Humphrey Hawksley asks why Islamist radicalisation has impacted some countries more than others

When President George W Bush ordered troops into Afghanistan after the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the word ‘radicalisation’ was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Bush argued simply that terror was evil and needed to be stopped at source to prevent more striking the streets of Western capital cities.

Sixteen years later, however, radicalisation has become a catchphrase. It is defined as the turning of people to extremist views, often leading to violence, and has evolved into a global and cross-cultural threat, but the concept can be disarmingly deceptive. Rather than being self-motivated, the terrorist can be portrayed as a passive dupe, as though an unseen force from a dystopian world is twisting innocent minds to carry out acts of violence more horrific than any sane person could contemplate.

Recruitment by terror groups has progressed enormously since 9/11, mainly because of the internet, but also because the geographical canvas of the extreme Islamist cause is now so much wider. Since 2014, Islamic State has been the lead global brand of terror. The US-based security firm, the Soufan Group, estimates that some 30,000 fighters from 86 countries have been radicalised and recruited to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Radicalisation has evolved into a global and cross-cultural threat

The top five countries for recruitment are Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and Jordan. But recruiting grounds range from the suburbs of London to the villages of Indonesia, making it difficult to establish what type of person and society is susceptible. The US-based National Bureau of Economic Research has found that more foreign fighters originate from societies with high levels of economic development and robust political institutions, and that the world’s democracies are as vulnerable as its dictatorships.

‘A country’s political characteristics are not correlated with the number of Islamic State foreign fighters it produces,’ says the bureau’s report. ‘Recruits into terror organisations come largely from prosperous, ethnically and linguistically homogeneous countries.’

Britain, with a Muslim population of less than 3 million, has been battered by a series of terror attacks this year. Up to 1,000 Britons are listed as going to the Middle East to fight for Islamic State or affiliate groups. Britain has 20,000 on a terror watch list, and France is in a similar position, with more than 17,000 on its list. Both governments operate expensive deradicalisation programmes.

India, by contrast, has a Muslim population of more than 170 million, but fewer than 100 recruits have gone to Syria and Iraq. This compares to the 6,000 that have gone from Europe, which has a Muslim population of only 20 million. While India has suffered numerous Islamist terror attacks, such as the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and the 2001 strike against the parliament in Delhi, nearly all have been generated from Pakistan. At home, radicalisation attempts by Islamic State have had little impact.

There is no one reason for India to be so barren a recruiting ground for Islamic State while Europe is so fertile, but numerous studies have pointed to the level of control administered by central governments. Britain, for example, has one of the most centralised government systems among Western democracies, while – by default as much as design – India’s government reach is limited.

This allows Indian communities to run their own affairs at a very local level, with non-governmental organisations stepping in to fill vacuums left by government. Many of these NGOs are run by Muslims who persuade people it is better to campaign against injustice within the system, rather than taking up arms against it.

DIVISIVE: Rhetoric about good and evil turns characters such as Osama Bin Laden into monstrous figures
DIVISIVE: Rhetoric about good and evil turns characters such as Osama Bin Laden into monstrous figures

In that respect, the system naturally acts as its own deradicalisation programme, although the federal and state governments have set up several of their own. ‘India is not facing a threat from ISIS because of our proactive approach,’ says the Home Affairs Minister, Kiren Rijiju. ‘On the ground, community elders and clergy have played an important role in ensuring the youth do not go astray.’

In Britain, France and other European countries, there is increasing pressure to loosen up centralised control because, after many years of trying, governments have failed to make enough inroads to either stop attacks or deter people heading off to the Middle East.

‘To combat radicalisation, we need to use local resources, including the goodwill of the local population, and that means more localism,’ says Keith Bes, a British human rights specialist who formerly headed the Immigration Advisory Service. ‘For too long, central government has taken an omnibus approach of one size fits all, yet we know from experience that this is far from true.’

In its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, American-led Western governments continue to use polarising rhetoric about good and evil, building characters such as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein into monstrous enemies. It suggests that once they are gone, the world naturally rights itself. But the more radicalisation is studied, the more the emphasis is shifting away from bad leaders and their ideologies to examining time-honoured root causes, such as unemployment and feelings of loss of dignity.

In the West, the terror debate remains stifled. Discussion is still frowned on if it appears to give any political legitimacy to a 21st century suicide bomber, even though he or she may carry a similar sense of injustice to that of the revolutionary who fought European colonialism, Russian Tsarism or corrupt Asian dictatorships.

‘Recruits into terror organisations come largely from prosperous, ethnically and linguistically homogeneous countries’

Britain’s key deradicalisation programme, Prevent, is designed to work along similar lines to projects which aim to protect people from gang violence or drugs. One of its key strategies, however, revolves around reporting to the government about suspicious attitudes. This has come under criticism for encouraging spying within communities, in effect attacking the very democratic principles Britain is meant to uphold.

Harun Khan, of the Muslim Council of Britain, says many Muslims now feel they will be viewed with suspicion even for visiting a mosque, and this drives them towards radicalisation. ‘If they do not feel secure in the mosque, they will be picked up by smaller, extremist groups, fringe elements on the street,’ he warns.

India, too, risks leaving itself exposed if Hindu nationalist policies make the Muslim population feel vulnerable and unprotected. Many still hold their prime minister responsible for failing to quell the 2002 Gujarat riots, which left as many as 2,000 dead, most of them Muslims. At the same time, new restrictions on NGOs threaten to remove from communities the very remedy that prevents them being radicalised.

Studies of radicalisation remain embryonic, but the emerging picture suggests that more control needs to be ceded to the grassroots. Therein lies an irony: such a devolution of power poses a challenge to the way we structure our governments and society that is just as drastic, if not more so, than any number of random terror attacks.

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Asia correspondent. His next book, Asian Waters: Chinese Expansion and the Shifting Balance of Power, is published in April 2018.

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