Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Ideology matters: Why we cannot afford to ignore the role of ideology in dealing with terrorism

Ideology matters: Why we cannot afford to ignore the role of ideology in dealing with terrorism

This blog has appeared first on the blog of Penal Reform International on 3 April 2018.

Since 2012, an estimated 5,000 men, women and children have travelled to join conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In many ways, government policy has aimed to address the factors underlying this passage to violent extremism. From a criminal justice perspective, disengagement and rehabilitation programmes in prisons have recently been developed and tested. By providing vocational and psychological support, these programmes aim to lessen the appeal of the narratives used by recruiters to persuade civilians into joining violent extremist groups abroad. A core narrative used by terrorists for recruitment and to justify violence is the alleged existential battle against the ‘West’. As shown by its repeated usage in extremist propaganda, political grievances against interventionism in Middle East and North African (MENA) countries have a profound psychological effect on potential foreign fighters. Understood as an ideology, it is the effect of this narrative, and the context it is used in, which matters to challenging terrorism.

There are many stories of foreign terrorist fighters who hardly know their proclaimed ideology: they do not speak Arabic, pray in the wrong direction and even seem to bring ‘Islam for dummies’ with them on the road to Syria/Iraq. So the argument goes: we should target behaviours rather than ideology. The starting assumption in this approach is that the aim is to prevent violence at the end of the day, not ideological warfare. Adding to that, many researchers and practitioners argue that since there is no causal relationship between having radical or extremist ideas and acting on them by, for example, using violence, we should not focus on the former but on the latter.

However, when we look at the explanations for violence espoused by the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks in Europe, there is a repeated framing of violence through ideology. At its core, violence perpetrated by the ‘oppressed’ in-group is legitimised against the ‘crusader’ out-group; see for example Osama Bin Laden’s response to his own question, ‘Why are we fighting you [the Americans]?’ – ‘Because you attacked us and continue to attack us’.

It is not important to what extent someone has a deeper understanding of his or her own ideology at all. Instead, the question is: how does it make them feel and act? The psychological effect of the narrative is what is important.

Partially, the confusion may be caused by the word ideology itself. Ideology as a concept refers to a coherent view of the world, but the way it is used in the debate about disengaging violent extremists usually means ideology as a set of ideas, opinions or a narrative; providing individuals with an identity, a purpose, a sense of significance, ‘brotherhood’. In the religious context, it provides individuals with a sense of redemption and atonement for sin and past shame.

From that perspective, it is not important to what extent someone has a deeper understanding of their own ideology at all. Instead, the question is: how does it make them feel and act? The psychological effect of the narrative is what is important. Of course, the impact of the narrative always takes place within a wider social context and we must not underestimate the social bounds that are provided through friends and family. In this context, the people you trust in key networks can either push you towards or pull you away from that narrative.

Nonetheless, ideology is not just a sort of brainwashing device; it functions very much as a tool of empowerment. It puts you in the driver’s seat emotionally. If you have anger issues and a tendency to violence and you assault someone on the street, you are an outcast and no one will like you. Do the exact same thing in the name of an ideology and you are a hero, to some at least and, more importantly, to yourself.

So, what does taking ideology seriously in counter-terrorism strategies mean: should we work with Islamists? Should we share the same vision but disagree on how to get there? Should we focus on peaceful strands of Salafism or work with groups such as the Soldiers of Odin or Pegida? Who would advise working with extremists to prevent violent extremists? Rather than turning to extremists – something that has been tried and failed – what is helpful in thinking about the role of ideology is making a distinction between an active or a passive ideology. Rather than focusing on what someone’s ideology (or worldview, or narrative) entails, focus on what it means to them and how they adopt it.

In the end, of all the individuals that adhere to violent ideologies, there are only very few people who will take the next step in terms of taking up arms and using violence. At this point, we simply lack the knowledge or understanding of how that process takes place and why some do while others do not cross that bridge.

All in all: ideology matters, as long as we understand the difference between ideology as a coherent worldview and what the narrative means to individuals and how it enables them to take action. We need to devote just as much time and effort to find out why some individuals refrain from violence as we do to finding out why others do.

In the end, it’s not about whether we think ideology matters, it matters because those that use violence in the name of ideology tell us it matters to them.


Hakimi Abdul Jabar
Posted on December 8, 2018 at 10:13 by Hakimi Abdul Jabar

MALAYSIAN ISIS BUTCHER RAFI UDIN & HIS ISLAMIST TERRORIST-MILITANT KMM COUNTERPART LOTFI ARRIFIN HAD AMONGST OTHERS PRAYED FOR THE freedom of speech and expression in the General Election under article 10(1)(a); and equality before the law and equal protection of the law under article 8 OF OUR MALAYSIAN FEDERAL CONSTITUTION

