What is it that draws thousands of young Europeans to jihadism and violence? What is it that has led 4,000 to travel to Syria to fight for the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)? And what is it that leads European citizens to engage in barbarous carnage such as those witnessed last month in Paris?
The conventional answer is that they have become “radicalized,” a process through which vulnerable Muslims are groomed for extremist violence by those who champion hate. The radicalization argument consists of four broad elements. The first is the claim that people become terrorists because they acquire certain, usually religiously informed, extremist ideas. The second is that these ideas are acquired in a different way from that in which people acquire other extremist or oppositional ideas. The third is that there is a conveyor belt that leads from grievance to religiosity to the adoption of radical beliefs to terrorism. And the fourth is the insistence that what makes people vulnerable to acquiring such ideas is that they are poorly integrated into society.
The trouble is that these assumptions, which underlie much of Europe’s domestic counterterrorism policy, are wrong.
Many studies show, for instance, that those who are drawn to jihadist groups are not necessarily attracted by fundamentalist religious ideas. A 2008 study by Britain’s MI5 on extremism that was leaked to the press observed that “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly.”
There is also little evidence that jihadists acquire their ideas differently from other kinds of groups, even though conventional wisdom suggests that their ideology comes from hate preachers and the like, whereas other radical ideas are born of different circumstances. Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism program at the British think tank Demos, argues that such terrorism “shares much in common with other counter-cultural, subversive groups of predominantly angry young men.”