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New Zealand's violent extremism problem

Newsroom logo Newsroom 17/10/2021 Richard Jackson
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De-radicalisation programmes adopted overseas are not necessarily the solution for tackling violent extremism in New Zealand and run the risk of stigmatising entire communities or groups of people, Professor Richard Jackson argues

Comment: Following the Royal Commission report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks and the New Lynn terrorist attack, there is growing pressure on the Government to roll out new countering violent extremism (CVE) and de-radicalisation initiatives and programmes.

Such programmes, it is believed, can divert individuals away from committing future acts of political violence. A recent article, for example, makes a plea for universities to tackle the threat of radicalisation through student-focused programmes. Others have suggested that such programmes be rolled out or extended in the prison system, the mental health sector, local communities and the like.

Because New Zealand has little previous experience in this area, the temptation will be to base such initiatives on programmes overseas. The UK’s Prevent programme, for example, has been expanding and intensifying for more than a decade. Today, it includes the education section, including schools and universities, the health sector, local government, community groups and even parents, in formalised efforts to identify individuals perceived to be at-risk of radicalisation or violent extremism.

One of the key challenges with this is that the research basis for such programmes is not yet fully established. Experts don’t yet fully understand why or when individuals will resort to acts of violence, nor do they know the key warning signs. This is because individuals can express radical and violent ideas and beliefs – cognitive radicalisation – but then never actually engage in acts of violence – behavioural radicalisation.

Similarly, individuals have been known to engage in violent behaviour without showing any signs of violent ideas or beliefs first. Many studies have found there is no single profile of a violent extremist, nor any identifiable characteristics which can predict a turn to violence. Violent extremists come from all different social groups, follow different ideologies, react to different social circumstances, and display a wide variety of individual characteristics.

The problem is that many countries have instigated CVE and de-radicalisation programmes based on dubious psychological models of how individuals are radicalised, and what type of indicators to look for. Critics have referred to such models and approaches as ‘junk science’ because of their lack of rigour and peer review, and because many of the so-called indicators are normal aspects of human development – such as the search for identity and questioning of authority. In particular, the so-called ‘vulnerability thesis’ – the notion that young people are uniquely susceptible to being radicalised – has not been supported by any rigorous scientific evidence.

New Zealand should, therefore, be cautious about adopting approaches just because they have been enacted in other countries. In addition to being based on dubious science, it is also highly likely that the context-specific reasons why an individual might engage in a violent act or join a violent group in Birmingham, Brisbane or Baltimore is very different from the reasons why an individual in Christchurch or Auckland might do so. We need to understand what drives individuals in Aotearoa New Zealand towards violent extremism.

A final challenge is that enacting such programmes comes with social and political risks, something we know from having studied the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and numerous other countries for the past 20 years of the war on terror.

In the UK, there is a lot of research to show that enlisting health professionals, teachers, university lecturers and ordinary people in counter-radicalisation and CVE initiatives has had many negative consequences, without any real benefits in terms of reducing the number of terrorist attacks.

At the most basic level, the evidence shows that when ordinary people are asked to look out for signs of radicalisation, they cannot help but rely on unconscious prejudices and biases, many of which have been conditioned into them by the media over the course of the war on terror.

A male Muslim university student who carries a book about terrorism or expresses frustration with Western military interventions in the Middle East, will be perceived as more at risk of being a violent extremist than a white female student who does the same thing – even if the real risk is negligent. Such biases and prejudices can also affect security professionals and institutions, as we saw in the lead-up to the Christchurch attack when the security services believed Muslim extremists posed a much greater threat than white supremacist extremists.

The problem is that such programmes can result in even greater stigmatisation of minorities and particular communities and undermine community cohesion. At the same time, there is a risk that the search for signs of radicalisation can inhibit free speech and democratic deliberation: if the expression of certain opinions or viewpoints are viewed as an indicator of an extremist mindset, the parameters of public debate will inevitably narrow.

In the UK, some of the Prevent programme materials used to train people have suggested that expressions of support for causes like Extinction Rebellion, Palestine, animal rights or anarchism are warning signs of violent extremism. This undermines robust democratic debate about important issues.

I have already expressed my view that the Government’s latest counter-terrorism legislation is a mistake which could undermine human rights in the long run. I hope that before any counter-radicalisation or CVE programmes are proposed or rolled out, the Government will commission some rigorous scientific research on the nature of the threat we face in Aotearoa, the factors that can be genuinely linked to acts of violence, and the kinds of interventions which will reduce the risk of such offending without the cost of stigmatising entire communities or groups of people.

Any new programmes in this area need to be carefully designed on the foundation of rigorous, contextually relevant scientific research lest they result in all the same problems we have witnessed overseas. The challenge here will be to resist the understandable impulse to roll out new initiatives just for the political capital of being seen to be doing something.

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