One of the most oft-cited ‘push factors’ for why people become radicalised and join terrorist groups is the nebulous idea of ‘alienation’. Read any story or academic paper on the subject and you are bound to come across a phrase something like “the most vulnerable to radicalisation are alienated (NB or marginalised) youth”. Go ahead do a search and you’ll see just how prevalent this belief is.
There is just one problem, and it is a huge one: alienation does not explain radicalisation. Or rather it does not provide a neat and tidy theory for the phenomenon.
I suppose the biggest weakness of positing alienation to account for why otherwise normal people choose to adopt terrorism is that it is both too powerful and not powerful enough. This is what I have described as the false positive/false negative inadequacy. You see, lots of people feel alienated at some point in their lives for all kinds of reasons, both profound and mundane, and yet tiny percentages of those people radicalise to violence. This is a false positive (i.e. feeling alienated and yet not going down the terrorism path). On the other hand, lots of people who certainly appear to be well adjusted and far from alienated do opt for terrorism. These cases are false negatives (i.e. no alienation and yet do become terrorists). Hence the conundrum.
I think that part of the problem is that we do not define what we mean by alienation and do not have, at least to the best of my knowledge, a good way to measure levels or degrees of alienation. The term is used carelessly and as a result the claims made over its centrality in radicalisation are more or less meaningless. We gain nothing by saying that so-and-so felt alienated and, more importantly, this does not help us figure out what to do next. After all, how do we make people feel like they ‘belong’?
Perhaps there is a better way to think about all this and I have a suggestion, thanks in part to an op-ed piece in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Tony Norman (which you should really should read for its cool story on efforts by Canada’s Ahmadiyya community to have a sane, adult dialogue on what Islam is). Here’s a quote from it: “The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association had already embarked on a campaign within Muslim communities to counter radicalization of young people by those seeking to foster a sense of alienation among Muslims with Canada.”
Did you catch the key phrase? “Those seeking to foster a sense of alienation among Muslims”. To my mind this is exactly what is happening and this is a great way of describing it. People are the linchpin to radicalisation: no one ‘self-radicalises’. Those who are already committed to violent extremism seek to recruit others to join. And who are those others? Anyone, for anyone is susceptible to radicalisation under the right circumstances. Anyone. So much for so-called ‘protective factors” since no one is immune in theory.
But back to alienation. Good recruiters are skilled at convincing their targets that they should feel alienated. And how do they do that? Easily, by artfully pointing out a number of things like foreign policy, treatment of Muslims in Western countries, Islamophobia, racism, etc. If successful and their targets agree that the West is inherently anti-Muslim, the recruiter can then challenge the recruitees to ‘do something about it’. That is how recruitment works, at least that is what I saw when I worked for CSIS.
(As an aside, here is a research challenge: how often are recruiters successful? What is the failure rate? What accounts for the difference? All very good questions)
We need to get a lot smarter about how we define and describe radicalisation to violence if we hope to construct strategies on how to deal with it and prevent it. A good start would be to stop throwing out meaningless terms, use data-driven studies and cease looking for one-size-fits-all solutions (of which there are none). Let’s all agree to eschew ‘alienation’ as the root cause and learn more about how extremists create a false sense of non-belonging. That way we can get somewhere.