(Yes, it is spelled like that.)

The events of the past ten days have revived interest in the process of radicalisation. Why and how do people move from apparently normal to wanting to blow other people up, especially for a goal that most of them would be hard put to explain coherently?

There are plenty of grand theories of radicalisation. Often they are derived from and supported by the narratives of those who have become radicalised, been arrested, and then interviewed. The trouble with building theories this way is that they fail to explain all of the apparently identical people in the same situation who didn’t become radicalised. From a population of 10,000, maybe 1,000 will turn out to demonstrate in favour of some apparent injustice; of these, maybe 100 will find out more and acquire ideas supporting violent extremism, and of these 10 will even consider actually doing something. Even then, only a couple of these will get very far down the path to planning and carrying out an attack. So what makes the difference? Which ones never get beyond vague feelings of support? The grand theories have little to say about what doesn’t cause radicalisation.

By the way, many of you probably filled in an Islamist back story for the previous paragraph. But it’s important to remember that violent extremism is also used by animal rights supporters, anti-globalisation protesters, anarchists, right-wing ideologues, and others. So explanations of radicalisation have to work for these other groups too.

What is becoming clear is that the explanations for radicalisation have a small ball component, that is they derive from the personalities and immediate social settings of the people involved (family, rather then social group). Many teenagers and young adults feel out of place in society as they grow up. If you’re the child of an immigrant, especially one whose parents didn’t manage to settle cleanly in their new country, it’s easy to blame the “out of place” feeling on the society rather than on yourself. Even for those who aren’t children of immigrants, there’s a certain attraction to this extrinsic view. If there’s nothing wrong with you, there must be something wrong with the society around you. Narratives that play to this are naturally attractive, whether Islamist, or anarchist.

Overwhelmingly, also, those who radicalise are men; and, if they have post-secondary education, it tends to be in engineering and the hard sciences rather than in the humanities and social sciences. Both of these suggest a lack of nuance in thinking socially.

Although it might be conceivable for an individual to self-radicalise, this seem extremely difficult. It’s not obvious, but it’s really hard to learn a foreign language by watching TV, and something similar seems to be true of visiting jihadist web sites. Those who have become radicalised seem to need to be involved with a small group (2 is enough, but 5 is better) to amplify each others thoughts. And there seems to be a need for some kind of mentor figure, preferably an actual person, although here it’s just possible that an online figure can serve.

We have a paper coming out (eventually — the Dec 2012 issue still to appear) in the Canadian Journal of Political Science reporting on the results of a survey of attitudes in the Islamic community in Canada. These results make it fairly clear that dissatisfaction, broadly defined, has little to do with radicalisation. People don’t come to support violent extremism because they’re unhappy with government programs; nor, much, because they’re unhappy with the morality of society around them. Explanations have more to do with them as individuals than about society as a whole.


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