Not long ago, David Cameron joined many leading politicians in accepting terrorist rhetoric. He declared the need to outlaw ideological extremism. For although the web pages, blogs and tweets that support recruitment to the vicious military organisation that calls itself Islamic State cannot be ignored, focussing on their outrageous claims that they are interpreting Islam fatally ignores the bigger picture. A few simple facts show that those from Western nations who volunteer to join the IS fighters in Syria, or who take up arms in their name are not only, or even mainly, influenced by religious ideologies. Ayoub El-Khazzani who was overpowered as he was about to launch a violent attack on a French train had watched a jihadist video on his phone shortly before his attack. What sort of committed ideologue needs to check out a video before his violent actions?
It is becoming increasingly clear that those involved in violent jihad are not fundamentalist Moslems. Apparently “Islam for Dummies” is purchased by some before they left for Syria. Some have the zeal of the recently converted but have not experienced the totality of extreme religiosity. Often they come from conservative Islamic families but rarely from families that endorse violence for any religious beliefs.
At the level of their own personal explanations for their actions interviews we have conducted with people who have taken part in terrorist acts often give geo-political reasons for what they have done. They talk of their Moslem brothers being killed and having their religion insulted or denied. The parallels to young men who went to fight in the Spanish Civil war should not be ignored. Then, as now, encouragement from social networks, search for personal fulfilment and the excitement of fighting for a cause, even if that cause was poorly understood, are all more significant than extreme ideologies.
Undervaluing the personal, psychological reasons for participating in terrorism is dangerous. Buying into terrorist propaganda about a clash of civilisations is to ignore the power struggle at the heart of the Syria/Iraq civil war. The local conflicts between Sunni, Shi’a, Kurds and entrenched supporters of Assad, all aggravated by endemic corruption, has been taken advantage of by descendants of al Qaeda, itself initially a reaction to the Saudi oligarchy. By clever rhetoric and claims of statehood, IS have provided a forum that has proven inviting for those vulnerable individuals who want to find the mixture of meaning and excitement, challenge and significance that they don’t think is available in their daily lives.
Beyond the restlessness that underlies the vulnerability to IS propaganda there is also the alienation that has been so often recognised as a cause of attacks on the social order. That is where politicians’ claims that there exists a battle between ideologies are so dangerous. This feeds the belief in an in-group and out-group, essential for the feeling of being part of one and inherently in conflict with the other.
The more that can be done to expose the actual beliefs and experiences of individuals who commit to terrorism the better the process will be understood. I’m sure that will reveal a great mixture of reasons that have little to do with ideology. Some will be shown to be attracted by the violent criminal life style it offers. Others will be looking for some sense of belonging. A few will think they are defending a just cause. A minority may well think they are supporting the development of a truly Islamic Caliphate. They are the ones most likely to realise how deluded they are.