De-Radicalizing Muslim Youth in Western Societies

By: LTC Rehan Mushtaq, Pakistan Army

Weak and in some cases almost non-existent family bonds have left young Muslims in Britain caught between the beliefs and networks of their parents and those of the host society. This confusion, along with feelings of disenfranchisement and discrimination, creates an identity crisis. Reinvigorating the extended family would help youth overcome the trauma of their identity crisis by granting them a firm sense of belonging to a network of peers, in the form of cousins and other relatives who would help put family first. Muslim youth, in this way, would be connected with the wider British society through having a sense of place and belonging to something.

The general study of religious radicalization tends either to oversimplify the process by stressing single-factor explanations, or it overemphasizes the complexity of the phenomenon and arrives at the pessimistic conclusion that it is impossible to identify "a typical terrorist," let alone typical ways of becoming a terrorist.1 But both of these views are too extreme. Radicalization is a process; individuals do not typically awaken with a sudden epiphany that drives them to join a radical Islamic group. They instead experience an often extensive socialization process that includes exposure to movement ideas, debate and deliberation, and even experimentation with alternative groups. In pursuit of their "true identity," young people tend to look for a "purer" version of Islam and hop from one group to another: from groups that espouse milder views toward those that take a harsher, more fundamentalist standpoint. Only when an individual is convinced that he or she has found the group that represents the "true" version of Islam is he or she likely to join.2

Some clear patterns can help explain why and how people become attracted to radicalization. For instance, Marc Sageman writes in Leaderless Jihad that there are three ways to study the process of radicalization: 1) focus on the individual and his background; 2) search for "root causes" in the social conditions; or 3) concentrate on how people in groups influence each other to become terrorists.3 Though Sageman prefers the third approach, saying it offers the most fruitful way to understand the process of radicalization,4 I differ from him and take into consideration all three aspects.5

Radicalization, in my view, consists of four stages. Muslims in the UK become receptive as a direct result of an identity crisis. The state's policies trigger a cognitive opening, making individuals vulnerable to outside influences. Cloaked in their new "Islamic identity," Muslims suffer a sense of moral outrage at apparent injustices against all Muslims, both globally and locally. This becomes a central theme of their self-image, as outside influences resonate with personal experiences of discrimination. From here begins the process of recruitment through gradual indoctrination, which marks the second stage. Social bonds play a critical role at this stage and sometimes precede ideological commitments. The third stage involves a process of activism, when the fully indoctrinated individual undergoes a replication process by spreading his convictions to others to whom he has links. Progression along this path carries the individual to the final stage—fanaticism, the acme of radicalization. A graphic representation of this journey is depicted in Figure 1.

Predicaments of Muslim Communities in the UK

The UK is home to 1.6 million Muslims out of a British population of nearly 60 million, according to the UK's 2001 census.6 The majority of Muslims in the UK have their roots in Britain's former colonial territories of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. Others hail from the Middle East and African countries, as well as Turkey. Some of these immigrant families have been in the UK for generations. Muslims are the largest religious minority in the UK: 46 percent of all Muslims living in the UK are British-born.7 Muslim Ghettos British Muslims have established themselves in certain areas of the UK over the past several decades. For instance, during my interviews in Bradford, I came across a Pakistani who had lived there for the last 35 years; he said, "When I moved in here, there was only one other family of Asians on the street. But now, over the course of 35 years, it's mainly Asians. This community is more traditional, like back home, Pakistan."8 One hears much the same story in East London, which has a Bangladeshi majority, or in Finsbury, which is predominantly Arab. Elsewhere in the UK, Birmingham and Manchester are well known for their Asian Muslim enclaves.

One can only understand how tightly knit and closed these communities are if one gets a chance to visit them. They have their own food shops, mosques, schools, and recreational spots. Among these, the two social institutions that cast a dominant influence over the community are mosques and schools. Both are interlinked. As an imam of East London Mosque told me in an interview, "almost 90 percent of the Muslim community that lives in and around East London sends their kids to schools affiliated with East London Mosque."9

Another peculiar feature of the British Muslim community is that one finds people still anchored to their culture and traditions back home. It is a common sight to see people wearing their regional dress, especially women and older people. Muslim families also subscribe to those channels on cable or satellite TV that broadcast in their mother tongue. The main reason they give for this is that "they do not want their kids watching European channels because most of the programs are objectionable."10


