Malheureusement, Nous Ne Sommes Pas Tous Charlie: Combating (Online) Radicalism

by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara

The attacks by Islamist gunmen on the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and elsewhere have shocked the world, drawing attention away from ISIS and the Syria and Iraq conflicts, and back to the apparent enemy within. Europe’s wealthy, tolerant and secure democracies, the story goes, harbour a critical mass of dangerous people whose goal is the overthrow of its Enlightenment principles.

Following such a dreadful event, it is unsurprising that there are immediate calls for ‘something to be done’ about these radicals with their scant respect for human life or free speech. Nowhere does this seem more pressing than in the online world. The web is seen as a conduit for the radicalisation of the vulnerable, and governments around the world are scrabbling for ideas as to what to do to combat this menace.

Sometimes, however, the hardest thing to do is nothing (other than letting the police do their job in catching these criminals and confounding their plans). The week’s events in Paris show us that we need effective counterterrorism, not counterterrorism theatre. And as we argue in The Devil’s Long Tail, to be published later this year, suppressing ideological messages in the hope of preventing radicalisation is simply not effective, as they are not the chief motivators of such people.

Chances are, if you believe that they are, you also believe that governments should do something to combat the messages the vulnerable are exposed to. Governments should provide protection against the pernicious ideologies peddled by religious fanatics, which seem to spread like contagion. This view is what we termed in our book the DAM thesis: that those who join radical groups, or commit acts of violent extremism are Dumb and Malleable. That is, they’re perhaps not too well educated, with dead-end lives, and are open to persuasion by strongly willed others with a religious message that appeals to their sense that something is missing. Those of us clever or well-heeled enough to have satisfying social and inner lives are able to resist the lure of the cultsters, but the ideas are the dangerous thing. That great sage Rupert Murdoch argued as much last week, tweeting that Muslims “must be held responsible” for the jihadis in their midst.

When we actually search for the motivating variable, it’s much more mundane; it’s plain old self-interest. Adopting a religious doctrine or joining a group isn’t too unlike choosing whether or not to buy a book. There are lots of books out there, just as there are religious sects, and you make a selection from which you think are most likely to satisfy your preferences – a simple cost-benefit analysis. That isn’t to decry or denigrate any religious beliefs or belief in general. Rather, it is evident that, even in modern, prosperous information-rich democracies, religious belief hasn’t faded as early liberal commentators and psychologists predicted. People have strong spiritual needs; cost-benefit is one way of interpreting the choices they make.

Some people – for whatever reason – prefer a more intense experience from their religious observations. They want to be part of a tight-knit, dedicated group affirming the same world-view, sometimes in radical opposition to views seen as standard in the embedding society. They receive the goods of belonging, friendship, shared adversity, and emotional and physical support such groups bring. The costs of membership are often high – they demand large sacrifices – but the intensity of the experience outweighs them. Indeed, the costs of membership help ensure that everyone in the group is sharing the burden; there are no free-riders. Such people are not mentally ill, dumb, irrational, or easily duped. They just have a different set of preferences.

Although it has never had popular traction, this argument is not entirely new: for instance, writing in The Rebel of the anarchist terrorists in the final days of the Russian Empire, Albert Camus argued:

Secrecy compelled them to live in solitude. They did not know, except perhaps in the abstract, the profound joy experienced by the man of action in contact with a large section of humanity. But the bond that unites them replaces every other attachment in their minds. “Chivalry”, writes Sazonov, “our chivalry was permeated with such a degree of feeling that the world ‘brother’ in no way conveyed, with sufficient clarity, the essence of our relations with one another.” From prison, Sazonov writes to his friends: “For my part, the indispensable condition of happiness is to keep forever the knowledge of my perfect solidarity with you.” (p.136)

Nevertheless, a tiny minority is sometimes induced to let the tension with wider society spill over into violence. For such people, isn’t the web a game changer? Doesn’t it make extremist ideas more readily available, therefore drawing more people in, and thereby increasing the probability that a given radical will slide down the slippery slope to terrorism? Well, yes and no. There’s certainly more information available now via the web, and individuals can interact with others in a manner unimaginable twenty years ago. The web caters for a long tail of demand. As Cass Sunstein has warned, the arrival of more information, lower transaction costs and software to enable us to filter out unwelcome messages threatens to polarise debate. Tight-knit groups will speak only to themselves. But this is something of a side-issue.

