Author Explains What Policymakers Should Do to Tackle Radicalisation

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An international team of researchers, including from University College London, confirmed that social exclusion is the leading causal factor of radicalisation. Nafees Hamid, co-lead author of the study and social psychologist at scientific research organisation Artis International, explained Sputnik how his team carried out the research.

Sputnik: Could you please give our listeners an overview of the research?

Nafees Hamid: The research was combining survey, ethnographic research and neuroscience research to quite understand motivations for why people who are already at an early stage of radicalisation choose to actually go over the edge of violence. For every violent actor, there's probably ten or twenty people who may have had some sort of sympathy towards those values, but didn't actually motivate themselves to carry out an act of violence.

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So, that was what we were interested in studying. We went to Spain, Spain is one of the top countries in Western Europe for radicalisation, and the Greater Barcelona area is the primary hotspot of radicalisation in Spain. So we went out in the various communities there, and with a team of research assistants that I have trained up, we sort of collected hundreds of surveys. Initially interviews and focus groups, and eventually surveys on values, attitudes, identities and a variety of different things. The vast majority of these people were perfectly well integrated, no extremist links at all.

However, we were able to find exactly 38 people who said that they would be willing to carry out some form of violence or to facilitate some form of violence for jihadist causes. So we knew we had a small handful of people who do support jihadist causes or were at an early stage of radicalisation. We then brought them into the laboratory to do some experiments on them, neuroscience and psychology studies. Thirty-eight might seem like a small number, but from a neuroscience point of view, it's actually a perfectly normal sample size.

We brought them in and we did a social exclusion experiment: half the participants, all second-generation Moroccan young men, were made feel socially excluded from the Spanish people while playing this little video game where they are tossing a ball. Spanish people were tossing a ball between themselves and not including the people of Moroccan origin, and then we control-condition them to including them. We then did a series of checks to make sure that the experiment worked, and we saw with a very strong effect that those people who were socially excluded in this little video game really did feel that they were no longer included in society, and that affected their belongingness and self-esteem, their sense of self-control and so forth.

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Then we put them in a scanner, and in the scanner, they evaluated values that are either sacred or non-sacred to them. Sacred values are a very unique set of values that have been studied in political science, sociology and psychology, that have been shown to make conflict intractable. A sacred value is a value that you're saying, "This is non-negotiable." So what values are sacred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? For some Palestinians, for example, the Palestinian right of return could be a sacred value, this will never be something that's part of a negotiation whatsoever. But even freedom of speech could be a sacred value. It doesn't have to be religious, it just has to occupy a particular strength of attitude.

So they are looking at these values in the scanner, some of them are sacred, some of the values are non-sacred; and the values include things like strict Sharia should be applied in all Muslim lands, caricatures of Prophet Muhammed must never be drawn. Some of them were a little bit more mundane, like should there be Islamic teaching in public schools in Spain?, In all Muslim countries should boundaries be taken apart and be replaced with a single Caliphate. For each participant some are sacred, some are not sacred, and they are evaluating their willingness to fight and die for each value when they are in the scanner. When they got out of the scanner, we did a battery of tests on them. What we found was that it doesn't matter if someone is socially excluded or not, a sacred value is a sacred value; it is a part of the brain that activates, called the left inferior frontal gyrus — that part is activated and people have a higher willingness to fight and die for the sacred values.

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What was really interesting is, when they were socially excluded, their non-sacred values started to behave more like sacred values: that same region of the brain that activates only for sacred values started to activate, their willingness to fight and die started to increase. So what we started to see is that social exclusion started to nudge people's non-sacred values towards sacralisation, and what that means is that once a value has become sacred, now this person is really difficult to negotiate with, this person is now difficult to persuade, this person is now difficult to de-radicalise, this person now has a higher propensity to actually carry out violence. In other words, this person is now more radicalised. So what we were able to do is isolate the effect of social exclusion on one of the processes of radicalisation to show how important it is in the process of making someone move closer and closer towards violence.

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Sputnik: Why is poverty no longer deemed as a dominant driver of jihadism?

Nafees Hamid: The vast majority of the people in our surveys were poor, lower-social-economic status. They were unemployed for the majority of them, they were making very little income. The problem when people try to draw a link with poverty and radicalisation is because they generally see that a lot of people who join — let's say — ISIS or rather Al-Qaeda were unemployed. But this is something that researches call base rate neglect: what you're doing is you're saying, "Okay, they were unemployed," but how many other people were also unemployed, living in the same neighbourhood, part of the same social networks, exposed to the same radicalising narratives, and did not go into one of these groups?

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So you're not actually, properly controlling for the broader communities' level of unemployment, and when you fracture that in, when you actually do a proper statistical analysis, and you look to see "Is poverty predictive of someone joining one of these groups, you just see that poverty has got south.

Sputnik: What should policymakers do to tackle radicalisation?

Nafees Hamid: What I would encourage policymakers to do is not only think about the immediate discrimination — obviously we should be combatting that, but on a more broader sense, that sense of community social exclusion, how do we get the space for people to have a complex variety of identities, but yet still feel socially included and cohesive enough within their communities, that they don't feel lost and aimless, and therefore are easy pickings for extremist groups?

The views expressed in this article are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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