Deradicalisation; it’s not about what you do, it’s about who you are

Mohammed Elshimi (University of Exeter) : Identity, Citizenship, and Security: What is Deradicalisation? (PART 1, read PART 2)*

(Notes from BRAIS conference, University of Edinburgh 10-11 April 2014, Panel 3: Identity and Integration In Muslim-Minority Societies)

This is the most controversial presentation in the entire conference, bar none, and the most pertinent to our theme of identity formation as well as the extremely subtle issue 0f the teacher as a benevolent guide or evil manipulator that I have touched upon when discussing the “discovery” element in the Healing Fractures workshop.

The extremist student-centered learning Ghost Teacher** doctrine made possible through Cooperative Learning is all well and good when teaching grammar or maths or drilling scientific concepts or historical dates. It is an entirely different matter when discovering the meaning  of things and events – especially when discovering the meaning of life, death and the interstice of personal identity and politics in between.

The  Healing Fractures workshop attempted to outline the possibilities for teachers staging guided discovery to  pupils in Primary and Secondary schools.

But in the case of Mr Elshimi’s talk, the guide is the British government and the pupils are adult citizens.

Deradicalisation; it’s not about what you do, it’s about who you are

Mohammed Elshimi, a phd student at the University of Exeter, opened his presentation by positing “deradicalisation” as a conceptual framework which is confusing, problematic and in fact not about radicalisation, but about identity and citizenship.

It is a political response to homegrown terrorism after the London bombings which famously prompted Blair to say, “The rules have changed.” Indeed: Deradicalisation relates to changes in the security environment, narratives and theories in the academic world and responses in the political world; i.e the war on terror and the associated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which were then followed by more terrorist attacks.

And while Europe and the UK has historically dealt with terrorism in the form of separatist movements in Spain and Chechnya, and locally the IRA,  radicalisation is a completely novel concept and did not exist prior to the 2005 bombings, precisely because they were not carried out by Saudi foreigners, but British citizens.

What makes the concept of radicalisation so radically (…well) different to all previous takes on terrorism is that it deals with the weltanschaung; meaning it does not relate to criminal actions, as much as it relates to ideas – and dare we lift the curtain a bit and say criminal ideas?

During the 90s and 00s countries such as Algeria had worked with “terrorist rehabilitation” programmes in prisons, but in the UK the targets of rehabilitation were not inmates, but rather ordinary citizens on the street who had not (yet) committed any crime. Reflecting concepts borrowed from medical science, the PREVENT strategy basically posited that prevention is better than treatment – or might we say “an apple a day keeps the SWAT team at bay.”

Governmental Prophethood; the birth of moderate Islam 

Basically, various think tanks and Home Office entertained the notion that you cannot change their actions if you cannot change their ideas, giving rise to the concept of counter subversion: to subtly construct from scratch a new narrative about Islam, and therefore a new reality of Islam, called moderate.

In the dichotomy thus created, all adherents to any other understanding of Islam – or anyone questioning the dichotomy itself – were potentially radical supporters of terrorism. But since the term is not defined, the boundaries get blurred; Is it you view on women? Or your views on democracy? Or your views on foreign policy? Or is it your views on violence? Being ‘radical’ was not just about terrorism, it was about all these other things that somehow left all Muslims vulnerable to the violence bit of the equation.

This left communities, organizations and individuals scrambling to be seen as fitting into the moderate category. And not only that, but scrambling to point the finger at other groups and individuals, mouthing the words “I am moderate, he is not!” in the highly competitive bid for of (limited) government funding.

The most incredible aspect presented by Elshimi was that many of the participants in the various programmes did not actually know what the term “moderate Islam” even meant. In the words of one community activist, “I don’t know what it means. I’d be surprised if anyone knows what it means.” It is a completely artificial construct, a brilliant example of generating new realities via perception management.

Even academics were at a loss: “For me I think, deradicalisation is about empowerment…. what you are trying to do I guess … well, it’s a good question. I am just going to say empowerment, because you can get into difficult territory otherwise.”

Some of the “conceptual confusion” uncovered by Elshimi during his research included concepts such as “security context”, “counter-subversion”, “integration”, “identity”, “Western foreign policy” and “youth empowerment”.

In the following post on Elshimi’s talk, we’ll discuss the negative consequences of government induced reality and identity and the absolute importance of providing individuals and communities with tools to produce authentic realities and identities which I point towards in my own presentation.

My point is that having grievances with other communities, local and global businesses or  government policies do not generate violence. Violent movements, from UKIP to the Salafis, are generated by the experience of being somehow at first disenfranchised, then framed and manipulated.

The video clip on Derek the Nazi used in the workshop is an example of such grievances – and the BRAIS conference was packed with examples from Muslims in Britain with their own burning issues.

Finding valid identity is relevant for everyone. Schools must provide the vocabulary, the philosophical insight, the thinking and rhetorical skills to ensure an inclusive debate; an open mind able to make informed decisions on where to draw it’s boundaries and standing on a stable platform, as described in the Religious Education page.

This all the more important as the tendency towards uncontrollable, unmanageable multi-node networks will mean that, in spite of all well-intentioned top-down management, more and more people – and groups of people – will be left to their own devices. So those devices better work.

Here are some hints on the second half of Elshimi’s presentation: thought crime, 2+2=5 and 4 legs good, 2 legs bad. Read  Deradicalisation#2; “Salvation in this life” now.

See related page on

* Disclaimer: These posts reflect my own (narrow) understanding and focus and makes no claim to objectivity or accuracy.

** see The Teacher is a Ghost Lesson plan on teaching functional language virtually without speaking

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