Why the UK’s anti-radicalisation policies are failing

Programmes to counter radicalisation among young followers of Islam are often in the news. In this blog post, I write about the possible psychological reasons why anti-radicalisation programmes fail.

The failure of these anti-radicalisation programmes has been in the news recently. A news story in The Telegraph reports that the Prevent programme is viewed negatively by Muslims, and that despite the large amounts of money spent on it, there is an ever increasing number of British Muslims going on Jihad. This is confirmed by the UK Intelligence organisation MI5, which states that more Britons are trained as terrorists as ever before, as you can read here.

Psychologists assume that attitudes and beliefs drive behaviour. Anti-radicalisation researchers and policy makers need to analyze the attitudes and beliefs of Muslims in order to prevent some of them participating in violent Jihad. These programmes also need to analyze why Muslims hold negative views against the programmes themselves.

Tasmin Nazeer speaking on The Big Questions about rivers of wine, milk, and honey.

One of the reasons for the negative attitude about Prevent is that people feel the authorities are spying on them. This is understandable, nobody likes to feel specifically targeted or being spied on. Even more so if you actually feel that you are doing something good by sticking to deeply held convictions. These negative attitudes are also common among Muslim students. A number of Islamic societies at UK universities do no longer engage with Prevent and protested against anti-radicalisation legislation. I think that the students raise reasonable concerns about free speech on campus, although it should be noted that Islamic student groups have been criticized themselves for limiting free speech, as explained in this article by Nick Cohen in the Guardian.

There are two main difficulties with anti-radicalisation programmes:

Difficulty 1: The programmes try to change faith-inspired attitudes and beliefs that have no basis in an empirical reality. Such beliefs are hard to counter, because evidence or logic are not relevant to faith-based beliefs. Faith-based beliefs are typically the result of a gradual learning process that starts in early childhood and which is supported or enforced by friends and family. Some groups are known to enforce continued membership through psychological blackmail as you can see in this recent video on the BBC.

Difficulty 2: Faith-based beliefs get the highest level of respect in our society. Below is a good example of this which really got my attention. On the 7th of June 2015, award winning UK university educated author Tasmin Nazeer was answering questions by Nicky Campbell on the BBC show “The Big Questions. She published “Allah’s Gifts”, which is on the Internet advertised as Publisher Greenbird Book‘s first children’s picture book containing no facial images, and other similar work. She carries the prestigious title UN Peace Ambassador and apparently appears regularly on the media in the UK and abroad. In short, she is a highly respected person who gets great encouragement for her belief system.

In the transscript from the TV show, I have “you know” and “errr” removed. It might contain minor transcribing mistakes because some words were difficult to understand.

TV host Nicki Campbell (NC): Are there non-Muslims in heaven?

Tasmin Nazeer (TN): Well, we believe that really it is up to God, up to Allah, to decide who goes to heaven, ultimately the decision lies with him, and we work productively in this life to acquire good deeds in order for our final destination, which will be either heaven or hell; but we always pray and supplicate to god that the loved ones that we have lost in our lives, for example, if we could meet them one day in heaven, that would be our ultimate goal.

NC: What if you are in heaven and they are in hell, that is no good, isn’t it?

TZ: Well, no, the thing is, you see, when someone dies in this life we make, we supplicate to God and we ask them, please God in heaven, it is like with anybody, all children who die according to Islam, they go straight to heaven, and it is like with anyone who say we wish them that they get heaven, so Quran explicitly mentions the bounties of heaven and the various benefits.

NC: For children who die, when is that cut-off point? 16 and 17 year olds? [Laughs out loud].

TZ: It is really once they reach a level of maturity, young children who have died.

NC: So, what is heaven like?

TZ: Heaven in the Quran, there is a verse, there is a prayer called Sulafad in the Quran that states that there is gardens of perpetual bliss beneath which rivers flow and the saints of the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, mention that there is rivers of milk, rivers of pure honey, there is even rivers of wine, but ones that are not intoxicating [laughs out loud].

NC: Do you think that is what you will literally see? Because for some people that sounds just like something that is understood by 8th century desert tribes, something to give those people hope and images that they can understand. Do you believe literally that there be rivers of honey?

TZ: Yes, I do, with conviction, because this is detailed within the Quran, so we, we …

NC: Metaphor? Metaphor?

TZ: Yes, of course, not definitively, it will be what we have never seen before, it will be beyond our comprehension.

NC: Can I ask you one more thing, there is something about silk in heaven, what is the relevance of silk cloths?

TZ: Oh yes, there is a variety of marketplaces in heaven.

NC: Is there money?

TZ: I am not sure about money. Silk, gold, various different luxurious things we may not find very accessible that many people cannot afford certain things, but in heaven there will be no kind of work, it is all leisure and relaxation there, so…

NC: Fascinating.

