An approach moving away from censorship and legal measures and towards a “marketplace of ideas” has significant potential in countering ideas that support violent extremism.
Scholars who study violent extremism remain in disagreement over the actual process leading a person to it.
However, many recognize the importance of ideas in contributing towards violent extremism. They thus acknowledge that ideas are also an important part of the solution, and it is on this basis that there has been increased emphasis at the policy-making level on countering ideas that lead to and support violent extremism. However, the relationship between ideas and violent extremism may not be causal and there are other non-ideational variables involved which need to be considered.
Countering ideas that support violent extremism has become an important part of the multifaceted approach to counterterrorism in countries such as the UK, USA and Indonesia, among others. As countries engaged in countering violent extremism have experimented with a range of strategies, some lessons have emerged over time. Most important is the realization that an over-reliance on censorship and legal measures, while convenient, neglects the need to disprove ideas that support violent extremism to reduce the public’s susceptibility to them. Ideas reside in the mind and, once embraced, cannot simply be eliminated by hard countermeasures. Ideas are also resilient and can persist under extreme and hostile conditions, going underground and resurging once those conditions change.
In this context, the promotion of debate challenging ideas related to the worldview of violent extremists has the potential to generate significant benefits in countering violent extremism. Such a debate would operate at two levels – first, between the proponents of ideas supporting violent extremism themselves, and second, between proponents and those who do not share their views. The potentially constructive results of the debate operating at multiple levels include the creation of a “marketplace of ideas” within violent extremist circles that could encourage disengagement from violence and consideration of alternative ideas. Engaging in debate to challenge the ideas of violent extremists can also create a culture of critical thinking to catalyze the re-evaluation of old ideas and reduce the glamour of violence. At the tactical level, stirring up such a debate could force violent extremist groups to devote resources to counter the debate and cause division among their members.
The notion that there are potential benefits from promoting debate to challenge the ideas supporting violent extremism is validated by Omar Ashour’s study of de-radicalization among Muslim militant groups in The De-radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (2009). His study involved the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jihad, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, Islamic Salvation Army and Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Ashour posited that social interaction is one of four important variables in disengaging Muslim militant groups from violence and moving them towards participating in previously denounced civil activities. The other three variables are state repression, selective inducement and charismatic militant leadership.
Ashour describes two dimensions of interaction. One is external and occurs between violent militants and “any social actor or entity who/which does not belong to the same ideological camp.” The other is internal and takes place “between the leadership, the mid-ranking commanders and the grassroots” of a particular group. Ashour asserts that social interactions which facilitate exchanges of ideas with non-militants in combination with the other variables (state repression, selective inducement and charismatic militant leadership) will affect the transformation of violent militants’ ideology, albeit to different degrees.
Furthermore, such interaction would affect both the followers and leaders within the group. For the former, the effect is limited because it may not necessarily bring about the de-radicalization of the group. However, it may still contribute towards reducing the number of the group’s members and creating factions among them. For the latter, Ashour states that “de-radicalization efforts are much likely to become successful when they originate from within the organization. Thus, internal interaction between a leadership supportive of de-radicalization and its followers is crucial, especially for containing opposition to the process. For example in the [Egyptian al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya]… many of the followers did not support the process except after meeting with their ‘historical leadership’ and intensely debating the ‘theological legitimacy’ as well as the costs and benefits of de-radicalization.”
The subsequent interactions between the leadership of a de-radicalized al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya with other groups’ leaders, according to Ashour, resulted in the de-radicalization of al-Jihad and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. It is possible to argue that in the cases investigated by Ashour, the debate took place within a controlled environment while the militants were imprisoned. Thus, it does not really support the allowance for an open debate in public space which may be potentially used by the militants to propagate their ideas to the public and complicate the security problem they already pose.
This, however, can be answered. First, the study does highlight that the debate at two different levels did occur and had a positive effect towards changing the militants’ ideas. Second, although the change occurred under a controlled environment of imprisonment, it is incorrect to conclude that the change cannot occur outside such an environment or that the debate would have no positive effect in a more open environment. The conversion of thousands from one religion to another which occurs regularly all over the world through open propagation and debate of contending religious beliefs supports the value of open debate and contestation for the case at hand.
Another similar finding was made by Heather S. Gregg in her 2010 article “Fighting the Jihad of Pen: Countering Revolutionary Islam’s Ideology.” Gregg reported that in the al-Sakinah program in Saudi Arabia, the very act of drawing extremists into dialogue and debating their ideas with religious scholars and former jihadists created an opportunity for alternative viewpoints to emerge and promoted a “middle way” between extremism and secularism. The al-Sakinah program was supported by the government to engage violent militants online at the ideological level with the objective of persuading them to abandon their violent ideas and behavior.
Although the above cases relate to debate with those who have already subscribed to ideas supporting violence and terrorism, it must be noted that they are not the only target of such initiatives. By witnessing debate over ideas supporting violent extremism on various open platforms, the public too would benefit. There is also the possibility that a norm may develop where the refutation of ideas can be approached in a more engaging manner that would enhance the public’s understanding with multiple perspectives. The public’s views, while not presented in a scholarly manner, could be important for sending strong signals against violence and terrorism. In fact, one of the reasons that caused al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya to review their ideological disposition towards violence was the realization that the public was not with them and strongly opposed their ideas and actions.
Based on the above, it can be concluded that a liberal attitude to dissent, disagreement and contestation is of greater value in countering ideas that support violence and extremism than a policy of censorship and legal measures. As one 2010 study on radicalization titled The Edge of Violence: A Radical Approach to Extremism argued, such an approach “can de-mystify and de-glamourize terrorism without alienating large numbers of people. However – a liberal approach depends on independent voices setting out forceful counter-arguments against extremist ideas… silencing radical views must be considered as a last option because banning radical voices will neither prove effective nor lessen their appeal in the long term. Instead, government and non-government agencies – including Muslims – must set out counter arguments as to why particular radical or extremist ideas are wrong.”
While the suppression of ideas supporting violent extremism helps to limit their dissemination, it cannot be relied upon to diminish the persuasion and appeal of those ideas or eliminate them from the mind of militants. Such ideas must be discredited and this can only be achieved by promoting open debate and contestation to expose their flaws. A nuanced approach would avoid silencing proponents of such ideas and instead develop credible means to challenge them in the open where their own followers and the public at large can also be exposed to the debate. If the common assertion that extremists are on the fringes and do not enjoy wide support of the community is indeed true, then those seeking to combat them should be willing to face them in an open debate. In such a context, relying on censorship and legal measures only shows lack of confidence and belief.
From a theological viewpoint, the approach involving open debate and contestation with less reliance on censorship is in line with the Quranic verse which states: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Although the verse is popularly understood to refer to compulsion in the context of conversion to Islam, it is equally valid in the context of persuading violent extremists who have gone astray. This is because the verse establishes one important principle which is relevant in both contexts, namely that Islam cannot be practiced or embraced except through free will. Thus it is imperative from rational policy and theological viewpoints that a marketplace of ideas with some form of supervision for the purpose of preserving public order be created where a broad spectrum of opinions can contribute to debate where the worldview of violent extremists could be contested and challenged.
Muhammad Haniff Hassan is a Research Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore