With radicalisation, most people will think of individuals who carry out terrorist attacks as part of a certain ideology. Professor of Radicalisation Studies Tahir Abbas wants to make people aware that radicalisation arises from how we live together in a society. ‘We have to talk about integration, equality and a positive sense of identity.’
What will your inaugural lecture on 6 February be about?
‘I think that radicalisation is misunderstood. It is a social problem. Individuals who radicalise are members of societies, and we create those individuals through our societal norms. If you look at the mindset of a radicalised individual in terms of ideology and their chances of entering into violence, but without looking at that individual’s life story, life experience, social context, environmental, physical, and spatial reality of what it’s like to live in a certain part of a city, you miss out a lot of the understanding.
‘After the 9/11 attacks, I realised people were not talking to each other. So I thought, “I’m going to jump right in.”‘
‘With jihadism, we’re talking about mosques and imams and we’re talking about ideology. But we’re not talking about integration or equality, antidiscrimination or issues of building a positive sense of identity so that people don’t feel they have to choose between being a Muslim or a Dutch person but feel comfortable about both categories as one.
‘And that’s not happening because of polarization and social division and political issues that stop people trusting each other and sharing the same spaces. Sentiment, resentment and anger can build, and can sometimes be manipulated by third-party forces, who can then take people into areas of violence.’
How did you end up in this field of research?
‘I was working in government in England when 9/11 happened and I realised people were not talking to each other. And I could see there are gaps at the community, academic and policy levels. So I thought, “I’m going to jump right in.” And ever since I speak with ministers, government, the UN and the EU. I also go to mosques and talk to the police and intelligence and security services. It’s important to be a critical friend and hopefully they listen to us. It would be an inordinate waste of public money for academics to simply talk amongst themselves.’
‘We’ve noticed now coming out of the pandemic that there is no extremism in the way we used to think about extremism.’
Has the research into radicalisation changed in the years you’ve been working on it?
‘We’ve noticed now coming out of the pandemic that there is no extremism in the way we used to think about extremism. Yes, we have anti-government extremism, online extremism, conspiracy theories and all these kinds of ideas which are antidemocratic and could lead to violence. But it’s not in the classical sense, in the way that we had all these violent Islamist attacks and so on. The problem of radicalisation is not as big as we thought it was.
‘This gives academics more time to think about what happened a few years ago, before the next big set of problems come along. And they will come. It tends to be like a cycle.’
Text: Dagmar Aarts