Paul Vallely: Inside the minds of the extremists

by
09 June 2017

Understanding motives is vital to combating terror, says Paul Vallely

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Terror: armed police on St Thomas Street, London, near the scene of last weekend’s terrorist attack at Borough Market

Terror: armed police on St Thomas Street, London, near the scene of last weekend’s terrorist attack at Borough Market

SOMETIMES shock makes us focus on pecu­liar details. In the days after the London Bridge terror attacks, I found myself fixated on the fact that the killers had worn fake suicide-bomb vests. Why should this small deceit seem significant in the context of murderous knifings?

In the nine circles of hell, in Dante’s vision, the perpetrators of deceit and fraud suffer torments that surpass the torments inflicted on those guilty of violent murder. That is not our view today. Different cultures have different hierarchies of revulsion, it seems. The chasm between our values and those of the violent jihadists is clear. To most people, Christian or Muslim, the holiest month of a religion, Ramadan, would be a time to refrain from violence; but these murderers seemed to view their actions not as profane but as holy.

A Muslim psychiatrist recently suggested that there are four ways in which the children of im­­migrants may react to the clash between the cul­ture of their parents and that of the nation in which they have been brought up. All are stressful in different ways.

Deculturation leads them to reject their past in favour of their present. Assimilation retains loose association with the old ways, but essentially ad­­opts the host culture. Integration keeps stronger cultural ties, but the children of migrants func­tion fully as members of the host society. Finally, rejection means that they rebuff the host culture entirely. Violent jihadis are drawn from this last group, but the process is not simple. There can be huge cognitive dissonance in the process of their rejection.

In the past, the received wisdom was that viol­ence had nothing to do with the peaceful religion of Islam. But the killers indisputably see their actions as religious, and it does no good to ignore that fact. Instead, as the Professor of Contempor­ary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, Tariq Ramadan, has pointed out, the crucial task is to re-educate fundamentalists into a more complete understanding of their faith so that they no longer can wrench verses of the Qur’an from their wider context.

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It is disturbing that the extremism of one of the London Bridge killers was so publicly in view that he was even seen espousing it on television. That raises questions about whether people who glorify terrorism, as well as those who incite it, should be seen as guilty of an offence, such as breach of the peace.

We must take care not to become illiberal in our defence of our liberty. But a broadening of our understanding of what kind of behaviour ought to be illegal may now be called for. Those who are convicted and imprisoned as a result, however, should not be simply detained: they should be subjected to an intensive deradicalisa­tion programme run not just by secular psychi­­at­rists but also by mainstream Muslim scholars.

We need to condemn extremism, of course. But we also need better to understand the differ­ent kinds of extremism which are encompassed in our broad political condemnations. To under­stand is not to justify. Instead, it is to discover how Islam can be part of the solution rather than be seen as the problem.

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