Radicalization: Interview with Kevin McDonald
In his recent book, Radicalization (Polity, 2018) Kevin McDonald unpicks the term radicalization, showing that this term is little understood, and is problematic in that it does not articulate the very different experiences of those involved. New violent actors, whether they travelled to Syria or killed at home, range from former drug dealers and gang members, to students and professionals, schoolgirls, and mothers with young children. The book sets out to explore radicalization not as something done to people, but as something produced by active participants, attempting to make sense of themselves and their world.
What is it that sociology offers for understanding radicalization?
Over the last 15 years a new form of violence has emerged, for which there is an urgent intellectual and ethical need to understand. It is crucial that the social sciences and sociology play a part in this understanding, and that it’s not left to only the security industries to deal with.
The specific contribution I’m trying to make is the experience of the people involved in radicalization experiences. I don’t accept that people are simply ‘dupes’ that have been indoctrinated, or that they’re just vulnerable people. Using what we call the sociology of experience, I bring a background of studying social movements and social actions, and I’m trying to understand these people as actors or agents who are attempting to do something in the world, specifically in relation to radicalization.
I get close to the actual practice of people in radicalization pathways, to understand those transformations, which are in fact very different pathways in very different types of experiences. In the accounts of those who have left Britain to go to Syria are 15-year-old schoolgirls, former drug dealers, as well as idealistic university students; all experiences which are very, very different. If we try to create policies to counter radicalization premised on the idea that there is just one form of radicalization, which is only vulnerable people who sit in front of a computer and are manipulated, or ‘indoctrinated’, we’re not going to understand them, and we’re not going to be able to develop effective responses.
Can you speak a bit more about examples of radicalization experiences?
The first I encountered surrounds schoolgirls and sisterhood, which is of teenage girls going to Syria because they have an experience very much as a group, that they share the love of the same person. For most young girls, they can’t share the love of the same person, as they’ll end up fighting with each other. But in this specific case, in a kind of fusion experience in the sociology of religion, young people in particular – young girls – they can all love God, or Jesus, or Allah, in the sense that the religion doesn’t matter. This is a well understood experience of adolescent fusion. Analysing these girls’ social media feeds uncovers language about being sisters together, ultimately sharing the same lover. They move to Syria with the intention of getting married, it doesn’t matter to whom, as in a sense they are marrying an idea that unites them.
One chapter in the book explores the pathway of a young woman from Scotland, Aqsar Mahmood, who’s experience is more about cleansing and purity. I trace her story, from a first-year university student with lots of friends, very active on social media, to a point 12 months later when she leaves for Syria, having undergone an extraordinary transformation that is completely different to the younger girls.
It begins when she discovers distant suffering through social media. Her response is firstly to understand the world in terms of good and bad, and over time that changes,and she starts to view ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in terms of ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’, and then over further time the innocent become the ‘pure’, and the guilty become the ‘impure’. In seeing the world in terms of purity and impurity, she begins to feel danger, a visceral embodied danger that she experiences in terms of contamination. We see her dealing with this on social media through something very close to racism, in the sense that it shares the basic structures of racism in dividing the world in terms of pure and impure. To use her words, referring to Shia Muslims, she wants to ‘cleanse the world of the impure’. She’s a university student on twitter calling for genocide, and that’s in Britain in 2013.
The book also traces the experiences of a young man from Birmingham, Junaid Hussain, who is a computer hacker, previously involved in the ‘hactivist’ group Anonymous, known for wearing V for Vendetta masks. He’s not concerned about politics, rather, he sees and experiences the world in terms of hidden forces, power and conspiracies, spending his time researching The Committee of 300 and The Illuminati. He sees the world full of hidden dangers.
Tracing his experience, firstly we see him demonstrating superiority in attacking pro-India hacker groups, such as The Indian Cyber Army, basing himself almost as a Pakistani nationalist, and the transformation process that follows leads him to go to Syria to play a central role in creating what the Islamic State Group call the ‘Cyber Caliphate’. We see that he posts himself on twitter, always wearing a mask, which is less about hiding his identity as it about accessing power. I explore masking as a social practice – when you put on a mask you can become something else and you can share in a kind of power. For Junaid Hussain, the powerful are always hidden, so he always wears a mask and for him this is about becoming powerful.
