Concern is again mounting about the radicalisation of young British Muslims, with the news that up to 500 may be fighting in Syria. But despite the gravity of the issue, the public discussion of it is still clouded by lazy stereotypes.
On various occasions, the spectre of brainwashing has been raised by grief-stricken relatives of Britons who have travelled to fight abroad as they try to understand and explain their family members’ actions. For example, the mother of Reyaad Khan, a young British Muslim who travelled to Syria to fight and who recently appeared in a recruitment video for the jihadist organisation ISIS, said that her son was brainwashed into fighting in the conflict, and that the 20-year-old’s character had changed completely before he left for Syria.
Similarly, the father of Ali Kalantar, also believed to be fighting in Syria, said that his son was “brainwashed” into joining the conflict. This is not unfamiliar territory: the parents of John Walker Lindh, dubbed the “American Taliban”, made a similar claim when trying to explain how their son, an American citizen, came to fight against his countrymen in Afghanistan.
It is easy to understand how grief could lead to family seeking solace in the explanation of brainwashing – but the problem is that the concept of brainwashing doesn’t in itself explain anything.
It has been a widespread term in the media for years; it was popularised in several high-profile legal cases in the US in the 1970s, where it was argued that individuals could be brainwashed against their will. Its first prominent British outing was in 1981, when the Daily Mail (among others) accused the Unification Church – a new religious movement nicknamed the “Moonies” and often called a cult – of brainwashing its members.
These accusations stuck; the Mail repeated them, albeit somewhat less breathlessly, at the death of the leader of the Moonies in 2012.
Of course, many (if not most) social groups impose some kind of influence on their members; that’s the only reason we have moral norms that most people in our society can at least understand, if not necessarily conform to. But the concept of brainwashing, like radicalisation, implies a lack of agency on the part of the victim; it is almost exclusively used to decry the influence of a group deemed “bad”.
In fact, while we don’t hear quite as many commentators or experts using the term “brainwashing” as we once did, the term “radicalisation” is often used as a neat substitution, with “extremists” replacing “cults” as the source of concern.
This close relationship between the terms has been pointed out before, and of course in the cases of new religious movements and Islamist groups there have been genuine causes for concern – the current violence in Syria and Iraq being a timely reminder. But if we are to use the term ‘radicalisation’ to help us understand how young people might be attracted to such violence we need to properly understand the context and what we mean by it. As I have argued before, religion alone is not a cause and while content on the internet is often seen as a prime source of inspiration, some research has questioned whether it alone is sufficient for motivating people to violent acts.
This doesn’t mean we can’t understand why people have chosen to fight in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. In fact, the project I currently work on has highlighted plenty of good-quality research that’s already been done in this area.
Thomas Hegghammer, for instance, has shown that Western jihadists prefer to fight overseas, and not in their home country. Most don’t bring violence home when they return – but those that do are certainly more efficient and effective because of their experiences.
Other research has looked at the tactics used by recruiters. This has found that the internet is not a particularly good place to recruit, but that people who cry during prayer, for example, might make good recruits.
Of course, there is a long history of foreign fighters that predates the current Islamist-dominated agenda by decades. Some research comparing fighters and their causes from a number of different conflicts has shown how these recruiters create a sense of an existential threat to a wider community variously bound by ethnicity or ideology.
But as has been pointed out in the past by those working on “brainwashing” by cults, the process (whatever we call it) is clearly very difficult. No perfect or foolproof method of radicalising unwitting victims exists. And if there did, the number of recruits from Cardiff, Coventry and across the UK would be far higher.