Monday 10 August 2015

Conveyor-Belts and Suicide-Belts

Recently, David Cameron made a speech about extremism and in it he said:

"any strategy to defeat extremism must confront, head on, the extreme ideology that underpins it... as we counter this ideology, a key part of our strategy must be to tackle both parts of the creed – the non-violent and violent. This means confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative."

Anonymous Mugwump took this to mean that Cameron had signed up to the "conveyor-belt" theory of Islamism which argues that non-violent Islamism leads to violent Islamist terrorism. AM argues very strongly that this is incorrect and, as usual, provides numerous academic and non-academic sources to back up that view. AM argues that "there is no causality between Islamism and terrorism" and his sources show that support for Islamism doesn't make someone any more likely to support terrorism.

David Paxton has written a strong rebuttal arguing that Cameron did not mean to invoke the "conveyor-belt" theory, rather he meant that Islamism provides the "mood music" (as Maajid Nawaz puts it) for violent Islamism.  He says that there is a link between Islamism and terrorism even if it is true that being an Islamist doesn't make you more likely to be a terrorist.

This is obviously a crucial question and, with some hesitation, I think both AM and DP are both right and wrong. 

AM's point (as I have understood it) is that supporting the Islamist ideology does not make you more likely to become a terrorist or to undertake acts of violence. Therefore tackling non-violent Islamist groups will not reduce terrorism. DP's response that the Islamist ideology is inherently violent because it supports state violence may be true but not really relevant to the discussion about reducing terrorism in Britain. 

DP argues that even if it is true that there is a personality type that is drawn to terrorism, there nevertheless has to be an Islamist ideology in existence for there to be Islamist terrorists. He writes:

"The people who might follow the path that ends with terrorism would still be considered fairly ‘normal’ in society in terms of their characteristics and potential before they start on the path. The same person with a tendency towards that search for excitement and adventure might go to the Army after growing up with one identity and to Jihadist organisations if growing up with another. The variable is the alternative identity and its viability. So even if there is no movement between the two Islamist groupings (I suggest this is unlikely and that we do not have the studies yet to be conclusive either way), the non-terrorist Islamist is still assisting the development of the violent one by creating, propagating and articulating the grievance, the cause, the ideal and the identity. They are also assisting by working against the validity of the alternative identity, namely that of the country they live in."
In other words, the kind of person drawn to terrorism could have channelled those characteristics in a productive way and would have done so had it not been for the existence of Islamism. I think this is very similar to what Maajid Nawaz writes:

"despite the absence of empirical evidence either way, what cannot be denied is that there is a relationship, a link, to whatever extent, between believing that it is okay to kill apostates, and actually killing them. It is silly to deny that a pre-requisite for the act of killing apostates, is the belief that it is okay to kill them."
Well, firstly, there is empirical evidence which AM provides. But more importantly he's absolutely right, it is silly. So silly, in fact, that I don't think anybody would suggest it. Of course an Islamist terrorist must sign up to the Islamist ideology. But that isn't actually the question we need to answer. 

What we are concerned with is stopping terrorism and that means identifying its causes. As AM argues very strongly, adherence to non-violent Islamism is not one of those causes. Rather, there is something innate in a person that leads them on the path to violence. If that is true then tackling non-violent Islamism will not reduce terrorism.

DP argues that the existence of the Islamist ideology drives them on a specific path to terrorism and that without that specific ideology they would channel their innate characteristics towards something else. The problem with that argument is that there are plenty of ideologies and paths that lead a person to terrorism. In Europe, only a tiny proportion of terrorist incidents are the result of Islamist terrorism. If the Islamist ideology disappeared overnight, the person drawn to a path of terrorism would find plenty more to follow.

So it would seem that AM is correct and that there is no causal link between Islamism and terrorism. The kind of person who is going to become a terrorist would become one even without the existence of the Islamist ideology. However, there is one vital point which DP alludes to and which I think makes Cameron's approach vital and that is the nature of the terrorism.

An Islamist terrorist is signed up to the Islamist ideology and that seems to include the desire to murder apostates. As a result, Islamist terrorism is more deadly than other forms. Despite making up only a very small proportion of the total number of terrorist incidents in Europe, Islamist terrorism is responsible for the vast majority of the deaths from terrorism in Europe. This is not because the other terrorist groups are incompetent, it is because the Islamist terrorist wants to murder as many random people as possible whereas other terrorist groups do not.

In this regard, if the Islamist ideology disappeared overnight we would not have fewer terrorists but we would have fewer deaths from terrorism. In this regard there is a causal link between Islamism and terrorism. On this basis, if our aim is to reduce the damage caused by terrorism then tackling the Islamist ideology is a crucial part of the fight. In short, we are not aiming to stop the conveyor-belt but we should aim to stop the suicide belt.

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