Weapons of the weak? On social exclusion and radicalization

Social scientists have increasingly turned, in recent years, to explaining radicalization (Khosrokhovar 2016Gambetta and Hertog 2016). While consensus has been reached that there is no single cause of why an individual would radicalize, we have concurred that marginalization and exclusion does not undermine radicalization. In fact, marginalization from mainstream society is almost always a key factor in fomenting extremist views.  

In a New York Times article celebrated French Sociologist Farhad Khosrovkhovar writes “The typical trajectory of most French Islamist terrorists follows four steps” beginning with “alienation from the dominant culture, thanks partly to joblessness and discrimination in blighted neighborhoods.”

During my own research in European mosques, I too encountered narratives of exclusion cum radicalization, with community advocates explaining a combination of social and economic marginalization met with online communities fostering a novel sense of belonging. A youth worker in the Tower Hamlets neighborhood explained how the online glamorization of ISIS attracts those facing exclusion in their lived realities. It offers an outlet for those who must fear gang fights on their way to school; caught inside of intergenerational webs of poverty; without social supports or future opportunities. One of the three schoolgirls that left East London to join ISIS in 2015, shocking the British capital, wrote on her twitter feed: “I feel like I don’t belong in this era.”

Sociologists have long understood the vitality of belonging for integration and security. There is palpable danger in policies that seek to alienate entire religious or ethnic groups from the mainstream. We have seen this in the Warsaw Ghetto of the 1930s and the Parisian Banlieue of today. But not all walls can be seen. Symbolic or cultural boundaries hardened in our imaginaries can also act determinately to undermine inclusion (Lamont and Molnar 2002). Social psychologists have warned of this threat. For instance, Lyons Padilla et al. (2015) recently found that those who do not identify strongly with any culture and experience discrimination are far more likely to radicalize. Such “cultural homelessness” (Lyons Padilla) or “disenchantment” (Hafez and Mullins 2015) leads to a desperate search for belonging.

And some find themselves at the conclusion of this search belonging—if not to mainstream society, in radicalized circles. These are more often than not individuals without religious education or strong family ties, born Muslims who have suddenly turned or returned to faith (Khosrokhovar 2016). In his celebrated book on Malaysian peasants, Anthropologist James L. Scott designated “weapons of the weak, everyday forms of social resistance.” Faith has become a modern weapon of the weak. Here it is employed as an extraordinary form of social resistance by the most socially excluded.

Fomenting exclusion to undermine terror is not only fallacious but supremely dangerous.