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Manchester attack: now is the time to properly talk about ‘radicalisation’

Flowers are left in St Ann’s Square, Manchester. PA

Manchester attack: now is the time to properly talk about ‘radicalisation’

It can be hard to know what to say at a time like this. In these hours when the same words – terrorism, security, threat, radicalisation – will be repeated over and over again, it can often feel like it’s better to just keep silent.

Even as a researcher, who looks to understand extremism in the context of the everyday lives of young people, silence seems a compelling option right now. But although we might not know what to say today, in the long term, reaching our goal of creating a more secure society means we have to keep talking.

“Radicalisation” is what, post-9/11, we have come to call the process of becoming a terrorist. And the word itself has become politically charged and divisive.

Not surprisingly then, the overwhelming majority of radicalisation researchers work within terrorism studies. They produce ever more complex models identifying both the personal qualities and contextual factors that lead people on a path to violent extremism.

Anger and alienation

Yet, even leading researchers in the field conclude that attempts to profile terrorists have failed. The fact remains that there is simply no reliable way of identifying who will become a security risk before they do so.

Any search for potential terrorists is likely to identify many more people who will never commit violence with radical view. And where these young people are wrongly categorised as a “security threat”, policies designed to make society safer, in practice simply embed anger and alienation.

People turned out in their masses to attend a vigil in Albert Square, Manchester. PA

Radicalisation discourse in this way can be dangerously counterproductive. For young Muslims in Europe, it may be experienced as a way to label and even criminalise legitimate criticism of state policy – especially foreign policy.

While simultaneously, a perceived “silencing” about radical Islamism – the labelling of criticism of Islam, or of its use for violent political ends, as racism – may fuel radicalisation on the far right.

Indeed it is important to remember that radical views are not confined to any particular community. And in the long term, far right or anti-Islamist radicalisation may, in its ability to sow the seeds of division, be more of a threat to society than Islamist terrorism.

Rethinking radicalisation

For some the study of “radicalisation” might offer a research agenda aimed at improving policies on security and social well-being. For others, it is a government-funded industry in which academics are complicit in stigmatising Muslim populations. So, if we want to understand the challenges of violent extremism for young lives today, do we embrace or reject radicalisation studies?

The DARE – Dialogue about Radicalisation and Equality – project coordinated by the University of Manchester chooses neither starting point. Instead, it sets out to rethink the radicalisation research agenda. It asks questions about society, not security, about everyday lives, not routes to terrorism. And it seeks answers that can be employed to strengthen dialogue and understanding – not defences and borders.

An Ariana Grande fan looks at flowers outside Manchester Town Hall. PA

It also aims to develop a social research agenda on radicalisation that is distinct from terrorism studies and which includes both Islamist and anti-Islamist (extreme right) radicalism.

This approach focuses not on terrorist events or individuals, but on the social environment in which radicalisation messages are encountered. It understands these encounters as part of the everyday and it sees young people not as vulnerable to radicalisation but as reflective individuals facing radicalisation choices.

Encounters and choices

By understanding radicalisation not as a pathway to violent extremism but as everyday encounters, researchers are able to engage in open and honest dialogue with young people. We will be able to observe the encounters young people have with those who hold radical ideas and their responses to them. And in so doing, we may be able to understand more about why and how people do and do not become violent extremists.

Perhaps most importantly, this social approach will also allow us to chart pathways to “non-radicalisation” and to, understand and mobilise the everyday strategies young people already use to challenge radicalisation.

In the aftermath of the Manchester attack, we face difficult conversations. Just how do we marry the need for our young people to be safe with their right to live freely? How do we prevent violent extremism but avoid labelling and discriminating against communities who share those same aims? The answers are far from obvious. But silence is not an adequate response. It is time to talk.

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