The West has started treating would-be terrorists as children in need of protection from radical ideas. That's as dangerous as it is insulting.
- By Simon CotteeSimon Cottee is a visiting senior fellow at the Freedom Project, Wellesley College. He is the author of The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.
Something profound and seismic is happening in the way Western societies understand terrorism, and jihadi radicalization in particular.
Until now, the terms of the debate were set by two master narratives about terrorists, usefully categorized in an Atlantic article published just over 30 years ago by the Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien as the “hysterical stereotype” and the “sentimental stereotype.” The former saw terrorism as a form of pathology perpetrated by “‘disgruntled abnormal[s]’ given to ‘mindless violence,’” whereas the latter characterized it as a form of political resistance mounted by “misguided idealist[s] … driven to violence by political or social injustice or both.”
In the years since the publication of O’Brien’s article, however, these two narratives have gradually lost their intellectual and cultural prominence, thanks in part to the enormous impact of Hannah Arendt’s thinking on the “banality of evil” and the enormity of the 9/11 attacks, which, as terrorism scholar Peter Neumann observed, made it “very difficult to talk about the ‘roots of terrorism,’” still less to sentimentalize terrorists. In their place a very different paradigm has emerged, driven by efforts to rethink the problem of terrorism in response to the rise of al Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State. At the center of this paradigm is the notion of the terrorist as an infantilized “other”: a marginal person whose outstanding characteristic is vulnerability. You might call it the “snowflake theory of terrorism.”
This view is clearly an advance on seeing terrorists as either crazed fanatics or warriors for justice, but its paternalistic implications are just as dangerous as those implicit in the two paradigms it displaced.
The explanatory rhetoric of the snowflake theory of terrorism could not be more different from that of the earlier two paradigms. Far from being a symptom of psychological dysfunction or political injustice, terrorism, in this new reframing, is redefined as a “risk,” borne mainly by the would-be perpetrators of terrorism rather than the would-be victims of future terrorist atrocities. Far from seeing terrorists as perpetrators of violence for political ends, this theory recasts them as victims of “extreme” ideas propagated by manipulative “groomers.” Nearly always, the terrorism or “risk” in question is the contaminant of jihadi-based terrorism, although the proponents of this paradigm commonly insist that it also applies to other forms of terrorism, including that of the far right.
These explanatory tropes and motifs underpin the prevailing ideology of “countering violent extremism” in both Europe and North America. In Britain, for example, the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act makes it perfectly clear that terrorism is a “risk” to which people can be “drawn into.” It’s now a legal requirement for specified authorities, including schools, colleges, universities, and child care services, to conduct risk assessments to identify individuals “vulnerable to radicalization.” In a 21-page document, which provides statutory guidance for the relevant authorities listed in the 2015 act, the word “risk” appears 67 times. In all cases, the risk in question relates to the “risk of individuals being drawn into terrorism.” The word “vulnerable,” in the context of “vulnerable to radicalization,” appears 13 times.
In his remarks at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism in September 2015, President Barack Obama similarly used the language of safeguarding in reference to radicalization. “And finally,” he said, “we recognize that our best partners in protecting vulnerable people from succumbing to violent extremist ideologies are the communities themselves — families, friends, neighbors, clerics, faith leaders who love and care for these young people.”
The same tone of paternal care informs a lot of media commentary on Western members of the Islamic State, who, it is claimed, were “brainwashed” or “groomed” by recruiters into joining the group. Referring to the three East London schoolgirls who absconded to Syria in February 2015, Sara Khan, the founder and co-director of the anti-extremism NGO Inspire, wrote in the Independent that “they were groomed,” adding, “Just like child abusers groom their victims online and persuade them to leave their homes and meet them, male jihadists contact women through social media and online chatrooms, and build trust with them over time.” Hayley Richardson, in Newsweek, similarly insisted that “ISIL are using similar online grooming tactics to pedophiles to lure Western girls to their cause.” In 2015, the New York Times ran a feature on a lonely and mentally unstable young woman from rural Washington who had been befriended online by Islamic State supporters and “flirted” with the idea of going to Syria. Despite the idiosyncrasies of her case — the only Muslims she knew were those she had met online — and the fact that she had never set foot in Islamic State territory in Syria and Iraq, the Times asserted that her story may “provide clues about how ISIL recruits new members around the world.”
Or consider journalist Kurt Eichenwald’s recent article for Newsweek, titled, “How Donald Trump Is Fueling ISIS.” According to Eichenwald, the president’s rhetoric and policies send “a new message … that reinforces the jihadi extremists’ propaganda and increases the likelihood that more Americans will die in attacks.” Imagining the response of Western Muslims to Trump’s use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” he writes, “The emotional reaction of Muslims who are torn about whether to fight against the West would be strong.”
