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The “foreign policy as a root cause of extremism” rhetoric (both violent and non-violent) is both loud as it is popular. Research analysts cannot ignore this argument forwarded by Islamist extremists, as it is the popular reason given by the majority of terrorists (including the July 7 bombers, who cited the Iraq invasion as justification for their attacks) and extremist organisations as justification for their anti-Western outlook. In reality, extremism/radicalisation has proven to be highly complicated phenomenon in the UK, and thus is it accurate to cite grievances caused by foreign policy as a blanket reason as the root cause for radicalisation and extremism?
In sum: no it cannot, the idea of blaming foreign policy as the root cause for home-grown radicalisation (violent and non-violent) is a strawman argument, which undermines positive actions to address the issue by diverting attention from other factors at play in the radicalisation process. Although foreign policy undeniably plays a catalytic role in the radicalisation process, i.e. the Iraq invasion did help to harden the convictions of many against the West, it cannot be cited as the sole reason for the home-grown radicalisation phenomenon.
To begin with, many were aggrieved with the Iraq war, in fact a million citizens within the UK went out directly demonstrating against it in 2003. Only a minority of this number hold extremist attitudes that harbour extremely negative and derogatory sentiments to Western states; and even fewer actually rationalised the acts of violence committed by the attackers.
Furthermore, with recent events happening in Syria, one must question why a high influx of foreign fighters have stemmed from Britain to join the so-called ‘Islamic State’. If the real driver for this process was Western foreign policy, it is paradoxical to believe that so many had gone to join these organisations because of the UK’s foreign policy in Syria – as the UK has made no secret that it has always classified the Assad regime as a brutal and barbaric regime to be shunned.
A crucial aspect of the ‘foreign policy’ narrative frames the foreign policy grievance as one of “them against us”. This helps fuel anger, and dangerously oversimplifies the issue by treating all Western states as homogeneous in their views and actions. It also very dangerously does the same with all Muslims. This in turn undermines the “foreign policy” argument as it is paradoxical to believe that the Iraq invasion had been a dominant driver for radicalisation – because the dominant practice of takfirism amongst Islamist extremists accuse up to 70% of the Muslim Iraqi population of being kuffars (unbelievers) anyway! To put it in another sense, the ‘grievances’ caused by foreign policy in Iraq is stated to have mobilised some of these Britons to extremist action (an Iraqi population of which 70% are kaffir), yet at the same time, these same individuals call for the complete destruction of Britain (which itself has a 5% Muslim population). This is further evidence that other factors, additional to foreign policy grievances, are at play.
What could be more important to the radicalisation process is not the actual Western foreign policy, but the “perceived grievances,” i.e. the perceived conspiratorial policies many believe the West are surreptitiously implementing. An ICM Pew poll that surveyed Muslims and non-Muslims found that as a community, British Muslims were far more likely to harbour conspiracy theories about political events such as September 11 than their European counterparts. Only 17% believed that Arabs were involved. This begs the question: why is it that extremists keep stating foreign policy as the reason for their hardened convictions; and why do the British Muslim community harbour so many conspiracy theories?
The answer arguably lies in the sentiment of ‘alienation.’ Alienation is a much more academically credible and cited driver for radicalisation, describing the dislocation of many within the Muslim community and British society. The perceived dislocation of British Society and the Muslims living within it, is argued to have created the distrust with the government, and thus bares the fruit for ‘blame foreign policy’ rhetoric. One quarter of Muslims surveyed in a Channel 4 News Survey stated that the authorities had staged the July 7 attacks, and 52% believed security services fabricate evidence to convict terrorist suspects.
In conclusion, it would be foolhardy to stamp one factor as a “root cause” for extremism. The reason as to why ‘alienation’ is trumpeted as the most robust explanation is that it covers the issue in multifaceted ways, taking into consideration the different prongs at play in the radicalisation process. For example: foreign policy grievances, relative deprivation and personal experiences etc. These aforementioned factors and more are all stated to intensify the sentiment of alienation , or the feeling of “I do not belong.” Ultimately it is this sentiment that is described of creating a “cognitive opening” for the individual, thus creating an attraction to groups that can make sense of vastly complex socio-political problems. These extremist groups are masters of condensing these socio-political problems into digestible rhetoric – i.e. “you do not feel like you belong to Britain, because Britain is at war with Islam”; “the war in the Middle East is all intended to divide and weaken the Muslims” etc. Therefore, the danger of looking at this phenomenon through one lens i.e. “foreign policy” is detrimental to any useful and accurate analysis. More importantly, it will also be to the detriment of any effective policy recommendation and implementation.
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