University professor Naomi Chambers sitting next to Tasmin: Yes, absolutely, I love all of that description. It takes us to a different place. I also want to speak for those of us who have a more secular bend…

There are two notable things in this conversation:

First of all, Tasmin Nazeer has a university degree from a UK university. This shows that a high level of education itself does not in any sense prevent people from holding beliefs without an apparent inclination to questioning their beliefs.

When watching that interview, I could just not help to think how these ideas clash with what she must have learned in school (for example, in biology and geography) about what rivers are (water falls in the form of cloud-produced rain due to gravity and ultimately streams towards the sea, and river water has various life-supporting functions for plants and animals).

I just wonder how you can possibly think that a river can contain wine instead of water? Where would the wine come from? What would happen to the plants around it? Is it red or white wine, or maybe sparkling wine? And what about the rivers of milk? Where are the cows or goats producing the milk? Does the milk go sour, given that I assume the rivers are not refrigerated and given that I assume it is pleasantly warm in heaven? And for rivers of honey, I just wonder how many bees and beekeepers it must take to make all that honey? I would be tempted to ask all sorts of critical questions, but then, you can argue that heaven is a magical world in which anything is possible by definition, and she says that it is “beyond our comphrehension”. But if it is beyond our comphrehension, how does she know what it is? She believes it because it is “just so”, because it is in a holy book.

Tasmin is apparently not bothered by the fact that there are other holy books with completely different stories, and she does apparently have no doubt that the one holy book she was brought up with is the only correct one. And she is not bothered by the coincidence that most believers trust the holy book they grew up with. In any case, literally believing in such a magical worlds is at odds with what we learn in schools and institutions of higher education, and especially with the critical thinking skills universities are supposed to teach (maybe not in UK-based faith schools, according to Richard Dawkins, though).

The second notable thing is that Nicky Campbell and the professor sitting next to her, with a “secular bend”, were “fascinated” by these beliefs in a an apparently very positive way. Nicky Campbell at least asks if these beliefs might be metaphorically meant, but Tasmin seems to take it all literally, although it is also all beyond her comphrehension. I wonder under what conditions a professor would say: “How shocking that you believe such things. Rivers of wine, milk, and honey, you cannot really be serious”. Apart from Richard Dawkins, almost all other academics would indeed go into self-censor mode and say nothing, or even praise her, like in the show.

Professor Naomi Chambers likes Tasmin’s description of heaven, which takes her to a different place. She does not question the fact that university educated adults hold such literal beliefs in the afterlife.

And the fact that Tasmin holds prestigious roles and is award winning, shows that holding such beliefs pays off. Society basically says: It is good to hold such beliefs, we reward you for it and hold you in high esteem. This brings me back to the problem of countering radicalisation. On the one hand, our society encourages faith-based beliefs like the ones Tasmin holds and publishes about in books, which are even “safe” for children whose parents are worried that they might read a book with pictures of faces. For example, on the Amazon reviews of her book, one reviewer writes: “I really enjoyed reading this with my children and liked the fact that it had no facial images as I was looking for a colourful Islamic book which did not contain facial imagery and this just fit the bill! Lovely illustrations and meaningful storyline for kids.”

University educated Tasmin Nazeer literally believes in a heaven with rivers of honey. I guess, she does not believe that the honey comes from honey pots with faces, because faces are apparently strictly “verboten” in her sacred world. But then, she also believes it is beyond her comphrehension, so it can be anything?

And Islamic societies in universities are thriving, universities typically have prayer rooms and provide prayer-preparing washing facilities, religiously required female-only sport sessions, and so on, whereas atheist societies are typically relatively small – it shows that there is far more support and demand for faith-based beliefs and world views than for the opposite. Again, it is clear that there is a lot of societal benefit for holding faith-based beliefs.

On the other hand, we have a society that puts loads of money via the Prevent programme into preventing people taking faith the wrong way. But once you have people that can be made to belief even the strangest of things (such as rivers of wine, milk, and honey, or that children should not be exposed to books with pictures of human faces), you cannot really be surprised that some people believe strange and not-so-nice things as well. For example that blasphemy deserves severe punishment.

In summary, the anti-radicalisation policies are failing because our society does not do enough to train children and young people to think critically. In fact, it praises people who do the opposite. From the things you hear and from the stories you read in the news about universities, one gets the feeling that there is more encouragement for faith-based student societies than for student societies that focus on critical thinking.

One could argue that a far more effective way than adult de-radicalisation is ensuring that children are raised with strong critical thinking abilities to prevent them holding non-evidence-based beliefs. But if you are religious, don’t worry, that is not going to happen any time soon in the UK;  there seems to be strong support for faith-based attitudes and beliefs in society.

Fascinating or frustrating? Use the comments below to say what you think!


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