Has McGill solved the radicalisation riddle?

In 1866 the Société Linguistique de Paris included in its constitution the notice that it would not entertain any more research on the tricky question of the origin of language.  At that time there was a lot of speculation on this issue, much of it iffy at best, and it was decided that linguistic science could shed little light on the issue.  Interestingly, the matter has been taken up with a fury of late and I am not so sure today’s theories are much better now than they were 150 years ago (full disclosure: I did teach linguistics at university for a decade and a half so I have a little more than  a passing knowledge of the subject).

What was ordered for language should perhaps be applied to violent radicalisation.

There is no question that getting a better handle on who adopts violent radical ideologies is a priority – for governments, societies and communities. We know that some who end up as violent radicals can go on to kill people here at home or abroad and that at a minimum the process can lead to broken families and relationships or contribute to strains in our common social contract.

The problem is that we have been asking why people become radicalised for decades and we are no closer to an answer other than “it depends”.  The best researchers in this field have concluded, at least to my understanding, that we should stop asking why and focus on how.  In essence, there is little hope that we can learn more about why, irrespective of how  large our data sets are or how different our approaches turn out to be.

Alas, this has not stopped people from trying.  The latest effort comes from McGill and its rather surprising findings are that violent radicalisation is more apt to occur in families where there is a history of violence and discrimination.

I must state that I have not seen the study and know nothing of the methodology employed.  The data sample – 1,894 – is certainly a plus and much better than the paltry sums of the vast majority of studies.  After that, I can only think of negatives:

  • how many people in the survey actually radicalised to violence in the end?  I am pretty sure that those numbers are low
  • are the authors conflating integration/sense of belonging with radicalisation?
  • are the authors confusing correlation and causation?
  • how does this study answer the issue of what my friend and colleague Lorne Dawson of the University of Waterloo calls the “explanatory gap”?  In my mind it goes no where towards accounting for why the vast, vast, vast majority of those that experience violence in the home (a tragically high number) or discrimination in their lives (most probably an even higher number) never adopt violent radical views and even fewer move on to violent action.  Now if it had found that there was a real effect of growing up in a family with another (older) violent radical, THAT would have been noteworthy!
  • how does an increase in depression and distress lead to an increase in vulnerability?  Have the authors shown that?

Other studies and claims have been made of the deleterious effects of discrimination and Islamophobia in the province of Quebec, which may or may not be higher than elsewhere in Canada.  Progress on both fronts would be welcome, of that there is certainty.  I just don’t see how this study contributes to our knowledge of radicalisation.  As the authors note, more money and resources should be poured into psychosocial resources at Quebec CEGEPS – who would argue with that?

Call me a skeptic, but I cannot see how carrying out the recommendations of the McGill report will have a significant effect on radicalisation rates.  After all, the blip of cases in Montreal notwithstanding, the issue is already a very small one and perhaps not in need of major resources anyway.

We really need  to stop asking why and stop wasting resources on an unanswerable question.  We, and Quebec, would be much better off putting those resources into something tangible like the Centre de prévention de la radicalisation menant à la violence (CPRMV) in Montreal.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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