The subject of terrorism is rarely off the agenda these days. If the public aren't being shaken by mindless violence then it's the security forces foiling an attack which captures our attention. This week it was the turn of a TV drama that piqued the nation's interest, but not in the way that we might have expected. This time it wasn't the senseless killing that grabbed the attention and provoked anger; it was the apparent humanisation of terrorists.
We might think that the more we understand the phenomenon of violent extremism the better we will be able to deal with radicalisation. Peter Kosminsky's four part drama about Daesh was meant to do just that, but instead it was criticised for "glorifying ISIS". One newspaper even said it was "pure poison… it's like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s." Too many media and politicians, it seems, have itchy trigger-fingers waiting to shoot down anyone who opposes the official narrative about the "war on terror"; to do so is to be branded a "terrorist sympathiser".
So it was with Kosminsky's fictional drama "The State", aired over four evenings this week on Channel 4. It followed four young recruits who abandon their lives in Britain to join Daesh in the Syrian city of Raqqa. The series wasn't just another race to the bottom to see who can portray Muslims in the worst possible light; it attempted to understand why some Muslims join the ranks of a group considered to be an aberration by the overwhelming majority of their co-religionists. Writer and director Kosminsky and the production team are said to have spent 18 months on research for the programme; this included speaking to Daesh recruits who had returned to Britain.
Channel 4 has been forced to defend the programme: "It was based on extensive factual research and offers an unflinching insight into the horrific actions of [Daesh], which [we] believe is an important subject to confront and explore." Experts in the field of radicalisation agreed and praised the filmmakers for producing an "extremely well researched" drama.
Speaking to BBC Radio Five, Kosminsky shed some light on the issue of radicalisation. His assessment of why mainly young, disaffected individuals decide to join groups like Daesh appeared to contradict the populist official narrative. Despite there being a complex set of reasons for why an individual would opt to leave his home in Europe to join a terrorist organisation, the official view peddles the myth that religious ideology is the main factor.
Kosminsky, however, appears to dispute the government narrative which is pushed by the mainstream media. The Daesh recruits approached during the making of the programme, he explained, have a poor grasp of Islam. Their understanding of the faith was "shallow" and many were either new "converts" or "born-again Muslims". For Kosminsky, this suggests that "the more you know about Islam the less likely you are to travel [to join a terrorist group]." Furthermore, he claimed that the likes of Al-Qaeda have a lot in common with nihilistic groups from Europe, such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army. All of these groups, he believes, are "uncompromising in their desire to tear apart western society currently as we know it." The Daesh terrorists are closer to those individuals than to devout Muslims, he concluded.
This assessment is not unfamiliar to anyone who follows the terrorism discourse closely. Since 9/11, the official narrative about radicalisation has been more intent on peddling its own ideology instead of dealing with the reality. The persistence in presenting Islamist ideology – a term that has no other purpose other than to serve as a cover for abusive comments about Islam and Muslims — as the main cause of terrorism is driven by a more pernicious ideology than the ideology in question. Step forward neo-conservatism. Can anyone really argue that the ideology which is responsible for the biggest Western foreign policy disaster in the Middle East and the subsequent rise of Daesh has not been more catastrophic for the region and the world than the terrorism that it spawned?
Even if we concede that Islamist ideology is a factor, there's no credible explanation for it being more significant than any of the other factors, including Western foreign policy and support for tyrants and dictators; the lack of basic human rights in the Muslim world; and the lack of viable economic opportunities therein. There are, as we know, many reasons why some opt for a life of permanent resistance and conflict, but it's disingenuous to suggest that Islamist ideology is the most significant of them. The amount of time, money and resources spent on tackling ideology has fuelled the misguided notion that Islam is the enemy.
This kind of muddled thinking, which twists facts to suit theories, suggests that the official narrative is unconstrained by the torrent of reports on the terrorist phenomenon. In the July report from the UN Centre for Counter-Terrorism (UNCCT), which looks at the growing phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) in Syria, the body interviewed dozens of individuals representing 12 different nationalities.
After engaging directly with the returning fighters, the UN said that many of its findings were contrary to the general perceptions people had about terrorism. "Religious belief," said the report, "seems to have played a minimal role in the motivation of returning fighters." Half of those to whom the UN spoke appeared to be "religious novices, lacking any basic understanding of the true meaning of jihad or even the Islamic faith; many did not even know how to pray according to the Islamic tradition."
The report sheds light on the vague notion of ideology. It was very specific about the role played by religious ideology in the radicalisation process: "When it came to religious motivation, religious ideology is not so much a push factor influencing young Muslims within the EU to become FTFs, as it is a post facto justification." Ideology, the report stresses, is "being used to legitimise acts of violence rather than to incite them." It adds further that "there is no agreement on the exact role of ideology, but the literature seems to favour secular over religious motivations."
Digging deeper into the small number of fighters who cited ideology as a factor, the majority appeared to equate ideology with defending other Sunni Muslims, or members of their "in-group". The findings support other surveys that also confirm that ideology is a minor factor in why someone decides to join the ranks of a terrorist organisation. Very few of those questioned by the UN believe in the idea of an Islamic State or of establishing a Caliphate in the Levant.
The notion of injustice is said to be more important to the fighters than ideology. Highest amongst their concerns is the perception of crimes being committed against fellow Sunnis. In the eyes of FTFs, jihad is understood to be justified when Muslims are under attack. Interestingly, the authors of the UN report claim that a desire to defend co-religionists who are perceived to be victimised and persecuted was a key factor in developing a sense of obligation to act in defence of one's "in-group". They identified this as one of the most common reasons given by individual FTFs for joining the ranks of Daesh.
What's more revealing was that the respondents in the survey claimed that they did not go to Syria with the intention of becoming a terrorist, nor did they return with that purpose in mind, although the report warns that the trauma of the war in Syria may have caused psychological damage to the individuals, making their behaviour unpredictable. Not all FTFs, it seems, wanted to go to Syria with the objective of becoming fighters; even fewer wanted to commit atrocities.
Looking at the background of the FTFs, many are said to be disadvantaged economically, lack education and have poor employment prospects. Social, political and economic disaffection is apparently more at play in the case of FTFs in Syria than in previous conflicts. The report suggests that economic factors are more important as a push factor in the case of foreign fighters joining Daesh than was the case in earlier waves of FTFs, for example to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Breaking down some of the secular push factors, it's claimed that many of the fighters were motivated by frustration over failure to achieve expected success in the job market, which is "compounded by a lack of advanced educational qualifications and/or discriminatory policies in their home country's labour market." To support this conclusion the report cited research carried out by the Brookings Institute. The American think tank explained that relative deprivation was an important driver for violent extremism: "While it seems to be true that unemployment on its own does not impact radicalisation, unemployment leads to a greater probability of radicalisation." It offers empirical evidence to support the view that "relative deprivation is an important driver of support for violent extremism… Individuals whose expectations for economic improvement and social mobility are frustrated are at a greater risk of radicalisation."
Challenging the terrorist narrative has been the primary focus of many people for nearly two decades. It's premised on the notion that ideology is the main cause of violent extremism. While this may be a factor in the radicalisation process, governments and policy makers need to abandon their own ideological narrative and take issue with human rights abuses, political and economic disaffection, social alienation and support for tyrants and dictators more seriously than they have done to date. Insisting that Muslims and Islam are the problem is not just factually incorrect, but also counterproductive. Terrorism won't be defeated if our governments continue to keep their heads in the sand about its real causes.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.