In my last post I addressed the focus on marginalization, alienation, and relative deprivation in the discourse about radicalization and counter-radicalization, as seen in Daniel Benjamin’s speech last month on CT policy. I pointed out that these are discredited and/or insufficient explanations for why violent radicalization – and indeed movement participation as a whole – occurs. As I noted, we find that individual terrorists do not experience higher levels of relative deprivation, but that they often come from communities or even countries that are relatively deprived. This, however, should not come as a surprise as most places and communities have less than other countries and communities.
Thus, saying that violent extremism emerges from relatively deprived communities is not much more analytically useful than observing that violent extremism emerges from communities where they breathe oxygen. Both are everywhere. Not to mention the fact that violent extremism also emerges from communities that are not relatively deprived (but not communities where they don’t breathe oxygen…so far, at least).
This brings me to another quote from Daniel Benjamin’s speech:
There is no denying that when children have no hope for an education, when young people have no hope for a job and feel disconnected from the modern world, when governments fail to provide for the basic needs of their people, when people despair and are aggrieved, they become more susceptible to extremist ideologies.
Benjamin’s speech reflects the assumption that grievances represent root causes and that it thus is possible to identify grievances, structural strain and dysfunction which have ‘alienated’ individuals from society, driving them to look for different providers of belonging, satisfaction, and meaning which can lead them to violent Islamism. The implication is that, if the right grievances and system imbalances can be identified, we can tackle the ‘roots’ of terrorism by changing policies or implementing programs aimed at resolving them. As a result, individuals will feel less alienated and extremism melts away.
The trouble with this logic is grievances are ubiquitous, but collective extremist ideologies aren’t. Grievances do not lead to ubiquitous terrorism. They don’t lead to ubiquitous violence. They don’t even lead to ubiquitous collective action of a milder sort, like protests and boycotts.
As Trotsky said, ‘In reality the mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection; if it were, the masses would be always in revolt.’ Most of the poorest countries in the world, where basic needs are not provided (except for a select elite), and jobs are few and far between have produced little or no terrorism, despite the presence of deprivation – both absolute and relative – political disenfranchisement, and other things to be aggrieved about.
Along these lines, Wiktorowicz decries ‘overly simplistic formulation of an inexorable linkage between structural strain and movement contention.’
Systems are not inherently balanced or static, but rather consistently dynamic as they experience the pressures and strains of societal changes, events, and interactions. More importantly, structural strain and the discontent it produces (the alleged catalyst for contentious action) are ubiquitous in all societies…yet do not always elicit a movement….Movements are not merely psychological coping mechanisms.
So if strain, deprivation, grievance and discontent are everywhere on every country and in every ethno-religious community, how do we account for violent Islamism? How do we account for the majority of people that do not become involved in it? Why do some ‘aggrieved’ people choose terrorism over crime or charity or political involvement? The answer is: we need to look elsewhere or bad policy will result.
Bert Klandermans, professor of applied social psychology at Free University (Amsterdam), argues that grievance interpretation is at the core of the social construction of contention and ‘interpretations, rather than reality itself, guide political actions…’
But we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We first must address collective identity, or that sense of ‘we-ness’ that makes the interpretations meaningful and relevant to the individual and group. This is the most crucial and under-appreciated element of ‘radicalization’ – violent or otherwise. Crucial because without it, the rest doesn’t happen.