There are many factors that are responsible for the apparent alienation of young British Muslims from mainstream influences in society, multiculturalism being one of them. The unwillingness—or inability—of the British government to promote a single, identifiable British identity and culture is the single most important reason "for the self-imposed segregation of Muslim communities, a proliferation of mosques staffed by radical clerics and the establishment of Muslim faith schools that emphasize Koranic studies and teach South Asian languages."11 The policy of multiculturalism may focus too much on ethnic diversity instead of integration. Consequently, after more than sixty years of British citizenship, some ethnic minorities remain segregated by culture. The fact that many adhere to a different religious faith and remain attached to their country of origin and its culture and traditions is deemed problematic because such attachments help discourage them from identifying with Britain and "Britishness."12

Perception of Not Being Accepted

There is a widespread perception among Muslims that they are not accepted by British society, despite government programs to support multiculturalism. In their view, experiences with "Islamophobia" belie official claims of tolerance. 13 During my visit to the UK, I asked one Pakistani whether he thinks he has been accepted as British in the UK. He replied, "Well, these goras [whites] tell us you can be a British but not an English, who associate themselves with privileges of the House of Lords, foxhunting, and exclusiveness of class."14

Many Muslims also believe that the law treats them more harshly because of their religion. The Muslim community cites as an example the prison sentences given to the predominantly Muslim Asian participants in the Bradford riots (July 2001). The average length of sentence meted out to 46 rioters was 4.5 years longer than terms handed down to rioters in Belfast.15

Although these disparities may not be a direct result of racism, racial discrimination compounds the sense of exclusion and inequity. Forty percent of all Britons believe Britain is a racist society. Sixty percent of blacks and Asians say they have experienced verbal racism, 20 percent complain of physical racial abuse, and 33 percent of Asians feel that racial prejudice is worse now than it was five years ago.16 These experiences are exacerbated by the activities of racist, right-wing groups like the British National Party, a group known for its public anti-Muslim campaigns. After the worldwide row over the Danish cartoons that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), BNP was accused of deliberately ramping up racial and religious tensions by launching a leafleting campaign with anti-Muslim messages, including its own controversial cartoons of the Prophet.17

The experience of both racial and religious discrimination often prompts some young Muslims to question their identity and how they fit into British society.18 According to a survey in 2002, 69 percent of Muslims felt that the broader society did not consider them integral to life in Britain. Since 9/11, the situation has grown worse.

Today, more than ever, British Muslims are asked to prove themselves to be not only loyal and peaceful, but also as integrated citizens.19 Questions about loyalty and citizenship are regularly asked within a frame that juxtaposes Islam with Europe and, in so doing, frequently serves to exacerbate the tensions of having a Muslim presence in the West.20 Social exclusion, unemployment, and the lack of opportunities further strengthen the perception that citizenship is constructed in exclusive terms.21

Clash of Values

British Muslims are experiencing inter-generational strains. The liberal secularism of British law often clashes with Muslim religious doctrine. In his book Made in Bradford, M.Y. Alam attributes this tension to competition between Western secularism and traditional religious beliefs, which leaves young Muslims in Britain caught between the traditions and networks of their parents and those of a host society that limits their acceptance on the basis of race, ethnicity, and faith.22 The dominant reaction to this predicament is a nonviolent, non-political, neo-fundamentalist reinvigoration of faith and a return to activism that emphasizes personal action and social activism in search of "a new Ummah [community]."23 As one reporter puts it, "Reconciling these contradictions with compromising their faith and way of life is a central challenge for British Muslims and the society in which they live."24

Disenfranchisement and discrimination have led many to wonder, What does it mean to be a Muslim in a non-Muslim country? Here it must be remembered that British Muslims enjoy only limited theological guidance about how to practice Islam in a Western country, dominated as it is by secular social, political, economic, and cultural traditions. This question of what it means to be Muslim in a non-Muslim country is complicated by the fact that Muslim minorities in Western countries are heterogeneous: they are frequently subdivided by ethnicity, language, culture, and religious traditions. As Olivier Roy observes, "While old minorities had time to build their own cultures or to share the dominant culture (Tartars, Indians, China's Hui), Muslims in recently settled minorities have to reinvent what makes them Muslim, in the sense that the common defining factor of this population as Muslim is the mere reference to Islam, with no common cultural or linguistic heritage."25

Identity Crisis and Cognitive Opening

Because many of the young British Muslims drawn to extremism feel a sense of cultural alienation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in a society that does not fully accept them, they appear to turn to Islam as a badge of collective identity to counteract their feelings of exclusion.26 Exclusion is constructed by outsiders, i.e., other Britons, whose discrimination reinforces individual Muslims' cognitive boundaries. Consequently, despite being heterogeneous, Muslims recast and rationalize a collective identity expressed through new cultural material—names, narrative, symbols, verbal styles, rituals, clothing, and so on.

