Make America Afraid Again! What the Right Doesn't Understand About Violent Extremism
By Adam Simpson
The recent shooting shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando has been called, not without controversy, the worst mass shooting in US history. Politicians have since flooded the American public with really bad ideas about how best to protect the country from terrorist attacks. Donald Trump revived his ideas about imposing religious restrictions on entry to the United States, deriding American Muslims as a dangerous “they.” Newt Gingrich, who has endorsed Trump, recommended resurrecting the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a relic of the Cold War used to criminalize thought by investigating and blacklisting alleged communists and communist sympathizers. Others on the right have decried “politically correct” approaches to countering violent extremism, affirming that Americans must identify the problem as “radical Islam.”
A fundamental problem with these suggestions is that they are purely tactical and overemphasize the role of ideology and religious identity in violent extremism. In many ways, the emphasis on short-term response is understandable--49 people were just killed in Orlando, after all--but such approaches demonstrate a lack of understanding about the phenomenon of violent extremism. The reasons that someone is drawn to an extremist organization can vary widely. Such a process for a young man from Brussels is sure to vary widely from his counterparts in Baghdad or New York and so on. This is because motivations and influences are highly contextual and personal.
Immediately we can discard religion. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Estimates for the global number of jihadists is difficult to project, but one estimate from 2014 suggests there are 85,000-106,000 jihadists worldwide. That’s .006% of the world’s Muslim population. It’s a bit like asking for needles and insisting they be delivered in haystacks. Be ludicrously generous and round that figure up to 1% and even still: the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not join extremist groups.
In conflict zones, joining a local militia may make sense to protect yourself, your family, or your community. Often the primary motivation is to join the strongest group or the one that is perceived to be most likely to win. When a state fails due to conflict joining such a group may include a salary or stipend that allows one’s family to secure goods needed to survive. Transnational jihadist groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda have the networks to contribute military and financial support and exploit such environments. Even still: many people residing in war zones do not join militias or extremist groups.
In other contexts it’s more useful to think of transnational jihad as a social movement, or perhaps Islamism more generally as the social movement with transnational jihad as its extremist wing. In such a context, especially in the Middle East, factors may include government repression of Islamist parties that seek to acquire power at the ballot box which invigorate the extremists arguments that violence is the only way to secure political change. Even still: many people residing in authoritarian countries do not join extremist groups.
Other discarded roots of terrorism include poverty and education. The Middle East and North Africa have no shortage impoverished people or, despite advances, education shortfalls, but even still: many people living in destitution or in inadequate educational environments do not join extremist groups.
In the West, young Muslims are not often confronted by most of these other factors. Radicalization here is attributed to a sense of displaced identity, particularly among second and third generation immigrants who have difficulty relating their birth country or their families’ country of origin. For others, especially adolescents, they’re searching for meaning and adventure as all people tend to do. The presence of a global jihadist movement that they can attach themselves to is tempting. For the Orlando shooter, born in New York, it is becoming increasingly clear that part of his motivation was informed in part by an internal conflict with his own sexual orientation. His affiliation to transnational jihad seems fleeting, acting as a cover to his animus against the LGBT community. Even still: most second and third generation immigrants, most adolescents do not join extremist groups.
The point is there is no root cause. There is an exhausting number of paths that may lead someone to become a jihadist, in the same way that there is an exhausting number of pathsthat may lead to someone joining a gang. The reality—which no politician wants to admit—is that it is impossible to prevent all of these attacks. But it is difficult to prevent them at all while drawing lines within our society. Unity is a much more powerful antibody to violent extremism than is mosque monitoring, Muslim ID cards, or any number of other grossly authoritarian suggestions.
According to research in behavioral psychology—an all too often ignored approach to counterterrorism—radical groups thrive on “identification” and “disidentification.” Consider that the transnational jihadist phenomenon is consistently concerned with defining who is and is not a Muslim. Jihadist groups thrive on takfirism, takfiri meaning to declare a Muslim an apostate. Simultaneously, misrecognition can be a key component of radicalization as an identity becomes threatened or denied. According to Reicher and Haslam the process of radicalization begins with such misrecognition combined with the frustration of wanting to belong. This leads to disengagement and disidentification—for our purposes a Muslim-American discarding or devaluing the American aspect of their identity. This divisive language employed by the right-wing plays into both of these concepts.
By calling for revival of HUAC, Gingrich in effect is opening the door to an inquisition of 3 million Muslim-Americans who value the the -American part of their identity. Trump’s tactic is similar—he blames the phenomenon of extremist violence on the fact that Muslims have been allowed to emigrate to the United States at all. In the wake of the Orlando attacks he further insisted that “they,” American-Muslims, share the same political and social views as transnational jihadists. Finally he derided his likely Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton for her previous remarks that “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” As Borum notes, recruiters thrive on a sense of urgency and imminence, and Trump’s strategy seems to play into this potential exploitation.
This is the American right-wing’s version of takfirism--declaring US Muslims as less American, and it’s one that jihadists thrive on. In the Islamic State's publication Dabiq, they had an entire chapter devoted “The Extinction of the Grayzone,” remarking that Muslims are increasingly being faced with a choice between Islam and “the crusade,” i.e. Western aggression against Islam. You can see an increasingly energized American constituency on social media, evident in the #IslamIsTheProblem trend on twitter that exemplifies what Mitt Romney called “trickle-down hate,” that further threatens this 'grayzone.'
The solution is not to draw lines between our own communities as the transnational jihadist movement would like, but rather we should become more connected and more integrated. We are not without paradigms for addressing similar forms of social violence. It may be more useful to address the threat of jihadist violence in the same way the United States addresses gang violence, in particular by joining law enforcement, civil society, faith groups, employers, schools, and so on around a common set of principles and goals. That’s a difficult proposition while attempting to divide the country against all Muslims.
A ‘battle for hearts and minds’ is not a new concept for the war on terror, but today it seems that right-wing populists exploiting fear and anger are calling for an outright surrender of this increasingly important battle. There are often instances where you can lose a battle but nevertheless win a war—this is not one of those instances.