Individuals are drawn to radical groups by that feeling of belonging to something special – the ideas themselves are not the attractors. Extremists are looking for an extreme experience, not any particular position.

Counterterrorism should be just that – a counter to terror. Those with extreme political views deserve to be debated with, if they obey the usual unwritten rules of debate, including according respect to their opponents. Those whose extremism takes a violent form should be treated as the criminals they are.

Governments possess coercive machinery to tackle extremely pernicious behaviour online just as they do in the offline case. Hate speech, incitement to violence, etc. are all crimes regardless of where they occur, and, ultimately, everything online is housed somewhere in the physical world. Governments can apply laws, remove sites, prosecute. Those who preach violence can be tracked, detained, prosecuted, and imprisoned, as can those who use the web to organise.

But what about the radical views, unsavoury to most? Isn’t it the government’s responsibility to crush, marginalise or eradicate them? Here we should be wary, to say the least. Government attempts to intervene with ‘counter-messages,’ moderate alternatives, censorship or ‘Englishness tests’ are at best misplaced, inefficient and often laughable, and at worst deeply counter-productive.

Government sponsorship or messages – the ‘establishment’ of religion via the seal of state approval – smack of thought control. Where governments throughout the world have sponsored state religions (much of Europe in modern times), congregations have dwindled in those churches. Meanwhile the congregations in enthusiastic and even chaotic Evangelical sects increase. Government’s dead ideological hand pushes people away from the moderate centre-ground towards the periphery. The pattern looks universal. Research on Islam and establishment throws up similar patterns.

In many countries, it is true that governments have an ambivalent relationship with extremists, sometimes encouraging them as well as cracking down. Yet that does not justify Salman Rushdie’s explanation that “Governments, from the Sunni side the Saudi government, on the Shia side the Iranian government, have been putting fortunes of money into making sure that extremist mullahs are preaching in mosques around the world, and in building and developing schools in which a whole generation is being educated in extremism.” Those governments’ suppression of civil society and economic activity are surely far more effective in driving their citizens to extreme measures than education, and in any case Rushdie ignores the global nature of the phenomenon.

American Muslims are remarkably well-integrated – not coincidentally, the US has a flourishing market of religious ideas, and a free economy in which Muslims as a group are about average in earning power. European Muslims are comparatively less well-placed economically, while the state of most Arab economies is dire. Unsurprisingly, while most foreign fighters in Syria, for example, are from Arab countries, Europeans vastly outnumber Americans. Incidentally, there are more fighters from France than any other democracy, despite (or maybe because of?) its stringent anti-extremist laws. There are more Frenchmen fighting in Syria than Libyans, Iraqis or Chechens.

When a free ‘market’ of religion exists – if we may use that metaphor for a debating zone free from government interference – then a plethora of small but moderate groups is the norm. Groups compete with each other to obtain and retain members, and tend to congregate at the moderate centre-ground. So, there’s a race for the centre. Of course, radical groups remain – they always will, because of the unique set of goods they provide – but they will be less numerous than under establishment, and the pressures on groups to compete by moderating will be greater. Where governments intervene, clergy and leaders become less demand-orientated and more focused on retaining the contracts of their paymasters – an example of the phenomenon of ‘rent seeking’, a highly inefficient form of conducting business where customers lose out big-time.

The emergence of the web hasn’t changed this calculation.

This post, ‘Malheureusement, Nous Ne Sommes Pas Tous Charlie‘, is being published in two parts. Next week, Stevens and O’Hara will consider what governments can do to combat the threat.

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