How do we explain Islamic Radicalisation in the West?

By Ralph Leonard

What is it that draws thousands of Western Muslims to Jihadism and the desire to recreate the Caliphate? Why are some Western Muslims so prone to extremism? These questions have become commonplace since the attacks of September 11th 2001 and has provoked much discussion and debate among journalists, academics, commentators and intellectuals.

The conventional answer we are given to explain this is what many call ‘radicalisation’; which in one sense is the process through which an individual or a group adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideas and aspirations that reject or undermine the status quo and in some casesleads to  violence.

However, in popular political discourse, the phrase ‘radicalisation’ has also come to incorporate certain ideas about how that process takes place. Firstly, the acceptance of extremist religious ideas is the first step in leading people to violence. Secondly, the clear linear stages through which people move from belief to terror. And thirdly, the typical signatures of radicalization.

There are Liberal academics and left wing commentators who will claim that Muslims are pushed towards Jihadism because of certain political grievances, such as aggressive Western interventionism in Muslim countries. There is a problem with this argument, however. First of all, there has been a long history of Western intervention in Muslim countries, in particular the Middle East. From Winston Churchill ordering the gassing of Iraqi rebels in the 1920s, to the CIA helping to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, to the United States supporting the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran in the 1980s, as well as support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

This argument misses a key point though. There has also been opposition to Western interventionism in Muslim countries, often times very violent resistance, but the difference is in the past the resistance consisted of mainly Nationalist, Socialist or Communist groups, in other words, people who followed materialist bases ideologies. The Islamic opposition to the West that we see now is relatively new – it has only achieved prominence since the 1979 Iranian revolution. This demonstrates that the ‘radicalized by political grievances’ argument fails to explain or take into account the changing character of anti-western sentiment and anti-imperialist resistance from the Muslim world.

Another claim made is that young Western Muslims lean towards Jihadism because of poor intergration and poverty. Despite this claim, there is much evidence to suggest that those who join jihadi groups are anything but poorly integrated or victims of poverty, at least in the way we popularly understand integration. To give a few examples, Omar Sheikh, the murderer of Daniel Pearl, was a student at the London School of Economics. Mohammad Emwazi (Jihadi John) was a computer science graduate from the University of Westminster and the ‘underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutllab came from an affluent family and was an engineering graduate from University College London.

Likewise, a survey of British jihadists by researchers at Queen Mary College in London found that support for Jihadism is unrelated to social inequality or poor education; rather, those drawn to jihadist groups were 18- to 20-year-olds from wealthy families who spoke English at home and were educated to a high, often university, level.  In fact, the study states that ‘youth, wealth, and being in education…were risk factors’.

I don’t deny that in individual cases, people have personal grievances that are very real to them which may trigger or even enable their radicalisation. Moreover, this is not saying that grievances aren’t a factor or that Western foreign policy doesn’t sometimes pour fuel into the fire of rage. Terrorists of any stripe need a grievance as it is the thing that fuels their anger and drives their cause. However, no matter the struggles you experience, it is not an excuse for joining a totalitarian, theocratic, neo-imperialist death cult like The Islamic State, nor is it an excuse for mass atrocities committed by Jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda or The Islamic State. Any individual is ultimately responsible for their own actions.

On the other side, others will claim the followers of Jihadism have been radicalised by soaking in Islamic fundmentalist ideas. However, studies show, for instance, that those who are drawn to jihadist groups are not necessarily attracted by fundamentalist religious ideas. The typical Jihadist before he is a Jihadist is not often a religious zealot, often times they are at best, religious novices. A leaked 2008 study by Britain’s domestic security service MI5 on extremism observed that ‘far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly’.

Likewise, former CIA officer Marc Sageman, who is now a counter terrorism consultant observed. “At the time they joined, jihad terrorists were not very religious”…”They only became religious once they joined the jihad.”

Nor is there any evidence of a linear path leading people from radical ideas to jihadist violence as the conveyor belt theory suggests. A 2010 British government report concluded that the conveyor belt thesis ‘seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors’. There is simply no evidence for a causal relationship between believing in Islamist ideas automatically leading you to becoming an agent of terror. Anonymous Mugwump wrote a very good piece exploring this point in more detail.

Some Conservatives and the so called ‘New Atheists’ may misinterpret this as me downplaying the role of religious ideology in Jihadist violence as something that is non existent. My argument is not that religion has nothing to do with Jiahdist violence nor is it that Jihadists don’t justify their use of violence using Islamic scripture. Moreover, I disagree with those who argue that there is no need to study ideological factors.