“ISIS could not have asked for more,” he continued, ventriloquizing this time for the terrorist group that the world’s vast majority of Muslims condemns. “If such words can anger an ally as important as the Turkish president,” referring to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rejoinder to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s use of the term “Islamist terror,” “what impact does it have on ordinary Muslims being bombarded with the ISIS message that they are in a fight to save Islam?”
This image of the terrorist as an infantilized and emotionally immature “other,” acutely sensitive to the slightest linguistic slur or trigger, reflects a deeper structural shift in the culture of contemporary Western societies, where, since at least the early 2000s, the language of risk and protection has come to inform and shape a growing number of social practices and organizations involving adults. This language finds its most ostentatious — and, of late, infamous — expression on college campuses, including the one I’m writing this from.
The idea that terrorism is a “risk” to “vulnerable” Muslims has at least three unfortunate social consequences. First, as former U.S. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez recently remarked, it is profoundly demeaning. It portrays Muslims, according to Fernandez, “as if they are easily swayed yet dangerous children susceptible to becoming terrorists because of immigration policy or harsh words that supposedly hurt their feelings.” It has also given rise to the pernicious argument that this group should be protected from words and ideas that risk offending their presumed religious beliefs or affiliations, for fear that not doing so will “push” them toward jihadi groups. Just as the safeguarding movement on U.S. campuses presumes, in the words of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche,” so does the radicalization discourse presume an extraordinary fragility of the psyche of Western Muslims. Far from protecting Muslims, “safeguarding” exposes them to what the Pakistani-Canadian writer Ali A. Rizvi describes as “the racism of lowered expectations.”
Second, it depoliticizes jihadis and their would-be emulators by denying their agency as political actors, whose embrace of jihadi rhetoric and violence is predicated on reason as much as emotion. To reframe the Islamic State as a “risk” to “vulnerable” Muslims is to deny its potent intellectual challenge, and how its dual-message of Western moral degradation and Islamic authenticity can speak to even the most resilient and precocious of Muslims. Of course, stupid and naive people have joined or attempted to join the Islamic State, but many more have been highly intelligent and politically engaged, demonstrating great resilience and bravery by making it to Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq.
Third, the recategorization of terrorism as a “risk” to impressionable Muslims inverts the perpetrator-victim relationship, whereby the former is transformed into the latter. It’s like saying domestic violence is a “risk” to the person who beats his wife. But, of course, like domestic violence, terrorism is a risk primarily borne by those who are on the receiving end of it (most of whom are Muslim). It is pernicious to argue for greater protections for Muslims against inflammatory speech from a counterterrorism perspective in the same way that it would be pernicious to argue that potential wife beaters should be shielded from slights directed at them from their wives. And it should go without saying that hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric targeted at Muslims is wrong precisely because it is hateful and dehumanizing, and not because, according to some engrained, neo-orientalist expectation, Muslims will lash out violently and indiscriminately against those who espouse this rhetoric or are somehow tenuously connected to it.
Terrorism is a form of political violence, and those who engage in it must be taken seriously as autonomous moral agents. No doubt the Islamic State has captivated the imaginations of many young Western Muslims, and it can hardly be disputed that the number of young people involved in Islamic State-related terrorist plots in the West has risen in the past few years. In a recent study, Robin Simcox found that from September 2014 to December 2016 there were 34 Islamic State terror plots or alleged plots in the West involving 44 preteen and teenage participants.
Yet the number of young people involved in terrorism should not be exaggerated. In a 2015 report on Western defectors to the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, the journalist Peter Bergen and his colleagues found that the average age of the 474 individuals in their dataset was 24. This is young for an adult but is clearly beyond adolescence. In another study, carried out the same year, Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes reported that of the 71 individuals charged with Islamic State-related activities in the United States since March 2014, the average age was 26. Moreover, the total number of teenagers involved in Islamic State-related terror plots and defections to jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq is still minuscule and does not remotely justify the reframing of terrorism as a child protection issue, still less the mass thought-policing of Muslim communities, where many young people are suspected of harboring “extreme” ideas. In Britain, of the 3,955 people referred to the government’s deradicalization program in 2015, 415 were 10 years old or under, while 1,424 were between 11 and 15. The ideology behind this program and the broader radicalization discourse on which it draws justify these stigmatizing interventions as “safeguarding” the very individuals they stigmatize.
Even among the small number of young people involved in terrorist plots or terrorist groups, it needs to be acknowledged that, as the sociologist Frank Furedi has observed, “it is not the ‘vulnerable’ but often the more idealistic and intellectually curious who are attracted to extremist ideas.” And this means taking them and their ideas seriously and not treating them as the whitest of “snowflakes” in need of protection.
Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images