Learning from former extremists

By Lynn Davies

header2-wpI met these other people, Muslims, and for some reason they saw something in me that I couldn’t see. They basically believed in me and they said that, ‘You can do more with yourself’.

Interviewing former extremists (far right and Islamist) about their reasons for joining and leaving extremism uncovered a complex mix of drivers. Our research in ConnectJustice, called ‘Formers and Families’, was part of a larger EU funded study with the Netherlands and Denmark. It aimed to explore the role of families both in radicalisation and in exit.  Although the focus was the family, our exploration in UK found family background not to be a convincing ‘factor’ in motivation.  A number of the extremists in our sample reported coming from loving and caring homes.  As with many of the fighters going off to Syria, parents often did not know about their children’s journeys into violent extremism. There was no single, linear, recognizable pathway in and out.  The process of radicalisation was a mix of a whole range of factors and drivers.  Whether far right or Islamist, there is a sense of mission and purpose in life, wanting identity as a saviour – whether of the world or of the local community.

Together with this need for status is a search for excitement and adventure. Some came through a normalization of violence experienced in gangs before legitimizing this through a dehumanizing of particular ethnic of religious groups.  For a few it was self-initiation, but most experienced skillful grooming by influencers.

paris eiffelSimilarly, deradicalisation was a mix of greater maturity, including becoming a parent and not wanting one’s child to take this path; increasing unease at the extent, type and targets of violence;  anger at being manipulated or betrayed by the groups that recruited them; and  different sorts of private study which began the questioning process.

If I hadn’t researched, I’d have been a hardened BNP member, if I hadn’t the intelligence to think, this is wrong…

Overall there was a process of perspective taking, a sudden insight into oneself as an actor in relation to others:

I realised I was hating a bunch of people who were like me.

Looking at backgrounds, we found that neither school nor church/mosque attendance was protective of becoming an extremist. Experience of racism or violence at school did not help, but not all students who are harassed go on to engage in violence.  Interestingly, more than one of our sample said they wished they had tackled this topic at school, as it might have stopped them.

The educational implications of our on-going study are primarily five-fold:

  • There cannot usefully be a checklist of ‘signs of radicalisation’ which teachers or administrators can employ
  • Extremism must however be tackled at school, with safe spaces for discussion of controversial issues and airing of divergent or even uncomfortable views (as well as safe spaces for discussion in community, church/mosque, with police and in the family itself)
  • There must be a continuous challenge to simplistic, black and white versions of social or political reality and equally of binary notions of people. A nuanced, critical citizenship or history education can provide a platform for addressing such complexity.
  • Normal political change is too slow for some young people: the former extremists recommended that there should be opportunities and skills training for students to create change and take up causes in a non-violent way.
  • Critical media literacy can enable students to analyse how messages are conveyed and whether there is evidence for claims being made.

Analysts of journeys into radicalization will typically talk of push and pull factors, with push factors including poverty and exclusion, a sense of injustice and actual or perceived humiliation as well as boredom and lack of voice. Pull factors include the ideological attraction of the mission, being given a sense of belonging and family, a charismatic recruiter who takes a personal interest and the appeal of adventure or romance.

Education on its own will not address all these push and pull factors in extremism; but it should at least do no harm, and at best try to provide some resilience. Just believing in young people, giving them dignity and a sense of importance, as well as an opportunity to openly and safely discuss controversial political issues, is a start.



  1. The phenomenon we witness makes sense only from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Males have been set up by evolution to coalesce in tightly knit groups that have hunting or military goals. Throughout the ages they could thus feed families. Women are set up to marry the victors and maximize the chance that their children will survive. Men feel great belonging to tightly knit groups, and doing military operations somehow feels right. Women feel somehow that that these are the right men to marry.

    This behavior has been linked to Islam, but this is not the only example. Consider the Central American gangs. They operate on the same evolutionary principles but they have no profound rationale other than feeling good and getting money. And women go along with that.

    One likely fuel for the events that we see has been the decades-long escalation in TV and videogame violence. Young males see dozens of murders a day as well as weapons pointed at them. With the adaptive imitation ability that our brains have, they learn what to do. Various studies have raised concerns. But though verbal violence seems to have risen in general as a result of TV violence, actual performance seems to involve only a minority; perhaps those of higher testosterone levels. So, researchers have been ignored.

    One way to reduce the complex military attacks would be to reduce violence exposure. Given its links to evolutionary dictates, there should be international conventions to ban such content. But we know that this will not happen. So, what we see nowadays may only be the beginning, as cohort after cohort learns the craft of violence from cradle.

    One phenomenon that has been hard to understand has been the suicidal bombers. But Moslems are not the only ones. In recent history there had been Japanese kamikazi and Tamil bombers. This practice reveals a tendency for young men to sacrifice themselves so that their relatives’ DNA will live on. Similarly, social insects sacrifice themselves so that their hive will live. Somehow the Islamic practices used make this trait reliably emerge in many young males.

    So, in the 21st century we look for rational explanations, and we see that our genetic behavior tendencies are running circles around us. Much thought is needed on how to neutralize destructive genetic tendencies. It’s useful to understand the dictates of evolutionary psychology and take measures.

  2. Will Self recently had something interesting to say about online and film violence and its impact on the human mind: “I don’t think watching violence drives us to commit violent acts – I think it is a violent action in and of itself….. Plenty of doomsters worry about the impact of digital media on our cognitive function, but I think this is nonsense − however plastic the brain may be, it takes many millennia for its gross anatomy to evolve. But the human mind and the human persona are both shape-shifters par excellence, well capable of believing in almost anything, while accommodating to the most twisted of realities.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35943798

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