What if poverty and education level have little to do with radicalization?
Rabat – As governments struggle to curb radicalization, an international study has established that curing social exclusion is the best way forward.
The study, which was conducted by a team of international researchers including University College London, has found that social exclusion is the most important determining factor in radicalization, dispelling a number of well-established theories.
Researchers used neuroimaging techniques to shed insight into how the brains of potential jihadists respond to different social stimuli.
Through ethnographic fieldwork and surveys, the researchers identified 533 young Muslim men in Barcelona in areas close to the site of the 2017 ISIS-sponsored strike that killed 13 and wounded dozens more.
Among the young men, researchers identified 38 men of Moroccan descent who sympathized with radical Islamism. They had “expressed willingness to participate or facilitate” jihadism-linked violence. The 38 “agreed to have their brains scanned,” the Guardian reported.
In the stimulation phase, each of the 38 men were placed in a group to play Cyberball, a virtual ball toss game, with three other Spanish players.
Researchers simulated social exclusion by having the Spaniards “abruptly” refuse to throw the ball to each study subject. The men’s cerebral activities during the game showed that they became more prone to violence when the Spaniards stopped throwing them the ball.
While playing, the men became more militant and reactionary in their approach to religious symbols when they felt excluded as compared to when the game proceeded normally, scans showed.
Issues like religious teaching in schools or the Spanish society’s reaction to the construction of mosques became more important, “sacred” and “worth dying for” when subjects’ Spanish mates excluded them from the ball tossing game.
Countering ‘wrong-headed’ theories
Nafes Hamid of University College London, who participated in the research, told the Guardian: “The first ever neuroimaging study on a radicalized population shows extreme pro-group behavior seems to intensify after social exclusion.”
Previous theories of radicalization blamed low socio-economic status and poverty, low education levels, and in some cases individuals’ psycho-biological tendency toward violence as important factors of radicalization. For Hamid, however, the results of their study “finally dispel” the established but “wrong-headed” theories.
“This latest research has shown how values start to become sacred and indicates that social exclusion makes non-sacred values behave like sacred values, which in turn makes people recalcitrant and prone to violence,” he said.
Hamid called on governments to take the study’s results into account and devise more effective ways of curbing radicalization.
“Far from needing to improve economic conditions, combat ideology, or medically treat extremists, focusing on alleviating interpersonal discrimination can keep those with extremist leanings on the non-violent and negotiable side of the fence.”
The study comes as concerns about terrorism persist in Morocco and Europe.
Last week, reports indicated that both Moroccan and EU authorities are worrying over the possible security impacts of returning ISIS fighters. Having taken part in high-caliber violence in combat zones in Syria and Iraq, the returnees are thought to be doubly dangerous: As terrorists and as recruiters.
In Morocco, the murder of two Scandinavian tourists near Imlil in the Atlas Mountains has recently reignited the debate about radicalization.
Condemning the “horrific” and “barbaric” double murder, Moroccans called for more investment in education to fight radicalization. In late December last year, the country’s highest body of religious scholars, the ulema, joined the discussion.
The Mohammedia League of Scholars, as the religious body is called, announced its readiness to make Islamic teaching and Islamic jurisprudence more accommodating to social changes. The league said Moroccan mosques should emphasize Morocco’s “tolerant and open Islam” when preaching.
While the University College London study broke ground by using brain scans, its results confirm many ideas that artists—mostly through novels and films—in the Muslim world have been portraying.
While poverty and other factors may help explain radicalization, many radicalized people were “detached” and socially excluded young men who joined radical groups to get the attention and sometimes affection that they did not receive from society.
“If you had respected me, I would have stayed. But you treated me like your mule,” an ISIS returnee told his father in “Brotherhood,” a 2018 25-minute short film by Tunisian Meryam Joobeur.