A radical shift in understanding how extremism works: DRIVE project is getting started

‘We want to say something very different from the norm. We are the radicals now.’ Tahir Abbas is lyric about the DRIVE project he will be leading from Leiden University in The Hague. This is a short introduction to the research that will be carried out in the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom, funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 programme.

What are the main drivers of far-right and Islamist radicalisation? What is the role of social exclusion within radicalisation processes? How can we design better policies to safeguard young people from radicalising? These questions will be answered, different from the norm. The norm is, according to Abbas: ‘Let’s work with ideology, let’s train these imams, let’s go into the mosques, let’s do some surveillance. It’s not working. We are not sensitive enough to the real challenges that communities are facing, including feelings of social exclusion – minority and majority. Different societal subgroups do not talk to each other, they do not share the same spaces, nor do they go to the same schools.’

‘We want to radically shift people’s thinking on how extremism works. We want to move away from counter-terrorism using a top-down approach: there’s a problem there, let’s go find the solution.’

A choice made through a lack of choice

Abbas and his team have a mission. ‘We want to radically shift people’s thinking on how extremism works. We want to move away from counter-terrorism using a top-down approach: there’s a problem there, let’s go find the solution. Or: we already know what the problem is, let’s apply this solution. There’s been too much of that for too long.’ Abbas has seen the changing opinion on extremism up close. That is one of the reasons why he’s so committed to the subject. ‘It isn’t just about ideology, it’s about social issues and social problems and cracks in society that young people fall through. And some who end up in extremism have a history of criminality. Criminality is often a choice made through a lack of choice. I’m a second-generation person, I have seen lots of things happen around me with people I’ve known. And also later in my professional work I’ve seen things change. I was working in the UK government when the Twin Towers were falling. You could see the change to thinking around extremism straight away. All the well-accepted ideas about multiculturalism and inclusion and diversity up that point quickly disappeared.’

Say more what it’s like in reality

The main goal will be to help determine European-wide policy solutions that concentrate on social inclusion in deradicalisation initiatives, by bringing together the expertise, skills and knowledge of researchers and practitioners involved in creating an understanding of radicalisation and building resilience against violent extremism and social polarisation.

Abbas: ‘We need to be more sensitive to the lives of ordinary people, and how these kinds of risks exist at a level that we don’t always consider. Because we are too busy wanting to find a solution tomorrow to a problem that we thought emerged yesterday. These problems are much longer in the making. As we see in America, it’s not just about Trump, it’s about a lot of things. Trump was a facilitator. But he was an instrument in a much bigger design. We want to shift the landscape on thinking through radicalisation – we want to say a bit more about what it’s like in reality. Then we can have a language that allows us to bridge those gaps. That language perhaps has been missing.’

‘We need to understand why people believe in conspiracy theories rather than science, why they abandon conventional politics and become part of a violent mob, and we need to understand how this is related to Islamist radicalisation.’

Tricky terrain

Tobias Müller and Lianne Vostermans will be working as post-docs on DRIVE and are very much looking forward to working on the project. Vostermans: ‘We will work with a team of cross-disciplinary researchers, based in different countries. Together, I expect we will develop insights on the drivers of reciprocal radicalisation between Islamist and right-wing extremisms, grounding hot, but ill-understood debates in empirical research. We need contextualised insights to foster understanding and compassion in a society increasingly marked by dividing lines. Combatting polarisation further requires appropriate policy, which I hope to inform and advise on through our research.’

According to Müller, far-right extremism is a defining challenge for democratic societies in the 21st century. ‘We have seen it in the recent storming of the Capitol. We need to understand why people believe in conspiracy theories rather than science, why they abandon conventional politics and become part of a violent mob, and we need to understand how this is related to Islamist radicalisation. This is an incredibly tricky terrain because the securitisation of this topic has also caused a lot of discrimination and fear across Europe. No place seems to be able to attract more brilliant minds and research projects on this than ISGA at Leiden. This makes it a particularly exciting place to do this project.’

Want to know more about DRIVE: Click here.

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