What Have We Learned About Radicalisation?

Questions for debate

What is ‘radicalisation’ or ‘extremism’? Is it unique to Islam? Is it always religious? Is it a new and unique phenomenon, or just a new label for certain forms of terrorist violence? And what can research tell us about its causes and how to prevent it?

Conclusions from the debate

As currently used ‘radicalisation’ often includes too much and too little. Too little, because it focuses attention only on Islamic or religious forms of terrorism, and too much because radical ideas and ‘Islamism’ do not usually lead to violence and are too widespread for security initiatives to counter (attempts may be counter-productive.)

As for what causes recent incidences of extremist violence, there is a growing consensus that there are multiple causes including: a sense of grievance and isolation, belief that violence can remedy a perceived problem, and contact with networks and images that glorify the use of violence.

Research Findings

‘Radicalisation’ is a new word, but the process whereby groups and individuals with religious or secular commitments turn violent is not new, and past and present research, e.g. that on New Religious Movements and various forms of terrorism, should not be ignored.

What needs to be explained (and countered) is not the embrace of radical ideas, which is widespread and always has been (e.g. communism), but why some groups and individuals embrace violence, which is rare.

It is impossible and often counter-productive for states and their security forces to counter radical ideas. This does not mean that extremist beliefs do not need to be contested, but there are more effective ways to do this – e.g. good education, including in religion and theology, and active initiatives in civil society.

Violence is always over-determined – there are multiple causes, many paths, and no single ‘conveyor belt’ to violence. There are situational, strategic, social and individual causes. This means that the move to violence can be explained in retrospect, but not accurately predicted in advance (two people with exactly the same circumstances may act violently in one case and not in another).

One dynamic observed in some of the research is the existence of an ‘us-and them’ (minority/majority) mentality combined with a sense of grievance. If the ‘minority’ then starts to attract criticism and repression by agents of ‘the majority’ this can lead to a vicious cycle of escalation.

The importance of (individual) belief as a driver of action tends to be overestimated. Involvement in social networks is arguably more important. Also important and underestimated is access to images, aesthetics, cultures and practices of violence which are not exclusively Islamicist but can be harnessed to Islamist ideas – as well as to anti-Muslim ideas.

There is no evidence to support the reality of ‘brainwashing’, nor of de-programming or de-radicalisation where these are equated with quick processes which bypass normal modes of socialisation, cognition and volition.

“The problem to be countered is not the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative, nor Salafism, but the people who accept and promote the idea that violence is the proper response to the narrative… attempts to counter the narrative risk proving counter-productive.”

Mark Sedgwick

“By the time it gets to violence it is too late… There are five ideas that are theo-political that lead to the justification of suicide bombing…”

Ed Husain

Points of Debate and Disagreement

Counter-radicalisation policies like Prevent I cast the net too wide, and have caused more problems than they have solved. Islamist beliefs do not themselves lead to violence and it is counter-productive to ‘target’ and try to change them. FaithDebate04_arrow Islamist belief is itself dangerous, a necessary step on the pathway to violence, and should be countered.
It is the move to violence which is the problem and should be the focus of security concern. FaithDebate04_arrow It is Islamism which is the earlier identifiable problem and a proper focus of security concern.
There are many pathways to violence, and the element of choice always remains, making it impossible to predict which individuals will act violently. FaithDebate04_arrow Pathways to violence can be modelled and resort to violence predicted.
Either religion is the major factor in radicalisation or, politics is the major factor in radicalisation. FaithDebate04_arrow It is often impossible to separate the religious and the political.

Practical Suggestions

‘Radicalisation’ includes too much. The holding of radical, intolerant attitudes, is widespread in all societies. It is the move to violence which needs to be understood and countered.

Counter-radicalisation policies have spread the net too wide. This is both ineffective and can be counter-productive when it engenders an us/them mentality and sense of grievance in a ‘target’ community.

Counter-radicalisation should follow established counter-terrorism pathways, which rely on gathering good intelligence and looking in a focused way for indications of interest in violence, involvement in networks advocating such violence, and other indicators of a move to violent action.

It is not the business of the state to prescribe or proscribe particular theologies, any more than particular political ideologies – so long as they operate within the law. It is, however, legitimate to educate and argue against false beliefs.

The model of human behaviour which holds that beliefs are the ‘drivers’ of action is mis-leading; practices, emotions and relationships are just as important as beliefs.

Charles Clarke

“On the one hand there’s the danger of alienating communities, on the other not dealing adequately with security threats… I don’t think any government has really got it right so far.”

Charles Clarke

“There is a growing consensus amongst scholars that there is no conveyor belt into radicalisation.”

Matthew Francis

How the Media Reported the Debate

“Over the last 10 or 15 years terrorism has been on the increase, how much do you think religion has been to blame for that?”

Iain Dale, LBC Radio 7 March 2012

“Treating people with radical and even antisocial views who are nevertheless operating within the law as potential terrorists can easily lead to real terrorists increasing their pool of recruits.”

Marat Shterin, The Guardian 7 March 2012

On being asked by Mehdi Hasan to define an extremist: “An extremist is someone who has views to the right or left of mine.”

Iain Dale, LBC Radio 7 March 2012

“Prevent 2.0 was a considerable improvement over Prevent 1.0, recognising for example that sponsoring discussions of gender issues and ‘active citizenship’ among local Muslim women’s groups did not make an obvious contribution to the security of the realm.”

Mark Sedgwick, The Muslim News 30 March 2012

Wednesday 07 March 2012, held at 61 Whitehall

What have we learned since 9/11 and 7/7 about the causes, parallels and precedents of violent extremism, and the effectiveness of policies designed to tackle the problem? Watch & listen to the event below. The debate was chaired by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead. Read the press release & access media coverage here.


  • Charles Clarke

    Charles was Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South, which he remained until May 1997 –...

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  • Ed Husain

    Ed Husain

    Ed is co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation and author of The Islamist (2007). He is currently a...

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  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion...

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  • Marat Shterin

    Dr Shterin is Lecturer in Sociology of Religion at King’s College London. His publications...

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  • Mark Sedgwick

    Mark Sedgwick

    Mark is a Professor in the Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University. His publications...

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  • Matthew Francis

    Matthew Francis

    Mat is editor of radicalisationresearch.org for the Religion and Society Programme and Researcher...

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  • Mehdi Hasan

    Mehdi Hasan

    Mehdi is the New Statesman’s Senior Editor...

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  • Intro by Linda Woodhead

  • Intro by Mark Sedgwick

  • Intro by Matthew Francis

  • Intro by Marat Shterin

  • Intro by Mehdi Hasan

  • Intro by Ed Husain

  • Radicalisation Questions and Responses

  • Interview with Mark Sedgwick


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