Integration, Identity and Extremism: Why We Need to Renew the Conversation

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Integration, Identity and Extremism: Why We Need to Renew the Conversation

Posted on: 10th January 2019
Emman El-Badawy
Director, Extremism Policy Unit

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    The tragic attacks on 9/11 were labelled a black swan event, something unpredictable, with severe and widespread consequences. True to all black swans, the attacks have since been marked by tireless attempts to rationalise and explain their occurrence. In the counter-terrorism policy world, there is no doubt that much has been learned since 2001. Yet for more than a decade, we have circled around the same issues and debated the same elementary questions: What makes a terrorist? Are poverty and economic deprivation drivers, or is religious fundamentalism, mental health or alienation the cause?

    We have had theories identifying push and pull factors towards extremist violence, anecdotal records detailing journeys and pathways to terrorism, and toolkits to identify individual vulnerabilities to radicalisation. These have come with caveats that there is no single factor that explains why someone resorts to terrorism, and no prototype jihadi from which to assess future threats.

    There is no single factor that explains why someone resorts to terrorism.

    There are no easy answers to tackling the issue of radicalisation. Myriad factors can create the conditions for radicalisation, and for every theory there is a case that defies the ‘rules’. What is certain is that today’s terrorists are more familiar and relatable to young British and European Muslims than ever before. The likes of Aqsa Mahmood, Mohammed Emwazi (later known as Jihadi John), Thomas Evans and the Bradford Sisters were not living off the grid in a cave plotting attacks on ‘the Great Satan’. They were, until their decision to support jihadi causes overseas, average British citizens.

    Decades of pontificating over whether Islamist radicalisation is the result of violently interpreted Islamic scripture, or whether government policies are to blame, have caused us to overlook what seems abundantly clear: the identities of these young jihadis were contested from the day they were born. At some point in their lives, their British, national identities fell to the wayside in favour of a Muslim identity interpreted and advocated by people and groups with an agenda. This identity contained hostility to the country they may once have called home.

    Post-9/11 Reality

    Before 2001, the average Joe would be forgiven for assuming Islamist terrorists were exclusively outsiders in foreign lands, interested only in protecting their humble safe havens from Western invaders. But after 9/11 the realities of home-grown terrorism piled pressure on governments in the UK and Western Europe to look closer to home for answers. Ever since, Islamist extremism in Europe has been a growing concern for US authorities. The worry is that Europe may prove to be a recruiting ground for future attacks on the US and its interests abroad. Even before 9/11, in the mid-1990s, the UK’s capital was dubbed “Londonistan” for the numbers of Islamists from abroad believed to be living there.

    By 2004, with the Madrid bombings, and 2005, with the London Underground and bus attacks, the risks of Islamist extremism among Western Muslims became a stark reality. While far from being the sole cause of radicalisation and terrorism, questions were raised about the failure of governments to integrate Muslims in European civic, political and economic life. Further questions were raised about the extent to which this alienation impacted on the vulnerabilities of Western-raised Muslims to extremist ideologies. The numbers of European and British citizens who flocked to join Islamist insurgencies in Somalia, Libya and Syria have most recently confirmed long-held concerns.

    There have been conversations about societal integration in the context of home-grown extremism and terrorism, but they have not been entirely popular—not least because the most vocal critics in these debates highlight the necessity to separate integration and counter-extremism work. Many argue that efforts to combine the two agendas to date have resulted in minority and Muslim populations being singled out disproportionately. In the UK, a 2011 review of CONTEST, the UK counter-terrorism strategy, brought about a conscious separation of counter-terrorism and integration. Prior to that, the Prevent aspect of the strategy sought to deal with community cohesion and integration as part of countering extremism.

    A Volatile Landscape

    Elsewhere, in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, integration measures, to varying degrees, have formed part of counter-radicalisation policies. Many of the integration plans in Western Europe predate 9/11, but a lot of new policies and strategies were introduced in response to fears of home-grown extremism in the early 2000s. However, despite various strategies to help integrate Muslim populations since the early 2000s—from new citizenship laws, extra language requirements and greater educational provisions to support for developing home-grown imams who are more familiar with the host culture than foreign imams—terrorist recruiters have still infiltrated key social gathering points. A revival of right-wing extremism has created an even more volatile landscape.

    The problem with integration measures to date is that they have been so closely associated with some of the more controversial assimilationist policies. From not allowing women to wear full face veils to national bans on the construction of minarets, many policies in the first half of the 2000s have been counterproductive and inflammatory. They have alienated the most suspicious communities and signalled (probably without intention) messages that have galvanised the far right and Islamist voices. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the complacency and passivity associated with today’s multiculturalism has stirred the cynics into a tantrum over the weakening of national identity and pride in the face of crippling political correctness.

    Strong integration measures are essential to the success of counter-terrorism and the prevention of homegrown radicalisation.

    For the UK at least, 2019 will be a year of a national conversation that has been wildly overdue. Last year, following a nationwide consultation and addressing a vacuum in integration policy, the government published its Integrated Communities Strategy green paper. While it came under significant attack by some for celebrating Britain as a “successful, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith society” and whitewashing problems, it was the first significant effort by government in over a decade to articulate a national strategy, and it recognised counter-extremism as integral to achieving its goals. The independent UK Commission for Countering Extremism will also be launching its first report in spring 2019 following a nationwide consultation, with integration an important line of enquiry. Elsewhere, rehabilitation of nations such as Iraq and Syria post ISIS will continue into the year, with reintegration policies a necessary priority amid the steady return of internally displaced people. The flow of migrants and refugees is not likely to slow for Western European governments in the coming year, piling on pressure to address integration concerns.

    Facing the issue of identity, belonging and integration is admittedly difficult and contentious. But it is crucial. And while integration must be supported as beneficial in and of itself, strong integration measures are essential to the success of counter-terrorism and the prevention of home-grown radicalisation. The counter-narratives and strategic communications tactics used for counter-extremism purposes to date will no doubt continue to be invaluable in battling some ideas that contribute to extremist radicalisation. Yet, where identities are contested, traction of counter-narratives is ultimately limited. Smart integration measures that help address feelings of alienation, shape a collective national identity and culture, and offer avenues for active participation of equal citizens can have a far more powerful impact than any counter-narrative.

    For the post-9/11 generations, Muslim or otherwise, divisive narratives have long been the norm. Muslims of these generations entered a world where Islam has forever been under a microscope; their identity challenged and subject to global scrutiny. For many non-Muslims of these generations, Islam has been represented as little more than violence and mass bloodshed. Without a conscious recalibration and muscular leadership from progressives in all communities, future generations may grow too comfortable in a world where a return of visceral identity erodes decades of hard work for co-existence. 

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