Our Failure to Think Morally about Radicalisation

March 3, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

British society might just have woken up to the wolves at their door – an awakening that we can only hope spreads to Australia.

The recent unmasking of the Islamic State fighter, dubbed by the media as ‘Jihadi John’, was met with a hitherto unseen wave of public disgust and outrage. This was not a response to the unveiling of another home-grown terrorist – the presence of such people are sadly all too common an occurrence to make a real impact anymore upon the public consciousness – this was rather, a response to the broken moral arguments that are often used to protect, or even justify, the radicalisation of such terrorists.

The moment was itself nothing too remarkable. CAGE, a self-labelled ‘human rights organisation’, was asked for comment, after ‘John’ was identified as Mohammed Emwazi. CAGE had a long association with Emwazi before he left for Syria, and before he was filmed cutting the heads of his fellow Britains, Alan Henning and David Haines.

Director of Research for the organisation, Asim Qureshi, had two simple messages:

Firstly, Emwazi was “extremely kind, extremely gentle. [The] most humble young person I ever knew”; a “beautiful young man”. And Secondly, Emwazi’s radicalisation was the fault of the British security agencies, ‘MI5’ and ‘MI6’. According to Qureshi, Emwazi was driven to cut the heads off innocent civilians because the British security apparatus highlighted him as a terrorist and tried to stop him travelling abroad.


Well, yes and no.

Yes, for obvious reasons: The logic borders upon the laughable, that is, ‘we must not try and police suspected terrorists, lest they become terrorists’ (a flawless tautology).

However, no: because Qureshi was simply going through the motions. When it comes to the radicalisation of terrorists, such ill-reasoned arguments have not only been happily accepted in the past, but they have subsequently been adopted and championed by large sections of the general public.

People like Qureshi, and organisations like CAGE, have a history of success when it comes to controlling the language and the terms of the public debate. Hence, they had every reason to believe that they would get away with blaming Emwazi’s brutality upon the people who were trying to stop him.

Take Charlie Hebdo as an example:

Angered by a series of cartoons, two terrorists force their way into the offices of a popular magazine and methodically kill its employees. The message and motive was explicit: this was an attempt to impose blasphemy laws upon the citizens of a secular society.

The public reaction, as always, varied across a large spectrum. Yet, after carefully considering what had just happened, the mainstream response settled upon something that sounds like this:

‘It was wrong for the two gunmen to attack Charlie Hebdo, but we also don’t approve of what Charlie Hebdo were publishing – it was deliberately and unnecessarily provocative’.

As such, the immediate symbol of public defiance and solidarity, the pronouncement “I am Charlie”, was steadily abandoned, and it became more appropriate for people to say, ‘I condemn the violence, but I am not Charlie’.

At first glance, this type of statement might sound reasonable, well- balanced, even moral.

Rather, it is just the opposite.

To think like this is to self-impose a type of moral blindfold. Twelve people were killed for drawing a picture – it is inconceivable for any serious adult could think that the contents of that picture should hold weight in any subsequent discussion of justice. Just as it is inconceivable that someone might feel the need to chastise the magazine for publishing the picture, before they then are comfortable in criticising the murderers.

This kind of behaviour might not explicitly defend the two terrorists, but certainly it does attempt to make them less than wholly responsible – rather than perpetrators, they are now only actors in an injustice.

This is a moral confusion that would be unacceptable in any other context:

Imagine that a women goes to a bar, and at the end of the night is raped by one of the other patrons. Now imagine that when the incident is reported, or commented on in the media, it invariably sounds something like this:

‘What has happened to this young lady is terrible, and I condemn the sexual violence, but I also condemn her behaviour. The clothes she was wearing were provocative, she was clearly leading-on her assailant, she should have known better, and she brought this on herself’.

I hope your moral alarm bells are going off!

Upon hearing anyone speak like this, we all immediately recognise that something is wrong – we all recognise that any after-the-fact considerations, or any extenuating circumstances, have no relevance to the crime itself.

This is because, even if it were true that behaving in a certain way, or dressing in a certain manner, had a direct impact on someone’s likelihood of being sexual assaulted, any reasonable-thinking person would wish it were otherwise. We all want to live in a society where people are free from sexual violence regardless of the circumstances.

So when we are confronted by such violence, we are painstakingly careful not to mention anything that may be used as mitigation – because we recognise that no mitigation could ever diminish the crime. The perpetrator is wholly responsible – neither circumstance, nor provocation, hold any weight in the moral calculation.

