Preventing Radicalization

ground zero

I wrote an early version of this post in 2016, roughly two months before the senseless mass murder in Orlando. I did not write it in response to any specific incident, as I feared it would apply to many incidents. I updated and expanded the post in 2019 shortly after the mass murder in New Zealand because the subject remains relevant.

If a country were to have a small minority population within its borders (e.g., an ethnic and/or religious minority, a political minority) with some potential for radicalization and a history of violence, it would seem that preventing radicalization among members of this group would be a worthy goal. Consider a country such as France with their Muslim immigrant population. The vast majority of French Muslims are not radicalized and pose no more threat to French national security than anyone else. At the same time, it might make sense that the French people would have an interest in preventing radicalization among members of this group.

How might a country prevent radicalization among members of a minority group within its borders? One of the approaches suggested by many who seem knowledgeable on the subject is that of assimilation. The basic idea is that members of various minority groups that have a potential to radicalize are far less likely to do so when they feel connected to and part of the society in which they live. In contrast, alienation and related factors (e.g., segregation, poverty, experiences of bigotry from the majority, perceived lack of opportunity to advance) appear to make people more likely to radicalize.

I have heard several pundits in Europe and the U.K. say that this has been one of the advantages the U.S. and Canada have had when it comes to our Muslim population in the sense that we have been more successful in assimilating Muslim immigrants into our society than some of their countries. Of course, we also have a much smaller number of Muslim immigrants, so that can make comparisons tricky. Again, I'm not necessarily sure that assimilation is the best option in all cases, but it seems like a reasonable one and is one I have heard suggested a number of times by people who appear to have some knowledge in this area.

Assume for a moment that there is something to this notion that assimilation is one effective approach for preventing radicalization. If this was true, one could argue that efforts to help a group assimilate and overcome a sense of alienation would be in everyone's interest. If doing so reduced the chances of radicalization, such an approach would seem to make everyone safer. Conversely, one might reasonably argue that doing things that increased alienation, anger, and disaffection might make radicalization more likely and could endanger us. Viewed from this perspective, something like expressions of hate, bigotry, and xenophobia aimed at members of a minority group might push some toward radicalization, making us all less safe.

We need to confront some of the difficult but critical question facing us. Are there any groups living among us that have been reporting feelings of widespread alienation and anger for some time? Have any of these groups demonstrated a potential for radicalization? Have members of any of these groups, once radicalized, committed acts of violence? As you consider these questions, do not limit yourself to racial, ethnic, or religious minority groups. Think more broadly.

Now consider how the rest of us have been attempting to deal with these groups and their members. Have we been seeking to facilitate their assimilation or have we been utilizing a very different approach, one that might even fuel even more alienation and anger on their part? When it comes to the angry and disaffected members of some groups, I think we've been doing things that might make the problem worse. We have made little effort to reach out to them or to understand what they are going through. We are too convinced that they are wrong, and we are far too eager to demonize them. We have sought to marginalize their members through a combination of name-calling, unfair stereotypes, mockery, public shaming, and so on.

It seems to me that it might be worth asking ourselves whether the use of such tactics against people who are already angry and alienated is making us more safe or less safe. If my response to an angry young man who is at risk for connecting with White supremacist ideology is to call him an "incel" and make repeated references to fedoras and "neckbeards" as I mock him relentlessly on social media, am I not pushing him toward radicalization? Wouldn't it be better for all of us if I tried to reach out to him and pull him back from the brink? If anger and alienation make radicalization more likely and radicalization makes violent extremism more likely, I think we might want to give some thought to whether our approach has been the right one.