fredag 29 juni 2012

Rabasa, Pettyjohn, Ghez & Boucek: Deradicalizing Islamist Extremists

I'm not a believer in the "The Muslims are coming! Western Civilization is under threat!" rallying cry of various bigots and xenophobes – the ultimate expression of which could be seen in the horrors of the massacre in Norway – but you don't have to belong to that crowd to consider violent Islamist radicals a problem. Terrorism is no more acceptable from the Right, Left, Muslims or Christians etc – it's terrorism, plain and simple, and I find all sorts of flirting with political violence highly distasteful. So, techniques for deradicalizing extremists of all stripes would seem to be a field of study well worth pursuing.

This book, by Angel Rabasa, Stacie Pettyjohn, Jeremy Ghez and Christopher Boucek does just that.

The basic premise is simple. There are a number of people who've been apprehended as terrorists where radical islamism has been a prime motivator in their actions. How have various countries tried to defuse the danger that these people pose to society?

The authors come to that subject armed with strategies and knowledge that has previously been gathered about and used on radicals of other political stripes. The general problem is getting violent radicals to disengage from violent groups and leave violent strategies behind. In order to do so more reliably, the authors argue, it is better if one can also deradicalize them, as somebody who leaves a violent group but is still a radical may well return to his/her violent ways later on, if they get an opportunity to do so.

Rabasa et al draw on studies of people who leave gangs, criminal organizations, cults, sects and terrorist organizations to draw the following conclusions:

Individual disengagement is usually a consequence of a trigger, usually a traumatic or violent event. When that trigger occurs, it is crucial that there be support available for the individual to leave the group, or it might instead strengthen his/her commitment to it. So when a militant is captured, for example – a traumatic event – this may precipitate a cognitive opening, and that opportunity should be utilized.

Second, governments can influence the cost/benefit analysis of staying in or leaving an organization. This can be done by implementing counterterrorism measures while offering incentives to increase the benefits of exiting. Repression alone often backfires and causes further radicalization.

Third, individual commitment to the organization and its cause is an important factor. There are affective, pragmatic and ideological bonds to overcome. The individual has formed emotional attachments to the organization and its members, receives practical benefits from that membership, and has a loyalty to the group's ideology.

This latter part is important when dealing with religious groups, and often necessitates theologically skilled people who can confront members' beliefs and show them other interpretations of their religion which are incompatible with the crimes they've been committing as members of the organization. Most Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian programs of disengagement and deradicalization use mainstream scholars and former radicals to engage radical extremists in discussions of Islamic theology for this purpose.

The authors examine prison-based programs for individual rehabilitation. Basically, a full such program includes the theological component, support for the prisoner's family (so that they feel that society isn't casting them out but is in fact trying to help them), having the prisoner learning a job so that he can support himself and his family when he gets out, having the community take responsibility for him when he's released so that he feels he has a place in society, and religious instruction – as many "Islamist" radicals don't have a very thorough theological schooling, leaving them more free to use snippets of religion to justify their actions. It is thus critical that the state can find credible interlocutors to develop relationships with imprisoned militants to challenge their views. You also need a monitoring function post-release to ensure that radicals don't fall back to their old habits and friends on the radical fringe. (And, of course, some radicals just aren't interested in deradicalizing at all.)

Mainly, it's about rehabilitation, and the programs they sketch out – and which seem to be most completely enacted in places like Saudi Arabia and Singapore – seem well thought out and reasonable. Of course, you wish that such programs would exist for all prisoners in one's prison system, as the basic rationale of the programs seem applicable to all sorts of criminals and radicals. The chapter on European preventative programs also points out that it is important to address grievances that otherwise may motivate Muslim youths to consider Western society as not caring about them, leading to them not caring about society right back and perhaps radicalizing in response to indignities and maltreatment – of themselves and others.

The book gives an initial summary of these strategies for deradicalization, then moves on to reviews of individual-oriented deradicalization and disengagement programs in various Middle Eastern & Southeast Asian countries and of preventative deradicalization programs in Western Europe, and also of collective deradicalization and disengagement strategies  – once an organization's leadership gets disaffected with violence, if they have sufficient "cred" with their members to convince them as well, you have a golden opportunity for collective deradicalization. And with good counterterrorism polices, terrorist organizations will eventually come to a possible turning point when they realize that "hey, this isn't working. We've been doing this for twenty years, and we haven't really accomplished anything". In the final chapter, you then get some implications and recommendations based on the findings of the book.

If you're short on time, practically all you need to read is the summary. The rest of the book deals mainly with how various countries have succeeded in implementing the strategies implied, and the recommendations chapter draws upon the strategies sketched out in the summary. My recommendation is to read the summary, then the first chapter – "Disengagement and deradicalization" – for a closer look at what the terms mean and imply, followed by the section dealing with how Singapore enacts is deradicalization program (as it seems the most fully implemented one), and finally close off with the Recommendations chapter.

This is a book well worth reading (though you can save a bit of time by following my "study guide" outlined above), but I do think you should keep a couple of things in mind when doing so: The strategies here are applicable not just to Muslims, because not just Muslims are susceptible to radicalization; all Muslims are not the same; and Islamist terrorism is not the greatest threat to the world today. It is an important issue, but we have many other sources of terrorism (I don't think Islamist terrorism is the most common one in Europe, for example) and many other societal problems that need to be dealt with. Just because Al-Qaida managed to commit a huge, coordinated atrocity in the US in 2001, and the US government then, after taking down the Afghanistani terrorist-tolerating government, went nuts and invaded Iraq, does not mean we have to focus narrowly on Islamist terrorism and radicalization – nor ignore it, of course.

That said, this is a good book for what it sets out to do: show strategies for preventing radicalization and facilitating people's exit from radical and violent organizations.

Worth a read, definitively, although most of the "this is how they do it in countries X, Y and Z" chapters can be read a bit more cursory IMO. Recommended.

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