Tracing the roots of radicalization.

Photographer: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Cameron's Clear-Eyed Look at Extremism

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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In recent years, high-level Western officials have argued that terrorism is a product of poverty, a lack of education or mental illness. Other influential voices have urged that terrorist acts expose the truth about Islam, and still others that they are a natural, if excessive, response to legitimate grievances against the West.

On Monday, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron pointedly rejected every one of these theories -- and went on to provide what may well be the most clear-headed explanation ever offered by a head of state.

Poverty and disadvantage can't explain violent extremism, Cameron explained, because many terrorists "have had the full advantages of prosperous families or a Western university education." He's right about that, as the economist Alan Krueger of Princeton University has demonstrated.

In Cameron's view, the root cause of terrorism is instead an extremist ideology, fueled by a process of radicalization. "No one becomes a terrorist from a standing start," is how he put it. The problem lies in how information spreads, above all within enclaves of like-minded people.

Conspiracy theories, often elaborated by extremists who aren't violent, provide a gateway. Young people are repeatedly told that Jews wield malevolent power, that Israel was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and that Western powers are trying to destroy Islam. Theories of this kind breed a sense of humiliation and rage; they drown out "many strong, positive Muslim voices," Cameron said. 

Social isolation is a big part of the picture. Despite the U.K.'s success in creating a multifaith, multiethnic democracy, many of its citizens do not identify with their country or with fellow citizens who belong to other groups. In Cameron's words, "There is a danger in some of our communities that you can go your whole life and have little to do with people from other faiths and backgrounds."

Terrorist groups are cults, by Cameron's reckoning, whose members listen and talk mostly to one another. Social scientists show that isolated enclaves produce "group polarization" -- a process by which like-minded people, interacting mostly or only with one another, go to extremes. Within extremist groups, this process leads to violence.

Cameron's remedies follow from his diagnosis. He wants to respond to baseless conspiracy theories and take the glamour out of the extremist cause -- a cause that embraces such acts as men raping underage girls. To that end, he plans to empower Britain's Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish communities to speak out against the violence. He will encourage the Office of Communications to take steps "against foreign channels that broadcast hate preachers and extremist content."

Cameron insists that "this extremist ideology is not true Islam," noting that this needs to be said clearly, in opposition both to the extremists and to ugly, counterproductive Western voices that attack the religion as such.

At the same time, extremists do proclaim their fidelity to the Muslim faith, so action must be taken to empower the moderate voices. "We are with you, and we will back you," Cameron says to them, "with practical help, with funding, with campaigns, with protection and with political representation."

He wants the U.K. to take a broad look at how to reduce social segregation in both education and housing. He also wants help from the private sector in the effort to deradicalize potential extremists. Cameron asks broadcasters, for example, to consider featuring Muslims who abhor violence -- and who "have a proper claim to represent liberal values in local communities." And he wants Internet providers to do more to help identify potential terrorists online.

Cameron had some strong words for universities whose leaders condemn Holocaust deniers who appear on campus, but look the other way when "an Islamist extremist goes there to promote their poisonous ideology." In the domain of education more broadly, Cameron wants to combat the radicalization of children, including in the thousands of supplementary schools (which offer educational support to British children who attend mainstream schools). 

Many of Cameron's proposals remain abstract; in the fall, he plans to unveil a formal counterextremism strategy. Skeptics will raise fair questions about what, concretely, will be proposed, above all with respect to Internet providers, social integration and schools. But to combat Islamic terrorism, countries need to begin with a realistic diagnosis of the problem. With his insistent focus on radicalization, Cameron provides an essential foundation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net