I’m reading the contents of the Court of Appeal decision dated 16 January 2009 in which retired PCA Zulkefli was part of the coram regarding Civil Appeal NO. W-01-29-06 between YAZID BIN SUFAAT, NIK ADLI BIN NIK ABDUL AZIZ, AHMAD YANI BIN ISMAIL, ZAINON BIN ISMAIL, ABU BAKAR BIN CHE DOI, MAT SAH BIN MOHD SATRAY, MD LOTFI BIN ARIFFIN, IDRIS BIN SALIM, MUHAMAD ZULKEPLI BIN MD ISA, MOHD SHA BIN SARIJAN, SOLEHAN BIN ABDUL GHAFAR, ABDUL MURAD BIN SUDIN, MOHD RAFI BIN UDIN, NORDIN BIN AHMAD, ASFAWANI BIN ABDULLAH @ AB WAHAB, ROSHELMY BIN MD SHARIF, ALIAS BIN NGAH, SUHAIMI BIN MOKHTAR, MUHAMAD ZULKIFLI BIN MOHAMAD ZAKARIA, MAT SALLEH BIN SAID, KHAIRUDDIN BIN SAAD as appellants and The Election Commission as the respondent pertaining to an application for judicial review in the High Court in which the appellants being ISA Kamunting detainees had prayed for amongst others declarations that the respondent had violated the applicants’ fundamental rights viz:
(1) to vote in the 11th General Election (“the General Election”) under article 119;
(2) to freedom of speech and expression in the General Election under article 10(1)(a); and
(3) to equality before the law and equal protection of the law under article 8 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution.

It is of importance to note, inter alia other Syrian constitutional provisions, Article 36 (1) of the 2012 Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic lucidly states that the inviolability of private life shall be protected by the law; Article 42 (1) Freedom of belief shall be protected in accordance with the law; Article 54 states that “Any assault on individual freedom, on the inviolability of private life or any other rights and public freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution shall be considered a punishable crime by the law.”

Futhermore, Syria has obligations under several international treaties to uphold these rights.  Syria became a state-party to the ICCPR on March 23, 1976, and the ICESCR on January 3, 1976.

Under ICCPR, the Syrian Government has the obligation to respect and protect the right to life, the right to liberty and security and freedom of movement.

Now the whole world, the international community, the UNSC, collectively know that the Malaysian ISIS Butcher Rafi Udin & his Islamist terrorist-militant KMM counterpart, Lotfi Ariffin, who had clamoured for protection of their fundamental liberties under our Federal Constitution, deliberately, wantonly, purposively and criminally dispossessed, deprived, breached and contravened the constitutional rights, human rights and fundamental rights and freedoms of the Syrian people, namely that of the right to life etc.



Posted on June 11, 2018 at 15:50 by Liesbeth

Thanks for the comment Michael, always good to see a blog post is being read and leads to further discussion.

RE your comments: when I referred to the use of non-violent extremists in the British PREVENT strategy, stating it had “been tried and failed”, I meant it exactly as the article I refer too describes it > it failed in the sense that the political support waned for spending taxpayer’s money - and thereby potentially legitimizing or subsidizing - on anti-democratic or illiberal views.

That is not to say we cannot or should not work with individuals holding extremist views, but in this blog post I make the case that we should not focus on whether someone holds extremist or non-extremist views (precisely because that has proven to be such a slippery and often useless endeavor) but instead, we should focus on what someone’s ideology and beliefs mean to them personally, and how they potentially enables them to act in what ways.

Michael Diamond
Posted on April 9, 2018 at 21:31 by Michael Diamond

To support the claim that working with so-called non-violent extremists to prevent terrorism is something that has been “tried and failed”, the author links to an article by Bartlett and Miller that actually contradicts that claim.

Here’s an excerpt from the referenced article:

“Simply put, some groups or individuals that hold illiberal, even harmful views, can deliver benefits to Prevent. These are the so-called ‘non-violent extremists’. They can sometimes be good at identifying and working with individuals that are vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, and they are sometimes an important source of information. Not always of course. But when it comes to stopping terrorism, ‘sometimes’ is incredibly important. The effectiveness of such groups is because they are awkward bedfellows for liberals. And yet by funding, or working with, such groups, taxpayers’ money may, in effect, subsidise and even legitimise groups that hold views which the government may rightly believe have no place in British society, even if they are free to hold them.”

And another:

“The day after Cameron’s speech it was leaked that the Coalition has cut funding for the controversial but effective counter-extremism STREET project, run by a well-known conservative Salafi, Abdul Haqq-Baker.”

And another:

“The Brixton Salafis who ran the STREET project I have just mentioned have been fighting Jihadists for years – long before 9/11 – and with considerable success. Cutting funding to effective projects like theirs because of their ideology could be self-defeating. “

The United Kingdom’s Prevent Strategy was revised in 2011. Part of that revision involved stopping giving funds to ‘non-violent extremists’ who hitherto had been helping to prevent terrorism. This revision was not a result of failure, but of distaste within Cabinet at working with Salafis. Other members of the Cabinet disagreed with the change.

I don’t have time to check all the references in the blog post, but this error alone casts doubt over a central assumption of the article.

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