Preventing violent extremism

There is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be recruited

We now have a new record: last month Britain’s youngest terrorist was convicted. Hammaad Munshi was only 15 when he was recruited by the then 20 year-old Aabid Khan. Khan, according to the Guardian, had “links to proscribed terrorist groups” including al-Qaeda, and is believed to have visited a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

A recent MI5 report confirmed what many scholars of terrorist and cultic groups have long known: there is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be recruited. Social psychologists such as Philip Zimbardo have for years argued that it is the strong situation of increasing isolation within closed, coercive groups that creates these dangerous behaviors. This is what is critical, not the particular psychology or disposition of the individual.

Further, and contrary to Mark Sageman, a former CIA agent, these are not simply “bunches of guys” who organise themselves into suicidal acts of terror. What we are seeing is the deliberate targeting and recruitment of youth by well-organized internationally-linked extremist groups, as, for instance described by Ed Husain in his book The Islamist, or by Masoud Banisadr in his account of the Iranian Mojahedin.

How then do we protect both the potential victims of these acts, and the young people who are recruited into these extremist groups? We know young people are being recruited in further education colleges and now, like Munshi, at even younger ages. How are we preparing these young people for these assaults on their autonomy and, eventually, on their lives?

Social psychologists, such as Zimbardo, who study extremist groups, cults and coercive persuasion understand that the key to prevention is education. This is education about the structures and processes of totalitarian, ideologically extremist groups.

I recently taught a course on Cults and Totalitarianism to two groups of students at the University of Minnesota in the midwestern US. We covered the social psychology, structures and processes of groups as varied as Lyndon LaRouche’s right-wing political cult, the sexually abusive Children of God, and Pol Pot’s totalitarian and murderous regime in 1970s Cambodia. Several students stated that during the term of the course itself they had cause to use this new information to help either themselves or friends and family to stay away from dangerous groups. Other students asked me why this sort of information hadn't been made available at an earlier stage in their education.

We must teach young people how to recognize totalitarian groups. Drawing on work from Hannah Arendt, Robert Jay Lifton and others, we can start with this five point definition:

  • The group is led by a charismatic and authoritarian leader
  • It is isolating and has a closed, steeply hierarchical inner structure
  • The group adheres to an absolute and exclusive belief system (a total ideology)
  • Processes of coercive persuasion are used to isolate followers and control them through a combined dynamic of “love” and fear
  • Followers are exploited

These groups succeed because they operate based on universal human (and usually adaptive) responses of people seeking comfort and connection when afraid. The process unfolds by isolating recruits from prior sources of comfort, establishing the group as the new safe haven, and then instilling fear to create what is known as a trauma bond. This is now well-understood by social psychologists. It can be taught in interesting and understandable ways to young people.

We must take a strategic view to introduce this into the curriculum. Educators must collaborate with experts in this field to train teachers in both the classic social-psychological studies as well as the most up-to-date research available and work to develop materials and curricula for classrooms at various age levels.

For over 60 years social scientists have been developing a broad knowledge base about these fundamental human vulnerabilities and the groups and situations that exploit them. In her 1987 volume, Prisons we choose to live inside, nobel laureate Doris Lessing argued for disseminating this knowledge to our children in order to challenge our “most primitive and instinctive reactions” -- those reactions which so often have led us to act against our own interests and our own survival. We cannot wait any longer to take this on.

Perhaps then a future 15-year-old – one who has had some basic education in the structures, processes and dangers of totalitarian groups – will be able to recognize and turn away from a recruiter who promises liberation and glory but who will deliver only suicidal sacrifice.

Alexandra Stein is visiting lecturer, Birkbeck, Faculty of Lifelong Learning

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain