The radicalisation phenomenon within the Muslim communities in Europe understandably occupies a central role in the public consciousness. Recent terrorist acts perpetrated by individuals purporting to be acting in the name of Islam has attracted much debate. Sadly the discussions and debates surrounding radicalisation have been largely dominated by vested interests and political expediency. It is of critical importance that a nuanced position is reached on this complex phenomenon, with theoretical assertions substantiated empirically.

The term ‘radicalisation’ is generally a contested term. It can imply several positions including a reaction to orthodoxy, break with traditional political views. However, in the context of this debate it posits the manifestation of extremist thought and behaviour culminating in the planning and execution of terrorist acts.


We at the European Muslim Network (EMN) believe that current discourses on radicalisation, especially in the political arena as well as established media outlets, have become subservient to narratives that are self-serving, politically expedient and counterproductive. These narratives are reductionist in nature, treat Muslims as monolithic entities and run contrary to empirical evidence.

The EMN believes that the radicalisation phenomenon is complex and the variables multifaceted. However, it is conclusive gauging the opinions of erudite researchers and practitioners of radicalisation that the process is not a deterministic long-term maturation from a political or Islamic environment. It appears to be in contrast a sudden appeal to violence. Moreover, the role of Islam in radicalisation is grossly overestimated. The evidence is extremely thin with respect to religion and ideology as being the primary motivators for extreme radicalisation. So radicalisation appears to be a complex social issue.


The data available implies certain influences to radicalisation, which includes some of the following: strong anger caused from perceived injustice; moral superiority; a sense of identity and purpose; the promise of adventure and becoming a hero. Religion and ideology is then selectively and expediently used to present an ‘us versus them’ mentality, which is used to justify violence.

There is no evidence suggesting that these radicals were ever involved in a local Muslim congregation. These radicals do not have a theological dimension. Their knowledge of Islam appears to be very limited and they use religious myths for political purposes. So, they are not a vanguard of Muslim communities, as it is often perceived. The evidence suggests a limited connection with Muslim communities and isolation from most of their family.
Lazy assumptions and analysis, which have unfortunately been taken seriously by policy makers, is counterproductive and dangerous. There is no single path to radicalisation. For some the pathway to terrorist acts involves a continuation of a violent and unstable past. Violent extremism under the cloak of religion or ideology is a continuation of their previous lifestyle. Others appear more integrated. Hence the reasons for radicalisation are more varied.


Huge swathes of the Muslim population in Europe are being subjected to unfounded suspicion and demonisation. The political right as well as the right wing media appears determined to wrongly conflate these issues with the clash of civilisation thesis. Muslims are stigmatised and policies like the Prevent Strategy in Britain are perceived by the vast majority of Muslims as a McCarthyite witch hunt. The Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent) strategy is the British government’s main programme for preventing violent extremism at its root, and the flagship element of its wider counter-terrorism strategy. The strategy posits the claim that to prevent terrorism includes the prevention of radicalisation of vulnerable Muslims. Local communities are empowered to tackle this challenge and are responsible for apparently building [the] resilience of these communities against violent extremism.

It is our view at EMN that domestic policies of certain European countries toward Muslims are helping the radicalisation process. For example, strategies such as Prevent is riddled with the wrong reasons, the wrong people, the wrong methods, the wrong consequences. Firstly, its theory of ‘radicalisation’ has poor empirical validity and is given a vague definition. It has not been established how ‘radicalisation’ necessarily leads to violence. Its focus exclusively on Muslims as potential extremists is counter-productive. It creates a ‘suspect community’ and alienates Muslims; and it results in the counter-terrorism community overlooking the many potential extremists of other faiths and none. The decision to fund local authorities based on areas with a high Muslim population creates the notion of a suspect community. The controversial use of funding for spying purposes has been shown to lead to alienation.

The British government’s current anti-radicalisation strategy is based entirely on the discredited ‘conveyor belt theory’. This theory claims that conservative beliefs lead to fundamentalism, which subsequently leads to radicalisation and terrorism. This is an extremely reductionist account which claims that radicalisation is a linear, unstoppable progression from ‘non-violent extremism’ to ‘violent extremism’, with most of the focus on ideological factors. This simplistic, decontextualized formulation is predictably very thin on empirical data. Many have challenged this theory stating that most of those involved in terrorism are ‘far from being religious zealots’. In fact, ‘there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.’ The conveyor belt theory is a convenient simplified narrative, serves no real security purpose, and frequently results in the mistreatment of innocent people.

There is no doubt the number of young people joining Daish or ISIS in Syria is most troubling. As well as ensuring that the state holds these individuals to account, root causes need to be identified for these individuals joining such nihilistic groups. This issue needs to be free from politicized maneuverings and instead be based on empirical reality, and thus enable effective response mechanisms to be activated across all levels. It is a fact that many of the victims of the terror inflicted by so-called Islamic groups are Muslims themselves. These extremist groups act similar to nihilistic death cults with no regard to the sanctity of human life. A number of variables have been identified as causes of the radicalisation process and we believe these factors need to be considered in any discourse on radicalisation.

Foreign policy/Geopolitical factors: There are deep-seated grievances amongst some young Muslims at Western foreign policies towards the Muslim world. That anger and resentment can unfortunately be vulnerable to the extremist narrative. The role of foreign policy cannot be denied and this has been repeatedly mentioned as a major reason by terrorists themselves and the demagogues of extremists. One is not condoning or justifying extreme acts by citing this cause as it has been accused far too often. The principal causes need to be spelt out regardless of how politically inconvenient it may appear to some. There needs to be a concerted effort by relevant stakeholders to educate people, especially the young to channel their grievances and anger in a productive, legal and democratic manner. Equally important, if not more so, is a review of Western foreign policies and discussing Western involvement in the Muslim world more openly and critically.

