Whether ‘reciprocal radicalisation’, ‘cumulative extremism’ or ‘interactive escalation’, a key question for policy makers as well as researchers is how new people get drawn into conflict. After all, at any one moment the number of British citizens or residents actively involved in extremism (whether violent or non-violent) is a miniscule proportion of wider society.
In my own research, where I spent time doing ethnographic and interview research with radical Islamist (mostly al-Muhajiroun associated) and far-right (BNP, EDL, and others), there were around 20 or so committed activists in total, with a few dozen other less so, in a city of a quarter of a million. I used to think that the solution to the choreographed confrontations between the EDL and al-Muhajiroun, was to send the small number of people involved to an island to fight it out. This would leave the rest of us, probably 99.9% of the population, to get on with life, rubbing together in a messy multiculturalism. However, at face value it appears that theirconflict is connected in some way to wider social conflict: the question is how?
I have come to an answer to this by thinking about radicalisation journeys, and particularly by thinking about what I and Phil Edwards have described as ‘microradicalisations’. This terminology is used because state and society (and, of course, research) is not only concerned with the change in behaviour from being an ‘upstanding’, ‘normal’ and entirely peaceable member of society to a lawbreaking ‘extremist’, as though these were two mutually exclusive and homogenous categories. As the term escalation implies, the processes we are examining include small conflicts getting bigger and as such includes activity that is not subject to legal constraint or response. In much the same way, two children bickering or adults arguing in the street is not illegal, but it could escalate into something that is. Furthermore, given the role of state and society in reacting against extremism whether through action or rhetoric, where this takes the form of fear, anger and a need to ‘do something’, then this is itself an escalation of conflict, another microradicalisation.
This is not to say that such escalations are inevitable. Most low-level conflicts can stay small or blow over, with escalation and de-escalation continuing as an iterative process. As Marc Sageman argues, “do not overreact… [many will] move on with their lives”: even in the world of the far-right and radical Islamism, it is possible to ‘flirt’ with ideas and behaviours that the rest of us find distasteful and perhaps dangerous, and then leave them behind. Furthermore, we can also include here a far wider range of conflict behaviours, including those based in gangs and territories, anti-authority sentiment, and even generational and other family disputes.
Here, then, I argue that the overbearing nature of a narrative that connects small scale extremisms, travelling jihadis, a ‘clash of civilisations’ and communal division, means that every instance of any conflict can be interpreted as contributing to this particular conflict. This is ever more the case when individuals’ beliefs and activities are explained in this common sense narrative as being attributable to community membership. Thus, in this model, one person is homophobic because they are Muslim, another is racist because they are white and working class, whereas the middle-class racist or homophobe is this way for their own individual reasons. Further, society’s response, including academic analysis, can support this narrative and generate more conflict.
I interviewed K in 2010, after he had come to the attention of the police for radical Islamist activism, but before terrorist activity for which he received a lengthy prison sentence. He told me he hadn’t been particularly religious as a child, and it did not sound like his family was either. However, he was a naughty kid, often in trouble with teachers at the comprehensive that was very working class, with mainly white British and a sizable minority of pupils with Asian (mainly Pakistani) backgrounds. I saw the beginnings of his Islamist identity in a blow-up with teachers, after he told me:
“I was fasting that day. That is the only day I fast. Like I wasn‘t practicing but I, I really wanted to fast this day. I woke up in the morning to fast and I said I‘m never, not going to break my fast. No. I said to my teacher no I said to her I‘m fasting I don‘t want to… We were making cakes or something. She said you have to make it. I said I don‘t want to you know what I mean bro? I don‘t want to. Because I‘m fasting. She said go to your own country and fast. Go there and do the fasting. I got angry. I got angry. I was an angry kid them days. I started throwing stuff. I got very, very angry. Then the head teacher came and like the senior head came in and they all… I said she said go to my own country. And why didn‘t they say nothing to her because she was an authority.”
Here, K’s microradicalisation is not informed by a radical Islamist ideology, but is rooted in a fairly unformed Islamic identity mixed with the anti-school and anti-authority sentiment common in working-class boys, echoing Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour. Teachers, having a similarly unformed Islamophobia or national chauvinism responded in a way that made the Islam/Britain relationship into a dichotomy.
In each direction, then, behaviour and attitudes that are not necessarily components of extremism or communal conflict are interpreted as though they were. England flags could be a sign of the world cup, or because the residents inside want immigrants to go home. Hijab could be a fashion statement, or a statement of religious superiority. As the dominant explanation of extremisms is that they are outgrowths of particular ethno-religious, or other ‘communities’ – a problematic term that could mean anything from the set of people sharing one attribute, to a set of people sharing everything – then small and unproblematic cultural forms are then interpreted as the pre-cursors to the most serious problems. Our current obsession with risk (reduction) makes this ever more important. Even young Asian boys playing football in a war memorial park can be interpreted as part of the conflict, even if they themselves do not see it that way, as they are seen as exemplars of a culture (Islam) that does not respect another (Britishness).
Thus, those that are genuinely part of extremist subcultures are then seen as a part of a threat that is imagined as those that belong to those ‘communities’ they are stereotyped as being rooted in. The threat is therefore magnified from a few thousand to few million. This, I argue, is how the accumulation of conflict operates, with the white noise of a potentially infinite number of microradicalisations, some connected and many not, being crystallised into communal conflict, as they are all examined through the lens of a ‘clash of civilisations’, or its local equivalent in ‘community cohesion’.
Originally published as part of CREST, Lancaster's 'Reciprocal Radicalisation' themed report, with contributions from me, Joel Busher and Graham Macklin, Tahir Abbas, Sean Arbuthnot, Paul Jackson and Samantha McGarry, and pulled together nicely by Ben Lee, Kim Knott and Simon Copeland.