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Violent Extremism About Methods More Than Ideas


What kind of person is drawn to terrorism, to radicalism? Does it matter if they're rich and bored or poor and alienated? What does it mean to be radicalized, anyway? And what should governments do about it? These are the questions people were talking about at the White House summit on violent extremism this week. And my next guest, Peter Neumann, was one of them. He studies these questions for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College of London. He joins me now in the studio. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: Yesterday we heard from a civil liberties advocate named Glenn Katon who took issue with the very idea of radicalization.

NEUMANN: The term radicalization isn't really defined and there have been some attempts to describe it that have been debunked.

CORNISH: Peter Neumann, how do you define radicalization? You know, what's the demarcation between being very faithful and radical?

NEUMANN: Radicalization, very simply, is the process whereby people become extremists. What's difficult is to describe and to define what extremism is. It's not the word radicalization. It is the word extremism because extremism can be extremism of ideas. You can have very radical ideas. And extremism can also be extremism of means. You can have liberal ideas or mainstream ideas and use violence to advance them. That also makes you an extremist. And that's why the White House was very careful not to refer to extremism full stop. It specified that they were talking about violent extremism. So it's not about ideas per se. It is mostly about the methods. It is not legitimate within the context of a democracy to use violence to advance them.

CORNISH: Now, as for the causes - sort of what moves people to that point - we've heard several out of this week's summit from the president and others. People have raised the issue of political alienation, of unemployment and poverty. Now, I understand you've researched this. There have been interviews with recruits too, I guess, foreign fighters. What has been learned so far? What do you know about these folks?

NEUMANN: We've found 700 of them on social media. We've had conversations with almost a hundred of them. And we also went down to the border towns from where they go into this area and talked to a number of them. And it's very clear that the foreign fighters who join jihadist organizations are not a monolithic block. Some are pious, but others are not. Some are from troubled backgrounds, but others would've had great prospects had they stayed in their European home countries. And some of them are seeking thrill and adventure. Some of them are moved by the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people. And some are just simply very committed to a totalitarian project. So it's not as easy as saying there's one profile or one person. What they all had in common to some extent of course, especially the Europeans, is that they did not believe that they had a stake in their society, that they did not belong. And, of course, if you do not feel you belong, it becomes easier to turn against your society, and it also becomes easier to leave your society.

CORNISH: Now, obviously, people are talking about this in the U.S. and many other countries. It's really the issue of preventing this from moving to a violent place. And so is that possible? I mean, you've described a wild mix of people here. How is it possible to kind of prevent somebody from moving to violence?

NEUMANN: That's what the summit was all about. It was really to introduce and to put on the agenda the idea of trying to prevent people from becoming radicalized to begin with, to prevent violent radicalization. And you can do that in huge number of ways. You can do that through messaging. You can do that by involving families. If you're talking about foreign fighters, for example, 99.9 percent of the families of the parents do not want their kids to go to Syria. They do not want their kids to die. And we've seen a number of cases where parents actually were successful in making their sons or daughters stay.

CORNISH: What do you make of the controversy this week - various controversies over the very name of the summit, accusing the White House of trying to avoid an issue by not linking the word Islamist to extremist?

NEUMANN: In my personal view, President Obama is absolutely right. I think it makes no sense to say that this is about Islam because what the extremists are doing in trying to recruit people, especially in places like Europe, is to say to them you have to decide. You are either a Muslim or you are a European. You cannot be both at the same time. And if the president of the United States or Western leaders were to say that we are fighting Islam, then that would force 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, who do not like ISIS very much, to choose am I with America or am I with Islam? And that is not a choice that we want people to make. We want them to be with us because our model of society allows them to be, for example, American and Islamic at the same time. We should be very clear about wanting to fight extremist groups like Islamic State, al-Qaida and so on, but we're not fighting Islam.

CORNISH: Peter Neumann - he's from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College of London. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

NEUMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.