Ideology matters: Why we cannot afford to ignore the role of ideology in dealing with terrorism

Ideology matters: Why we cannot afford to ignore the role of ideology in dealing with terrorism

How does ideology play a role in violent extremism and what does it mean for counter-terrorism strategies?

This blog has appeared first on the blog of Penal Reform International on 3 April 2018.

Since 2012, an estimated 5,000 men, women and children have travelled to join conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In many ways, government policy has aimed to address the factors underlying this passage to violent extremism. From a criminal justice perspective, disengagement and rehabilitation programmes in prisons have recently been developed and tested. By providing vocational and psychological support, these programmes aim to lessen the appeal of the narratives used by recruiters to persuade civilians into joining violent extremist groups abroad. A core narrative used by terrorists for recruitment and to justify violence is the alleged existential battle against the ‘West’. As shown by its repeated usage in extremist propaganda, political grievances against interventionism in Middle East and North African (MENA) countries have a profound psychological effect on potential foreign fighters. Understood as an ideology, it is the effect of this narrative, and the context it is used in, which matters to challenging terrorism.

There are many stories of foreign terrorist fighters who hardly know their proclaimed ideology: they do not speak Arabic, pray in the wrong direction and even seem to bring ‘Islam for dummies’ with them on the road to Syria/Iraq. So the argument goes: we should target behaviours rather than ideology. The starting assumption in this approach is that the aim is to prevent violence at the end of the day, not ideological warfare. Adding to that, many researchers and practitioners argue that since there is no causal relationship between having radical or extremist ideas and acting on them by, for example, using violence, we should not focus on the former but on the latter.

However, when we look at the explanations for violence espoused by the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks in Europe, there is a repeated framing of violence through ideology. At its core, violence perpetrated by the ‘oppressed’ in-group is legitimised against the ‘crusader’ out-group; see for example Osama Bin Laden’s response to his own question, ‘Why are we fighting you [the Americans]?’ – ‘Because you attacked us and continue to attack us’.

It is not important to what extent someone has a deeper understanding of his or her own ideology at all. Instead, the question is: how does it make them feel and act? The psychological effect of the narrative is what is important.

Partially, the confusion may be caused by the word ideology itself. Ideology as a concept refers to a coherent view of the world, but the way it is used in the debate about disengaging violent extremists usually means ideology as a set of ideas, opinions or a narrative; providing individuals with an identity, a purpose, a sense of significance, ‘brotherhood’. In the religious context, it provides individuals with a sense of redemption and atonement for sin and past shame.

From that perspective, it is not important to what extent someone has a deeper understanding of their own ideology at all. Instead, the question is: how does it make them feel and act? The psychological effect of the narrative is what is important. Of course, the impact of the narrative always takes place within a wider social context and we must not underestimate the social bounds that are provided through friends and family. In this context, the people you trust in key networks can either push you towards or pull you away from that narrative.

Nonetheless, ideology is not just a sort of brainwashing device; it functions very much as a tool of empowerment. It puts you in the driver’s seat emotionally. If you have anger issues and a tendency to violence and you assault someone on the street, you are an outcast and no one will like you. Do the exact same thing in the name of an ideology and you are a hero, to some at least and, more importantly, to yourself.

So, what does taking ideology seriously in counter-terrorism strategies mean: should we work with Islamists? Should we share the same vision but disagree on how to get there? Should we focus on peaceful strands of Salafism or work with groups such as the Soldiers of Odin or Pegida? Who would advise working with extremists to prevent violent extremists? Rather than turning to extremists – something that has been tried and failed – what is helpful in thinking about the role of ideology is making a distinction between an active or a passive ideology. Rather than focusing on what someone’s ideology (or worldview, or narrative) entails, focus on what it means to them and how they adopt it.

In the end, of all the individuals that adhere to violent ideologies, there are only very few people who will take the next step in terms of taking up arms and using violence. At this point, we simply lack the knowledge or understanding of how that process takes place and why some do while others do not cross that bridge.

All in all: ideology matters, as long as we understand the difference between ideology as a coherent worldview and what the narrative means to individuals and how it enables them to take action. We need to devote just as much time and effort to find out why some individuals refrain from violence as we do to finding out why others do.

In the end, it’s not about whether we think ideology matters, it matters because those that use violence in the name of ideology tell us it matters to them.



Thanks for the comment Michael, always good to see a blog post is being read and leads to further discussion.

RE your comments: when I referred to the use of non-violent extremists in the British PREVENT strategy, stating it had "been tried and failed", I meant it exactly as the article I refer too describes it > it failed in the sense that the political support waned for spending taxpayer's money - and thereby potentially legitimizing or subsidizing - on anti-democratic or illiberal views.

That is not to say we cannot or should not work with individuals holding extremist views, but in this blog post I make the case that we should not focus on whether someone holds extremist or non-extremist views (precisely because that has proven to be such a slippery and often useless endeavor) but instead, we should focus on what someone's ideology and beliefs mean to them personally, and how they potentially enables them to act in what ways.

Michael Diamond

To support the claim that working with so-called non-violent extremists to prevent terrorism is something that has been “tried and failed”, the author links to an article by Bartlett and Miller that actually contradicts that claim.

Here’s an excerpt from the referenced article:

“Simply put, some groups or individuals that hold illiberal, even harmful views, can deliver benefits to Prevent. These are the so-called ‘non-violent extremists’. They can sometimes be good at identifying and working with individuals that are vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, and they are sometimes an important source of information. Not always of course. But when it comes to stopping terrorism, ‘sometimes’ is incredibly important. The effectiveness of such groups is because they are awkward bedfellows for liberals. And yet by funding, or working with, such groups, taxpayers’ money may, in effect, subsidise and even legitimise groups that hold views which the government may rightly believe have no place in British society, even if they are free to hold them.”

And another:

"The day after Cameron’s speech it was leaked that the Coalition has cut funding for the controversial but effective counter-extremism STREET project, run by a well-known conservative Salafi, Abdul Haqq-Baker.”

And another:

"The Brixton Salafis who ran the STREET project I have just mentioned have been fighting Jihadists for years – long before 9/11 – and with considerable success. Cutting funding to effective projects like theirs because of their ideology could be self-defeating. "

The United Kingdom’s Prevent Strategy was revised in 2011. Part of that revision involved stopping giving funds to ‘non-violent extremists’ who hitherto had been helping to prevent terrorism. This revision was not a result of failure, but of distaste within Cabinet at working with Salafis. Other members of the Cabinet disagreed with the change.

I don’t have time to check all the references in the blog post, but this error alone casts doubt over a central assumption of the article.