Rethinking radicalization

At last month's hearing on "Threats to the American Homeland after Killing Bin Laden," some Congressmen tried to push the view that American Muslims are a security problem. During the hearing’s Q&A, Representatives Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) pointedly asked their handpicked witnesses whether radicalization was prevalent among American youth. While Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation skirted the issue, both Fran Townsend (former President Bush's counter terrorism advisor) and Evan Kohlman (a cable TV commentator and self-proclaimed counterterrorism expert) were quick to declare that radicalization among American Muslims was a "fact" and that any attempt to deny it was simply political correctness.

What both of Rep. King's hearings failed to consider is what we mean when we say "radicalization." The term can cover a range of behavior and activities, only some of which are appropriately of concern to our government. "Radicalization" can refer not only to the preparations for and execution of terrorist acts, but also to the espousal of beliefs that are outside the mainstream. The theory embraced by several law enforcement agencies suggests that one naturally leads to the other - i.e., that there is a sort of "religious conveyor belt" - a consistent and predictable progression that begins with evincing a conservative or radical understanding of Islam and ends with acts of violence. Both Rep. King and his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), buy into this theory.

But the religious conveyor belt theory is simply not supported by evidence. Decades of research by governments and social scientists demonstrate that there is no single path to terrorism and no single profile of a terrorist. Rather, as a recent study by professors Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko explained, there are many different paths to terrorism, some of which "do not include radical ideas or activism on the way to radical actions, so the radicalization progression cannot be understood as an invariable set of steps or 'stages' from sympathy to radicalization."

Acceptance of the flawed religious conveyor belt theory by Congressional leaders and law enforcement agencies has enormous negative consequences. It undergirds the view that our national security is served by monitoring the religious views of American Muslims to identify potential terrorists. An example of this theory is a recent FBI presentation in which agents reportedly urged Muslim community leaders to inform on religious behavior, such as asking women to cover their heads when entering a mosque. FBI agents apparently considered this to be a sign of religious extremism, although it is common practice in Islam and other religions. These types of tactics undermine core Constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and the freedom to worship. They have caused deep rifts with the very American Muslim communities with whom the FBI and local police departments have sought to build trusting relationships in order to advance our counterterrorism efforts.

So how should we address the issue of how people become terrorists? First, we should stop talking about "radicalization" as a problem. The problem is violence. Whether people commit violent acts in the name of Islam or in the name of some other belief system, our government’s role must be focused on the act, not the ideology. The Department of Homeland Security and the White House have taken important steps to recognize this and now focus on "violent extremism" rather than radicalization. An excellent next step would be to characterize the problem as extremist violence so that the emphasis is squarely on the source of the concern - violence - rather than on beliefs.

Second, the federal agencies that dole out counterterrorism dollars and the state and local police departments that consume them must be vigilant in vetting the content of the training given to FBI agents and local cops. Since 9/11, a cottage industry of self-anointed experts on Islam and terrorism has mushroomed. Many of these "experts" have little understanding of the subject matter and provide training that paints all Muslims as potential terrorists. For example, a recent class of NYPD recruits was shown the virulently anti-Muslim film, The Third Jihad, in the course of their training. The film seeks to incite fear of ordinary Muslims and their motives, declaring that various mainstream American Muslim organizations have a secret agenda to impose "Shariah law" over the United States, and frequently displays a black-and-white Islamic flag billowing over the White House.

Finally, we need to move beyond paying lip service to the idea of building trust with communities to taking concrete measures. The guidelines developed for the Department of Justice’s initiative for Building Communities of Trust identifies some important steps that we can take in this direction. At the core of these guidelines is the principle that "Police officers, crime analysts, and intelligence analysts cannot use race, ethnicity, national origin, or religious affiliation as factors to support suspicion and trigger investigations." The guidelines recommend training, transparency, and audit mechanisms to ensure implementation of this principle. This is a far more productive direction for government policy to take than tracking peoples’ religious and political views based on an incorrect theory of "radicalization."

Faiza Patel is co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. She released a report this year titled Rethinking Radicalization.