Here are the basic reasons why non-violent extremism is not the cause of terrorism.
Radicalisation Might Not Even Exist
Radicalisation is a buzzword that, like 'brainwashing', shouldn't be taken at face value. Professor Mark Sedgwick who has spent years researching 'radicalisation' and has published on it widely, says the following:
Clearly, if you take any individual who has committed an act of violence, or an act of terrorism, there was a sequence of events that got them there. So in the case of an individual, clearly, you can trace a path to radicalisation.
But the idea that there is a clearly distinguishable process, like falling in love or getting old, that one can label as radicalisation and study and understand, is something I am dubious about.
Not All Terrorists Are Former Non-Violent Extremists
A leaked Whitehall report into non-violent extremists had the following to say about the conveyor belt theory...
We do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear 'conveyor belt' moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence ... This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.
Andrew Gilligan, writing on the report, noted that:
The Whitehall documents admit that a "minority" of terrorists have been involved with non-violent extremist groups such as al-Muhajiroun
So just to stress that last bit, a minority of terrorists were once involved with non-violent extremist groups. This fact alone is enough to bury the conveyor belt hypothesis, write it an obituary, mourn its loss and move on in life.
Terrorists Might Not Even Be Radical
Dr Matthew Francis runs the website RadicalisationResearch.org, aiming to provide access to academic research on terrorism to a wider audience. He makes the following point:
There are radicals that aren't terrorists, but you also have terrorists who are not radical. It is important to make sure that these concepts are divorced. These things can vary and it is important to separate them.
The Conveyor Belt Theory Ignores The Real Causes
Dr Suraj Lakhani is a researcher into counter-terrorism and extremism, he wrote the following summary on what motivates young people towards violence:
This is not just about the eternal rewards people mention when talking of "jihad" (though these are extremely important). It is also about those involved with these types of activities feeling special and significant; it is about them tapping into the perception held by certain people that extremism is cool; and it is a chance for them to be able to demonstrate their masculinity and define a distinct identity for themselves. It gives them an escape from their potentially normal and predictable lives.
Abdullah Andalusi's piece on this question is well worth reading:
He demonstrates using academic non-Muslim studies, surveys and analysis into terrorist literature and justifications - that terrorists overwhelmingly justify their cause, not by reference to a 'war on all infidels' or 'to conquer the world' - but actually as a defensive, deterrent or retaliatory measure against Western foreign policy or the policies of Western-Puppet Muslim regimes.
Furthermore, he shows from the same non-Muslim academic studies that terrorists come from no discernible demographic - neither poverty, madhab (school of thought) or location. However there was one key noticeable correlation - the more ignorant or secular a Muslims background, the more likely he was to commit acts of terrorism. The more religious, or religiously educated a Muslims was, the less likely he was to commit terrorism.
For Terrorists who arise in the West who identify as Muslim, the only other feature that predicted likelihood was socially-excluded individuals, or people with poor social skills.
Also the Claystone Institute's research report that addresses the question can be found here:
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