, or a group might decide that complaining about a lack of jobs hasn’t achieved anything, so direct protest is the only way to achieve change.

With this in mind, current research suggests that subscribing to a particular ideology does not in itself make someone more susceptible to radicalisation, but instead that external events contribute to people selecting more radical ideas. This is an important distinction when considering strategies in schools, for example, on the benefits of countering conservative ideologies or providing support for pupils struggling with periods of uncertainty.

I have outlined here why extreme ideologies, and their non-negotiable or sacred beliefs and values, are important in decisions to act violently. I have also mentioned research showing how uncertainty can lead people to select more extreme ideas. This suggests that ideology does indeed contribute to radicalisation and the move to terrorist violence. But religious and other ideologies are not the sole problem, and it won’t help to focus all our attention on the eradication of extreme ideas and beliefs. But neither should ideology be ignored. Our focus must be on strengthening the evidence base on when and why it becomes important and precisely how it relates to other social and psychological factors.

Dr Matthew Francis is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion. Prior to joining Lancaster University he worked at the charity Inform, researching minority Islamic and far-right groups and also managed the HEFCE-funded Religious Literacy programme at Goldsmiths. His work focuses on the discourses of religious and non-religious groups, researching the role non-negotiable beliefs and values play in motivating and justifying violent action. He founded and edits

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