Kenan Malik, a lecturer and writer, came to the University on Monday to discuss a central question: what draws thousands of Europeans to an organization like the Islamic State?
Malik challenged conventional thoughts about radicalization and deradicalization in his lecture called “The Making of European Jihadis,” sponsored by the Center for European Studies and the Islamic Studies Program.
Born in India and raised in England, Malik has a background in neurobiology and the history of the study of science. He has recently written “The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics” and “From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushide Affair and Its Legacy.” Malik runs the blog “Pandaemonium” and is also known for his broadcasts on BBC Radio.
Malik began his lecture reflecting on how radicalization is often spoken about by reducing complexity into a simple narrative. He broke the typical explanations down into four categories.
“First, they claim that people become terrorists because they’re … usually religiously informed of extremist ideas,” Malik said. “Secondly, that these ideas are acquired in a different way … Third, that there’s a conveyor belt that leads from grievance or personal crisis to religiosity to radical beliefs to terrorism. And fourth, the insistence that what makes people vulnerable to acquiring such ideas is that they are poorly integrated into society.”
According to Malik, there is very little evidence to support any of these elements of radicalization and considerable evidence to suggest that all are untrue. He believes there is a gap between the reality of jihadism and the political desire for a simplistic narrative that the traditional radicalization thesis provides.
Malik said many critics argue it is not religion, but politics that drive jihadis to terror. However, this is a more conventional model of the radicalization, and Malik said in his opinion, both explanations miss the specific historical context of contemporary attraction to jihadism.
“Those drawn to groups such as Islamic State are clearly both politically enraged about Western intervention and have a particular view of Islam — religion and politics all indispensable threats to their stories,” Malik said.
According to Malik, what drew some jihadis to Syria was neither politics nor religion, but rather, it was a search for something more abstract, like a sense of identity and meaning. Malik said jihad is a form of social disengagement rather than radicalization, as it is often perceived by the public.
“It is not, in other words, a question of being groomed or indoctrinated, but of losing faith in mainstream moral frameworks and searching for an alternative,” he said. “Disengagement is, of course, not simply a Muslim issue. There is today widespread disenchantment in the political process, a sense of being politically voiceless.”
Islam was not an all-encompassing philosophy in Malik’s father’s generation, he said. The faith of his father’s generation represented a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. The Muslim identity of today has been molded by society and then appropriated by Muslims as a means for asserting their own agency.
“In the past, most Muslims, in Britain or in France, would have regarded their faith as one strand among many,” Malik said. “There’s a growing number that see themselves as Muslim in an almost tribal sense, for whom the richness of the tapestry has given way to an all-encompassing monochrome cloak of faith.”
Common among all the people turning to jihadism is their distance from conventional Muslim traditions and institutions, Malik said, either because they have rejected them, or because they have come to Islam late in life.
“If we try to explain away complexity, it we try to reduce complexity to a simple narrative, we’re actually explaining away the explanation,” Malik said. “If we try to craft public policy upon a simplistic narrative, it will usually be disastrous.”
Karla Mallette, a professor of Italian and director of the Center for European Studies and the Islamic Studies Program, introduced Malik to attendees as a “rare creature” and public intellectual who has a robust presence in the public sphere.
“We were looking for somebody who could be a thoughtful and intelligent correspondent to talk to us about the lives of Muslims in the UK and really throughout Europe,” Mallette said in an interview with the Daily. “Kenan Malik was highly recommended to us and really is one of the most insightful and incisive commenters on the lives of European Muslims.”
The Center for European Studies and the Islamic Studies Program are running a series on the lives of European Muslims, what brings them together and how they interact with other communities
“What we’re able to do at the International Institute is to bring people who are from other parts of the world to really internationalize the University community to a lot of people, to think through problems that are being faced in other parts of the world with people who are coming directly from that region,” Mallette said.