July 25, 2016

Preventing Radicalization

Tibetans as a main ethnic minority group in Si...
Tibetans as a main ethnic minority group in Sichuan Province, China. Aba County, China. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I wrote this post over two months ago, before the senseless mass murder in Orlando or those that have followed it. I mention this in an effort to make it clear that I did not write in response to any specific incident. This issue I am attempting to raise here extends beyond any one specific incident. 

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 seems that preventing radicalization among members of this group would be a worthy goal for the rest of the society. Consider a country such as France with their Muslim 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 would make sense that the French people would have an interest in preventing radicalization among members of this group given what they know about its potential dangers.

How does a country prevent radicalization among members of such 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 and ghettoization, 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. has 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 Muslim population, so that can make comparisons tricky. Again, I'm not necessarily sure that assimilation is the best option, 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 (i.e., assimilation is an effective approach for preventing radicalization). If this is true, one could argue that efforts to help a minority 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, the minority and majority alike.

Conversely, one might reasonably argue that efforts that had the effect of increasing 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 by the majority aimed at members of a minority group might push some toward radicalization, making us all less safe.

Are there any groups within the U.S. at the moment that report feelings of widespread alienation and anger? Have any of these groups demonstrated a potential for radicalization in the sense that we have observed some of their members becoming increasingly radicalized? Have members of any of these groups, once radicalized, committed acts of violence?

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 in order to prevent radicalization, or have we been utilizing a very different approach, one that might fuel even more alienation and anger on their part? It probably depends on which group we are talking about, doesn't it? When it comes to at least some groups, maybe we haven't done such a bad job of facilitating assimilation.

What about the angry and disaffected members of other groups? For the most part, it seems to me that 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. Instead of trying to understand 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 be that it might be worth considering whether the use of such tactics against people who are already angry and alienated is making us more safe or less safe from the threat of radicalization.