The research also includes interviews with people involved in pro-jihadist groups in Britain, people who had left prison and joined radical groups following a pathway similar to joining a gang. In these cases, people who previously lived in a world of chaos and disorder, discovered in joining a jihadist group, a new world of order in which they have a place, and where they fit into a hierarchy. Through the experience very similar to the pathways people take to join gangs, they move from a world of disorder, chaos, and risk, to a jihadist group which produces order and stability. So again, that’s a pathway you’ll see often in people who go to Syria who come from criminal backgrounds, and that’s totally different from the school girl, or the case of Aqsar Mahmood who discovers suffering and wants to respond to it, and it’s also different from Junaid Hussain.
All of these cases have played out on social media, and so the book traces these transformations and tries to understand how they fit together, and how we can think about them in some way that will help us to understand them, and to develop policies and practices to help us respond.
Looking at these individual transformation experiences, are there any patterns between them that help to identify common types of radicalization pathways?
Analytically, the research I’ve done suggests three types of pathways, which is ‘us’, ‘you’ and ‘I’.
The first pathway, ‘us’, is creating some kind of community that in a sense becomes radicalized, and where others are seen as an existential threat. This is the example that is similar in many ways to racism; it will see the world in terms of clean and unclean, there will be somewhere references to impurity and cleansing. That’s a significant pathway in radicalization which is about ‘us’.
The second pathway identified is a type of radicalization is about demonstrating my superiority to ‘you’. And that involves images of humiliation, and a significant fascination with power and violence, and we see many people from criminal backgrounds go along that pathway.
The third pathway is centered on the ‘I’, and who ‘I’ am. This is about purification of the self, about sacrificing myself potentially, or creating such a powerful event that the world will see who ‘I’ really am. This type of radicalization is very similar to the violence witnessed in school shootings. Young people involved in shootings in schools often believe themselves to be the bottom of a hierarchy, humiliated, ignored, and they decide that they will produce some sort of event that is going to change the world so that everybody with know the truth, and people will know ‘who I am’. My violence with reveal the truth, and the truth is who I am.
As an example, the book talks about some of the people involved in the Paris attacks in November 2015. One of the young men involved was a previous owner of a bar where drugs were being sold and he ended up losing his license and moving to Syria. In the attacks in Paris, his involvement and act of violence quite significantly takes place in a bar. He walked into a bar, and rather than shouting at people or condemning them, he put his face in his hands and then he blew himself up. In a sense he is obliterating himself and the life he previously lived, and it also may be that he was suffering a type of depression. In this kind of violence, the fundamental aim is not to kill the other, but to kill oneself.
What are the implications of this research and knowledge for prevention and policy?
Within radicalization, it’s important that we have much clearer understanding of the different types of pathways because they’re associated with different types of affects and emotional experiences, and they also lead to different types of violence. Some violence is going to be much more directed against the other, and some at oneself. For example, it is significant that in street level attacks such as those in London in 2017, the people involved increasingly wear fake suicide vests. This instils fear in others, but it also ensures they are not taken alive, that they are killed when the police arrive. Like the school shooter, the people involved in this type of violence are those who perceive themselves as humiliated, and the violence they are undertaking is proving to the world how important they are.
Not all radicalized violence is like that, but for certain types, and the sorts we are increasingly witnessing, killing oneself is the central part of the violence. It’s vitally important to understand even from a security perspective that certain types of pathways are going to be associated with particular forms of violence. Within sociology we have an important role in play in helping to understand radicalization, not only in terms of prevention, but in terms of security strategies and understanding what sort of violence is occurring.
Currently, the UK is spending hundreds of millions of pounds on anti-terrorism, and a significant amount of this on prevention, with no clear idea at all what radicalization is – it is an empty word. We have no real idea that whether or not this public spending is working, and there’s significant evidence that some of it is having negative consequences. Current indicators of a young person potentially becoming radicalized include, changing the way they dress, demonstrating they are unhappy with their family, or having a new interest in religion. These are all totally legitimate and shared all across the population. The problem is that if you’re part of a certain group of people and you start to do this, suddenly you become a person of interest. The absence of a clear understanding of what radicalization is, in my view, the big driver in producing the kind of negative effect that many public policies currently do, where people experience stigmatization and unfair judgement.
Sociology can contribute tools to look at those transformations, and to try to understand the critical points where we might be able to use tools and frameworks we already have for mental health support, suicide prevention, and gang intervention, for example. I hope the book will lead to further research and work to develop much clearer policies and practices, ideas and tools, to help those working in this area to respond in different ways.
Kevin McDonald is Professor of Sociology at Middlesex University, UK.