David van Dam

Tackling the Underlying Drivers of Violent Radicalization and Extremism

David van Dam

On 17 December, The Hague Institute organized a panel discussion entitled “Tackling the Underlying Drivers of Violent Radicalization and Extremism”. The discussion examined the global, national and local dimensions of radicalization and extremism, addressing some of the main causes of violent extremism and assessing how alternative tools and strategies have fared thus far.

Dr. David Connolly, Head of the Conflict Prevention Program at The Hague Institute, provided the welcoming remarks, explaining the urgency and timeliness of thinking about violent radicalization and extremism, not only in Europe, but globally. Subsequently, Prof. Peter Neumann, Director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, unpacked and clarified the central elements of radicalization. Prof. Neumann reiterated the devastating effect that violent extremism has on societies, citing Tunisia as an example. As a result of two extremist attacks, he noted that Tunisia’s tourist industry has collapsed, despite its image as the “poster boy of the Arab Spring” earlier in the year.

Prof. Neumann surveyed the numerous models and theories of radicalization, and identified three common denominators: grievances, ideology and mobilization. He asserted that the starting point of radicalization is often personal grievances, ranging from social exclusion to lack of economic opportunity. Ideology, Dr. Neumann argued, can channel anger towards a political project, empowering those who previously felt marginalized. Aside from being a cognitive process, radicalization is also as a social process. Communities and group pressure are important mobilizing factors in encouraging radicalization. Empowering healthy communities must therefore be a focus of countering violent extremism.

In tackling some common misperceptions, Mr. Henri van Eeghen, Senior Director of Mercy Corps, argued that drivers of violent extremism are rarely, if ever, purely economic. According to research completed by Mercy Corps, those most prone to radicalization are marginalized and lack social and political participation. According to van Eeghen, “young people take up guns not because they are poor, but because they are angry.” Perceived injustice at the hands of corrupt and ineffective governments and prejudicial social communities contribute substantially to radicalization. Young people are more inclined to join violent movements if they have been exposed to violence previously.

In this regard, van Eeghen argued that overcoming extremism requires us to concentrate on resolving issues of injustice. Facilitating inclusion into civic, social and economic systems is more effective in combating the underlying conditions that cause radicalization. Poverty alleviation alone does not inhibit the attraction disenfranchised groups feel to extremist movements. As such, more attention must be paid to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDGs 10 and 16, that aim to reduce inequality, implement good governance practices and create peaceful societies.

The role that education plays in countering violent extremism must not be understated, according to Ms. Agnese Macaluso, Researcher at The Hague Institute. Education has, over the past years, become a prominent focus of policy makers and donors in addressing the early stages of extremism. Education faces a number of challenges, but also provides opportunities for real change.

While education offers a path away from violence, it is not a neutral tool. Education, in the wrong hands, can be used to entrench differences between social, ethnic and religious groups, exacerbating conflicts. Additionally, education can hinder social cohesion and encourage stigmatization and discrimination. Developing critical thinking and inclusive and equal educational programs that foster a safe space for the interactions of diverse ideas, cultures and identities can ease the social tensions that lie at the heart of radicalization.

The discussion concluded with a question and answer session moderated by Dr. Connolly. Questions addressed a number of aspects of terrorism and countering violent extremism, notably the role of families in preventing radicalization, forced recruitment and why the distinction between countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism is so crucial. Additional questions examined the role of (social) media as a tool for creating and interpreting perceptions of social groups, and the role and position of women in countering violent extremism.

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