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Terrorism is created in a social context: ‘We need to talk about context far more often’

‘Countering violent extremism – the international deradicalization agenda’ is the name of the book Tahir Abbas published last month. In this interview the associate professor in Terrorism and Political Violence at ISGA tells about the backgrounds and goals of the book.

Cover of the book

What is the book about?

Abbas: ‘The primary object of the book is to provide a detailed critique of the concept of countering violent extremism, which was formalized by the UN late in 2015 and then fortified as a worldwide effort to fight against radicalization and extremism that might (or might not) lead to terrorism. The idea to both prevent and counter the risks of violent extremism among groups in societies the world over is critical, but the perspective remained largely state-centric and overly focused on ideology. In the process, it continued to take attention away from the wider structural factors that are consistently in play when thinking through the processes of radicalization.’

There are no simple solutions to violent extremism but the fixation on ideology can do more harm than good. Is that the key message in the book or is there something else you want to highlight?

Abbas: ‘While it is right and proper to focus on ideology, we should not do it at the expense or even risk of overlooking and then exacerbating structural concerns to such an extent that the intended policy has the unintended outcome of reifying terrorism rather than ameliorating it. As scholars, practitioners and community organizations, we should ensure that we explore radicalization and terrorism as whole-society issues. Investigating terrorism and findings specific solutions for it in isolation can reinforce the dominant discourse concerning minorities and, for example, their religion, which can exacerbate the impact of existing issues of discrimination or wider issues of Islamophobia in the case of Muslim groups.’

What is the target group of the book, who should read it?

 Abbas: ‘The book is intended for scholars, researchers, activists, and students but also those working in policy. I have written it in an accessible way so as to reach a wider audience – and I hope that those who read it that can take the important message away that extremists, radicals and terrorists are not too dissimilar to the rest of us. They are not a breed apart. The more we can appreciate how society creates radicals and terrorists, as it were, the more we can speak to the subject in a robust, honest and deliberate way without repeating the mistakes of old.’

What do you want to achieve with it?

 Abbas: ‘I hope it starts a debate to help critically reflect on the concept of countering violent extremism. I also hope it helps to move away from too strong a focus on ideology. Terrorism is created in a social context. If we take the context away, there is no terrorism, whether it is state or non-state actors involved. We need to talk about context far more often.

What can students learn from this book?

Abbas: ‘Students should take away the view that the orthodoxy consistently found in a significant body of research and writing on terrorism does not help in allowing them to think through the bigger and smaller pictures that often create the conditions for the outcomes we are interested in. It was in teaching dealing with terrorism to our students at Leiden University that made me think that there is a vast body of knowledge in relation to the study of human and social conflict that is missing. I was inspired to write this book in the hope it gives them and future students a critical outlook on the subject of ‘terrorism’. Students need to learn about state terrorism as well as the counter-terror state and this book helps to bridge these subjects with contemporary terrorism studies thinking further.’

Order the book: Countering Violent Extremism

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