On de-radicalisation: A prologue

Tewfick Aclimandos
Tuesday 5 Dec 2017

With the rising number of jihadists among European non-Muslim citizens comes an increasing need for de-radicalisation. But is there one programme that suits all?

A month ago, a friend asked me to write a very short piece on de-radicalisation and the deadline was quite short — less than 10 hours. I started my research, helped by my familiarity with some French debates.

I downloaded working papers and studies, watched videos, read some articles, but the clock was ticking, and I had to stop my inquiry and start writing.

Now I want to return to the topic, not systematically, as I am deprived of the tools necessary for an exhaustive research. Anyhow, the topic would need many books.

Fifteen years ago, a middle ranking French official told me that the French security apparatus was trying to organise discussion sessions with jihadists. Experts were telling them, "Your religion is beautiful and magnificent; the Islamic civilisation was something great, and it can provide you with subtle answers to your problems, so why opt for the poorest interpretation, and anyhow violence is not the solution."

I was surprised and intrigued. I wondered if the French State realised the difficulty of the task, but I was busy with my own research and did not think about it further.

By the end of the previous decade many French friends — scholars, officials — told me, “Sooner or later a lot of money will be poured into de-radicalisation programmes, and you should start preparing yourself if you want to make some money." I thought about it and I felt I was not qualified for such an endeavour. My “comparative advantages” lied elsewhere. I might have been wrong, but I do not regret this decision.

France launched de-radicalisation programmes in 2015 but it acted in a hurry, under heavy pressure. Many say the programmes were not well planned, and they now say they are a failure. We shall return to this later.

It seems to me the handling of terrorism went through several phases. President George W Bush used military force and went to war. From the very beginning many underlined the real battle was about winning hearts and countering violent ideologies.

When it appeared the invasion of Iraq was really a folly and a disastrous mistake, the voices that contended military force was not the answer got louder. For instance, Philip Gordon wrote a paper published in the November 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, trying to define “victory in the war against terror." He built an analogy with the Cold War; he justified this by saying that the Cold War was a war against an insidious ideology and a war that lasted many decades. Both were strange wars, where victory could not be achieved through military means. Victory would be achieved when jihadist ideology would be discredited, when jihadist tactics would be widely considered a failure, and when militants would start to choose paths that are more promising.

President Obama tried the other way — restoring America’s moral stature, winning the war for ideas and, more controversially, betting on “moderate Islamism." After 12 years of Bush and Obama, the result is clear: jihadism went global, mobilises hundreds of thousands of militants, causes havoc everywhere, but on the other hand, a great majority of Muslims actively rejects it.

However, most worryingly, an increasing number of European citizens, not all of them of Muslim descent, embrace this ideology. With the terrible rise in the numbers, the “de-radicalisation” paradigm gained a new vigour.

One de-radicalisation programme was and is a “success story”: the Saudi one. Nevertheless, it is quite specific. This programme converts jihadists to quietist Salafists. Its success is quite logical. Twelve years ago, the Egyptian journalist Munir Adib criticised those who were betting on Salafism to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. True, he wrote in Al-Dostor, most Salafists were peaceful. However, they shared with the jihadist the same bleak worldview, with a very negative diagnosis on contemporary societies and modernity.

He added: almost all theologians — Salafists or otherwise — say defensive jihad is legitimate. In addition, it is quite easy to prove many Muslim peoples are under attack, in Palestine or Iraq, for instance. So eventually, you will have at least a minority of quietist Salafists that will opt for violence. This subtle paper fascinated me. Jihadists and peaceful Salafists, who just try to construe a different sub-society, have a lot in common, so it is easy to switch from one position to the other and vice versa.

The snag is obvious: bolstering a quietist Salafist project is not an option for many European countries, especially those with strong identities, like France. Therefore, they must look for other ways of doing things.

Keep in mind de-radicalisation discourse is also a discourse on the self, on each country’s culture. Radicalism is a relative term, as it implies you have to define what is "moderation," "centrism," and “mainstream." This partly explains the moving passions that inflame the debates.

Many criticise the implications of the notion: they say it implies that the problem is psychological, not political. It minimises the real problem: that Islamism is a political challenge that politically rejects the foundations of European civilisation and tries to undermine it. It implies that Islamism is okay, but fanaticism or radicalism are not. Others say something more or less similar: focusing on psychology is a convenient way to ignore society’s ills and problems. Instead of dealing with the causes of anomy, they try to cure its psychological effects. I tend to accept both critiques, but it should be clear that de-radicalisation supporters have many arguments.

One of them is interesting: the problem is not the "clash of ideas." Extremist ideologies do exist and will not disappear soon, but centrist and reformist interpretations do not need to be invented — they are already here.

Inventing a new discourse, modern, postmodern, revivalist, moderately conservative, etc, will just add a new product in a replete market. The problem is not the lack of alternatives to extremist ideologies. The problem is many find the latter appealing, bringing solutions to their identity problems, curing their psychological suffering, etc.

Many supporters of de-radicalisation say, you do not need to propose other products; you have to change the buyer. Two vastly different groups contest this claim: Muslim Ulemas, and people who do not like the Islamism project.

To be continued.


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