Yet, when it comes to the radicalisation of terrorists, this standard is not just abandoned, but inexplicably replaced by a blanket acceptance of any, and all, claimed provocations, grievances, or incitements to their violence.

We accept that it is we who are to blame for the violence of others – we embrace masochism, all the while convincing ourselves that we are in fact being nuanced, clever, and even caring:

‘The rise of the Islamic State is our fault for liberating Iraq’. ‘The 2002 Bali Bombings were our fault for participating in the peacekeeping mission in East Timor’. ‘The September 11th attacks were the fault of American foreign policy’. ‘The July 7th terror attacks in London were the fault of our failure to intervene in Bosnia’. ‘The attack last month on a Danish free speech conference was the fault of Danish society for failing to integrate its immigrant communities’.

Sure, there might be some truth in all these statements, but it is so palpably incomplete, that no honest causal link could ever be accepted.

For example: if a husband routinely beats his wife every time she upsets him, he might be correct in saying to her, ‘if you did not upset me, I would not beat you’. Yet this is also a false causation, for despite one action impacting the other, it is likely also to be true that the man’s anger is entirely unreasonable and unjustified; and even if this were not the case, it is certainly true that no amount of anger could ever legitimise spousal abuse.

Yet with radicalisation we don’t like to dig so deep, we accept the presence of any claimed grievance, no matter how tangential, as both causative and justified.

Perhaps this is well meaning. Perhaps most people simply struggle to process the type of extreme derangement that would lead someone to join an organisation such as Islamic State. And if one thing is certain, it is that we all like easy solutions to problems we face. So, confused and seeking a quick fix, we blame ourselves. After all, what could be an easier solution to terrorism, than for us simply to make a conscious effort to be kinder to terrorists?

In an environment such as this, is it any wonder that someone like Asim Qureshi, or an organisation such as CAGE, would feel comfortable in saying that perhaps Mohammed Emwazi ‘Jihadi John’ would not have decided that it was good idea to cut the heads off innocent people, if only the security services weren’t so mean to him.

In this sense, Qureshi and CAGE have been a touch unlucky. They, after all, had every reason to believe that their public defence of Emwazi, and their blaming of his violence on British society, would be accepted. They have been working within a social environment that has happily accepted this type of moral masochism on countless previous occasions; just as they have been allowed to get away with campaigning for the release of convicted terrorists, such as Aafia Siddiqui (jailed for 86 years for trying to murder American officials in Afghanistan), and Djamel Beghal (who plotted to blow up the American embassy in Paris).

The fact that such depraved language has not been accepted this time, and that it seems to have set off a tripwire in people’s minds, is an entirely new, and welcome development.

Sadly, it seems Australian society has not yet reached this point. In November last year, Associate Professor at Griffith University, and at the time, Imam of the Kuraby Mosque, Mohamad Abdalla, was invited onto Australia’s flagship debating forum ‘QANDA’. Abdalla was asked to comment on the terror raids that the Australia Federal Police had recently launched in Brisbane to halt an Islamic State motivated attack.

Abdalla’s thoughts: the raids were “over the top”, likely to produce “anger in the [Muslim] community, especially among the young people”, this was “not the right approach”.

This was an academic, a community leader, and a seemingly otherwise moral human being, claiming on national television, that by arresting and removing terrorists from their community, other members of that community, rather than being grateful, might be angered into retributive violence. This is a counter-terrorism model whereby, ‘we must be careful when we arrest radicalised young men, lest we end up creating more radicalised young men’.

It is amazing that anyone, let alone a university professor, might feel comfortable espousing such tenuous and ill-conceived logic.

Yet worse still was the public response. After being told that it is the policing of terrorism that causes terrorism, the overwhelming reaction, both at the time and since, has been a passive acceptance.

Our silence at moments like these represent an abject surrender of control over the language of the debate.

We are simply too accustomed to the idea of self-hatred, and too accepting of blame for the violence of others. When someone attacks us, our first instinct is to think that we must have brought it on ourselves, that we must have done something provocative. So we accept the self-professed narratives of those who wish us harm, and we buy into their claims of grievance, rather than viewing their violence as it should be: unjustified, self-created, and mitigated by nothing.

With any luck, the behaviour of Asim Qureshi and CAGE, might just have broken this paradigm.