I've been doing a lot more teaching of late, some of it a bit out of my comfort zone. Having researched 'extremism' for a long time, I do sessions on this and related topics all the time. However, recently I've been teaching corruption, and classical social theory, meaning that I'm revisiting ideas and theorists I haven't read for years.
This week I was talking about the Chicago school and gangs. While I remember reading some of the gang literature I the past, I didn't relate it to my work on extremists. Now I've revisited it, and also found the likes of Simon Hallsworth and James Densley, I can see real parallels between the al-Muhajiroun group I spent time with and the street gangs they describe. So we can see how ‘corner kids’ can mutate into a group looking for a purpose, ideology or just something to do; there's the big question of whether the franchise or the belonging to a group makes for any difference (would they have been extremist without the group?); who belongs to the category of member and who is just hanging out?; how does the response of authority solidify the group?
For me, two questions stand out. First, there’s the important question of which set of social facts we are trying to explain by invoking the gang or the extremist group, and why. Hallsworth argues that the focus on the gang is misplaced partially because most crime and violence comes from people not involved in gangs. Similarly, I argue that the focus on extremist groups in misplaced for the same reason: while the activists of extremist groups might be responsible for more ‘facts on the ground’ per person, they are so few in number that they don’t come close to being the explanation for many of these ‘facts on the ground’. So even if a group of far-rightists or radical-Islamists are more likely to do illegal things (violence/ incitement), or acts which somehow upset societal harmony (controversial statements), there aren’t enough of them to make much of an impact, in and of themselves. So where I researched there were about four to six regular radical Islamists, and about a dozen or so far-rightists, and these were spending time doing street-based campaigning with the police watching. There was plenty of other communal conflict/ violence, and lots of controversial words spoken and written offline and online: direct impacts of any conflict are largely nothing to do with the extremist groups, but are diffuse and messy. The group, however, is an easy story to tell, so media and academics can research them and the subsequent reporting allows us to view any conflict through the lens of organised groups. Then, the public associate the problems with such groups, and not with the messier reality.
Second, there’s the question of how the dynamics between the group and wider society can drive radicalisation. The first thing I talked about this week was Thrasher’s The Gang, and the theory that a play group can turn into a gang as they come into conflict with authority and other groups of kids, so solidifying group identity. This is also the case with extremists: once they are in conflict with society, if society (the mainstream or ‘the powers that be’) kicks back then they have nowhere to go. This is intimately related to the jujitsu politics described by McCauley and Moskalenko in Friction: if a reaction is pretty much guaranteed, then the actions of a member of the group that wind up those on the outside, can bring a response that cements his position and his group. So Anjem Choudary said something controversial, got slapped down and his group became more cohesive, and more angry.
Indeed, it is this ‘us against the world’ narrative I’ve been thinking about most. One young Islamist told me of his arguments with teachers (classic Birmingham school), which developed into rebellion, arguments with the ‘feds’, smoking weed and staying on the streets, Tupac and 50 Cent, properly discovering Islam (the religion of his parents) and eventually getting into much bigger trouble as an Islamist. Throughout, it seems that anger with the world is because he feels the world is against him, and the gang is the only way. This case, and many others, is leading me to be developing a research proposal called Get the Caliphate or Die Tryin’, of which more at a later date.