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Radical extremes of academic inadequacy

There is something amiss in the academic study of extremism

Artillery Row

Civil servants are allegedly being taught by British academics that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and asked whether prominent right-wing figures like Douglas Murray and Joe Rogan are extremists who ought to be suppressed. 

This was claimed to have happened at a course organised by the Centre for Defence Studies at Kings College London. A former civil servant, Anna Stanley, has blown the whistle on what she says she saw and heard, although her claims have yet to be confirmed. 

The course was designed for civil servants and professionals working on counter terrorism. Among those attending were staff from the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. The talks were given by leading academics from KCL, whose War Studies department is widely considered one of the best in the world. Even if these remain allegations at the moment, they are sadly believable ones which point to major problems within the academic study of extremism. 

This has recently been highlighted by the publication of two academic papers through the government’s Commission on Countering Extremism as part of a new series on “Rethinking Extremism”.  Both papers were critical of the current state of the field. In particular, both note how the field is hampered by ideological blinkers.

The first paper by Dr David Allington examines the study of extremism in British universities. He argues that there are “systemic problems” which cause “substantial gaps” in the study of extremism, in particular a lack of study of extremist groups, Islamist especially. The study of extremism is “politicised”, major research projects are skewed towards studies of the far right and that those studying extremism face the danger of threats and “intimidation lawsuits”. 

It consisted of two studies, the first of which surveyed research grants on extremism. It found there were more grants awarded to projects about the far-right than Islamism, even though the Independent Review of Prevent found that just 10 per cent of the Counter Terrorism Police’s investigations involved the extreme right, while 80 per cent involved Islamists, who it concluded were the “primary terrorist threat” to Britain. When looking at grants studying extremism in Britain, as opposed to globally, the disproportionate focus on the far-right was even more pronounced. There was also a surprising amount of study dedicated to “incels” despite the lack of any incel terror attack in Britain. 

… there are serious professional consequences for expressing the wrong political views in academia

The second study in that paper involved interviewing a range of researchers on extremism. It found that there are serious professional consequences for expressing the wrong political views in academia, citing the case of Craig McCann. A former British counter-terrorism officer, he was a fellow of Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. When he wrote a blog criticising the way the countering violent extremism field was being “infiltrated” by self described anti-fascists who advocated criminal and violent acts to stop the far-right, he was expelled and his blog post deleted. 

The other paper published by the Commission for Countering Extremism was by Dr Simon Cottee and looked at the study of radicalisation in Britain. This found that while it is an increasingly popular subject, there is little empirical evidence underpinning most of it, with 74 per cent of the top-cited works in the field largely reliant on secondary sources. 

It is critical of the way many studies present the radicalised person as a “vulnerable figure” and “passive person”, manipulated by “shadowy extremist recruiters” and unable to exercise any agency of their own. At the same time, the word radicalisation has escaped the bounds of scholarship or practice and become an easy way to describe political enemies, with everyone from Trump supporters to covid vaccine sceptics being described as having been radicalised. 

There is an easy logical jump from labelling such groups as radicalised to seeing them as warranting similar government attention as terrorists or other extremists. Indeed, the claim that a KCL academic on the course discussed whether Douglas Murray or Joe Rogan should be suppressed or de-platformed follows that logic.

Dr Cottee describes elements of the consensus in the field as including that radicalisation is a process which takes time, with the radicalised having been psychologically “normal” to begin with, meaning that anyone is potentially at risk of being radicalised; but that some are especially “vulnerable”, which should excite our sympathy rather than condemnation, and that a counter-process can “deradicalise” them. 

Much like post Korean War fears over brainwashing, exemplified well by the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, this both overstates the danger and underestimates the role of personal agency. Take the famous case of Shamima Begum, the Tower Hamlets teenager who joined ISIS. In her case, the reason why she left is that a friend successfully went to Syria and messaged to say she’d got there. As Shamima explained, “We were like, ‘Oh my God, she just did it,’ like it’s possible. It made it more real. Then we just immediately started planning”. 

Her friend, who remained loyal to ISIS, explained, “I didn’t force them or send propaganda. I simply told them what I wanted to do”. There was no recruiter, no obvious vulnerability, no long process of radicalisation. The friends were excited by the idea of ISIS and once one of them had shown that getting to Syria to join ISIS was possible the others did so. 

The academic consensus on radicalisation explained little of her story. It was however used by her in an effort at exculpation, with her blaming her decision to join ISIS on “grooming”. In this way she and others can present their acts as being disassociated from themselves, with the blame shifted instead to the authorities who supposedly failed to prevent this. 

The whistleblower includes another telling anecdote from the course at KCL. An attendee said her brother had joined ISIS and recognised a schoolmate in one ISIS propaganda film they watched. That attendee did her presentation on the official Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, calling it racist for primarily focusing on Islamism. Nobody seemed to think that this was an alarming, and factually false, view for an employee of the government to hold. 

Whether the whistleblower’s account is verified or not, there is clearly something amiss in the academic study of extremism. Political bias, academic activism and legal threats mean that the subject is too often focused away from the main threat, with too much work based on shaky foundations. At its worst, as the whistleblower’s account alleges, this can turn into culturally relativising away the very real dangers posed by terrorists while overblowing the supposed threat posed by right-wingers. Something in academia is rotten.

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