Socio–economic factors: In some of the cases there has been suggestions that frustration with low socio economic status can influence the radicalisation process. Economic isolation and anger can make some individuals receptive to the extremist rhetoric. Adding to this is the issues of Islamophobia: Young Muslims who are subject to racism and bigotry due to their religion can be pushed towards extremist preachers who assert the ‘us versus them’ rhetoric. Islamophobia (the other side of extremism) is a manifestation or fear of an exclusionary Islam, and this can have negative (direct or indirect) effect on the young Muslims who feel excluded, subject to racism from Islamophobes.
Religious illiteracy: One conspicuous finding from our analysis is that those who have been radicalised have a major deficit in terms of Islamic literacy. This is not surprising that ignorance makes individuals prone to demagogues. It is important for Islamic scholars who are well versed in Islamic and modern thought to be active in the dissemination of knowledge, education and guidance, especially to the youth. Where there is a link to religion – Muslim leaders and religious scholars have to not only delink with normative Islam, but admit some aspects of theology is being used to justify their actions. Groups like Daish or ISIS are using Islam and there is a need for a robust response that makes clear what is Islamic and what is not.

In fact, there is a problematic link between the ulama (Islamic scholars) and some of the dictators in the Muslim world. Due to many ulama acting often as ‘government agents’, as opposed to a robust principled stance as religious leaders – the young look to the less versed in traditional Islamic learning for answers, as they are viewed as having more integrity. Unfortunately the so-called ‘traditional ulama’ are disconnected, often lacking basic communication skills to connect with the young. The teaching of Islam across Europe and the challenge of the so-called ‘global muftis’ and demagogues who communicate via social media cannot be denied. Islam is often being taught in isolation, without mosques or Islamic organisations. This often creates the alienation, leading to radicalisation.
Ideology/literalism: Often radicals or extremists manipulate traditional concept such as Shar’iah (the way to remaining faithful to Islam), Jihad (effort and resistance), Al Wala Wal Bara (loyalty and disavowal), Dar al Harb (abode of war) and Dar Al Islam (abode of peace). The very notion of Caliphate, Islamic State and others are not defined or discussed coherently, instead these radicals or extremists often use these words carelessly and manipulate the minds of vulnerable youth.

Similarly, they would dismiss or disregard outright concepts such as democracy, nation state, religious pluralism and freedom of speech. Lacking in understanding of these concepts and accompanied by Western double standards in foreign policies, has fueled resentment towards these universal concepts.

Emotional spirituality: Very often we find people confusing spirituality, religious actions with emotions. Spirituality is confused for emotions and politics driven by such emotions often out of victimhood. Feeling the victim, where religious and national identities are disconnected, has led to alienation and crisis of identity. Radicals or extremists have a paradoxical understanding of identity, where they believe that national identity is somehow incompatible with an Islamic identity. They often feel not at home in the West, adopt a wholesale rejection of Western identity, or any attachment to their nation state. Instead they adopt a binary vision and nostalgic idea of being part of the imagined community without any sense of contexualisation.


So as demonstrated in this brief analysis, the issue of radicalisation is a complex issue. However, we have shown that an honest analysis free from partisan interests, can go a long way in finding solutions. We believe that there must a be a shared response by all members of our societies from civic groups to media to government institutions. We must stop blaming each other and work together for a common response that is rooted in common good for all:


Radicalisation is neither an Islamic problem nor unique to Muslims; it is a shared problem. Every member of society, people of faith and none, need to become the driving force to solve this problem. However, the issue of radicalisation cannot be merely tackled through the security lens, but has to be viewed as a complex social problem. Moreover, despite the real security threat that is so called ‘Islamic terrorism’, it does not constitute the most serious threat to European existence as claimed by right wing polemics. The issue of Muslim terrorism is wrongly conflated with concepts such as religion and immigration. The deliberate and politicised hyping up of the ‘Muslim threat’, which has facilitated hate and depiction of Muslims as the ‘other’, has led to worrying levels of Islamophobia. This phenomenon needs to be tackled by states, media and all civic bodies as a matter of urgency.


We need a political discourse that tackles the experiences of European Muslims, and one that works actively with all actors in society for the common good. We have to engender a political discourse that is best described as ‘critical loyalty’. We do not need to bow down to pressures of political authorities and agree on all their policies. We have to reach out to all to create a discourse that is confident of itself, consistent with principles and self-critical where necessary.


The fact is no government or institution is going to solve the problem without Muslims. Muslims should be seen as adding value rather than a burden. The Muslim communities all over Europe also have to be proactive in reconciling their beliefs with their environment and to confidently counter the extremist rhetoric from an Islamic point of view. This is a societal issue and effective collaborations should be established across diverse communities to counter any extremist rhetoric, be they extreme Muslim rhetoric or Islamophobia.


There is a need to produce a greater volume of religious literature and materials, which guide practically to deal with contemporary experiences of European life. Muslim parents should be offered practical support where needed in terms of effectively bringing up children with multiple identities (their European, national, ethnic, religious, etc.). This will be varied according to needs in various European countries.
At the EMN we believe that European Muslims have come to an important juncture in their history. It is important that we practically show people the reconciliation of our multiple identities, which enriches the landscape of Europe. We have been on the defensive for far too long, instead we need to act with all like-minded people and groups to identify causes of hate, bigotry, extremist thought and behaviour, and seek to bring about positive outcomes for us all.