The role of beliefs and ideology in one’s behavior is obvious and well documented, one cannot answer the question of why some use political violence and other do not if you don’t examine the ideological assumptions that they accept and believe in. The point is we look at the relationship between Jihadis and Islam the wrong way round. We begin with jihadists as they are at the end of their journey, virulently anti-Western and believing in a primitive, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. We often assume that these are the reasons that they have come to be as they are, when in reality this is rarely the case. It is not surprising that many radical Muslims are are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who discovered their faith only relatively late.

The problem with having this discussion is people on all sides want to use simplistic narratives developed by their narrow ideological or political bias to explain this phenomenon. The argument is framed as either a) Islamic scripture is the sole reason for terrorism or b) government policies bare all the blame. Both arguments fail to take into account the changing character of Western Muslim beliefs and identity. In addition, both the arguments of both sides fail to explain why it is at this particular moment in history,  that a considerable number of Western Muslims are attracted to savagery of groups like The Islamic State.

So if not political grievances or religion then what is it?

This is not an easy question to answer as one has to consider multiple factors (including religion and grievances) intertwined with one another, but what we do know is that there is no one single path to Jihadism, and there isn’t a particular type of person that fits the description of ‘the typical Jihadi’ as the demographic is so diverse. However, I believe that wannabe Jihadis gravitate towards groups like Al-Qaeda and The Islamic State because they yearn for a solid grounding in identity and purpose.

As the French sociologist Olivier Roy, a well respected scholar of European Jihadism, puts it, few terrorists “had a previous story of militancy, either political or religious. Rather, they’re searching for something less definable: identity, meaning, respect”.

Tufyal Choudhury of Durham University, said in a 2007 study, “The path to radicalisation often involves a search for identity at a moment of crisis.” He suggested that this occurs, “when previous explanations and belief systems are found to be inadequate in explaining an individual’s experience.”


The starting point of a homegrown Western Jihadi is not so much ‘radicalisation’ but social disengagement and resentment of mainstream Western culture. Not only are they estranged from mainstream Western culture but they are also as much estranged from the wider Muslim community. Most dislike the cultural traditions of their parents and have little time for their traditional forms of Islam, viewing it as irrelevant for their current condition. Disengaged from both Western societies and Muslim communities, some reach out to Islamism because it gives them that sense of identity and belonging that they didn’t experience previously. Many aspiring Jihadis adopt more hardline interpretations of Islam like Salafism because it has a simple theology that many can easily understand and it is a negation of the ‘impure’ Islam of their parents and grandparents.

Why has this crisis identity among Muslims happened?

There are multiple factors to consider to explain this evolution. One has to consider domestic social and political changes, such as the collapse of the left after the end of the Cold War and the subsequent rise of identity politics. In addition, geo-political developments, from the 1979 Iranian revolution to First Gulf War and the Bosnian genocide of the early 1990s, that helped foster a heightened sense of Muslim identity.

There is also the growing influence of Saudi Arabia on Islamic institutions in the West and its aggressive promotion of Salafism through its oil money. And in the case of Britain, the development of multicultural social policies that exacerbated the worst aspects of identity politics, helping further to fragment society. Islamic revivalism in Muslim communities are not simply a throwback to a bygone medieval era, but is a product of contemporary social, cultural and political developments.

I am not a sceptic like Frank Furedi or Sana Saeed, who believe ‘radicalisation is a myth’ promoted by the mainstream media and security services for the purpose of sensationalism and legislating draconian security policies against the Muslim community. Radicalization is not a myth, but the precise process of radicalisation is ambiguous, and all the major controversies and debates that have sprung from it are linked to this ambiguity.

So what do we solve this? There will be no easy solutions. That is the brutal reality. But, I would suggest that if we are to truly fight this threat, in order to prevent the creation of more Jihadis, then first of all, we should acknowledge that there is a problem of Jihadism amongst certain sections of Muslim communities in the West, particularly in Europe.

Secondly, we should start by confronting the contemporary sense of social disengagement, and not just among Western Muslims (this social disengagement also contributes to the rise of far right groups).

Thirdly, reinvigorate the corroded institutions of civil society that can contribute to creating and promoting a progressive alternative that disengagened Muslims can buy into; instead of the nihilistic fanaticism of IS.

Fourthly, push back against the identity politics that adds fuel to this fire. If this is achieved and a progressive alternative is made possible then we will go a long way to starting to solve the crisis of identity and belonging among Western Muslims.

Only through debate, discussion and argument that we can truly explore ideas and potentially discover the truth. My hope is that we have a more sophisticated analysis of radicalisation in our public discourse that recognises the various complexities of this phenomenom. You cannot ignore nuance and replace it with a simplistic narrative in this argument, this is especially important because drafting public policy on the basis of a simplistic narrative will almost always be disastrous.

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