Besides creating a collective identity, such alienation and disenfranchisement also lead to what Quintan Wiktorowicz calls a cognitive opening. In Wiktorowicz's view, individuals are initially inspired by a cognitive opening that shakes their certitude in previously accepted beliefs. Once individuals are willing to expose themselves to new ways of thinking and worldviews, the cognitive opening helps facilitate their receptivity to joining a movement and engaging in activism.27

In many cases, individuals can address and resolve a crisis or psychological distress through their current belief system. But, where this seems inadequate, individuals may be open to other views. The specific crisis that prompts a cognitive opening varies across individuals. Any number of things can prompt a cognitive opening (for instance, experiences with discrimination, a socioeconomic crisis, or political repression), which means that there is no single catalyst for triggering initial interest. Worth noting is that when an individual's identity is tied to religion or derives its meaning from religion, a cognitive opening may lead to "religious seeking"—a process by which an individual searches for some satisfactory system of religious meaning through which to interpret and resolve his discontent.28

The Radicalization Path—An Influence Campaign

The Muslim community in the UK, comprising migrants from different countries, resembles a society that is fragmented into clusters of individuals who share similar characteristics. In The Islamist, his autobiographical account of becoming radicalized, Ed Husain describes how his friendship with one particular individual allowed him to connect to more people, and introduced him to new social clusters.29 Throughout his journey inside different radical networks, Husain was always influenced by just a few people. His account makes clear how a very small number of people can be linked to everyone else in just a few steps. Although the Islamists Husain describes operated in different, distinct hubs—like the Young Muslims Organization, Hizbut-Tahrir, or al-Muhajiroun—their frequent interaction with each other enabled them to recruit new people from society's vast pool.30 The singular journey Ed Husain describes can help us better grasp the path of radicalization.

One of the most widely accepted notions related to behavior in networked societies is that word-of-mouth communication plays an important role in shaping people's attitudes and behaviors.31 For example, "Word-of-mouth is the most important source of influence in the purchase of household goods and food products. It was seven times as effective as newspapers and magazines, four times as effective as personal selling, and twice as effective as radio advertising in influencing consumers to switch brands."32 One finds illustrations of this in Ed Husain's journey through radicalism. Husain was mostly influenced by messages that came to him by word of mouth. Although he and other activists would start their own canvassing of new recruits among those with whom they had "stronger ties," we find them quickly approaching anyone and everyone.

People pass on all kinds of information to each other all the time through word of mouth. "But it's only in a rare instance that such exchanges ignite the word-of-mouth epidemic."33 In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell attributes the start of a word-of-mouth epidemic to the "involvement of people with a particular rare set of social gifts."34

Societal Links—Some People Are More Influential

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to investigate how humans are connected. This led to his famous concept that every person on earth is connected to every other person through "six degrees of separation."35 Gladwell explains that Milgram's concept does not mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. Instead, it means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few—people with a gift for bringing the world together.36 Gladwell characterizes these individuals as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

What makes someone a Connector? The first and most obvious criterion is that Connectors know lots of people. They are individuals with a knack for making friends and acquaintances,37 and master what sociologists call the "weak tie," a friendly yet casual social connection. However, Connectors are important for more than simply the number of people they know. They are also important for the kinds of people they know;38 they manage to occupy many different worlds, subcultures, and niches, which is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.39 While Connectors typically establish both stronger and weaker ties, a critical review of Islamists' network topology suggests that weaker ties are more important because these serve as bridges, linking closely-knit network segments, and it is through these weaker ties that the word-of-mouth epidemic spreads.

Just as there are people who connect people via an Islamist ideology, there are also people who could be termed religious information specialists. Gladwell calls these specialists Mavens. What is critical about Mavens is that they are not passive collectors of information but are individuals who, after acquiring particular knowledge, want to tell everyone else about it, too.40 Mavens are more influential than Connectors, due to their ability to make a particular case so emphatically that listeners take their advice. "A Maven is not the kind of person who wants to twist your arm. To be a Maven is to be a teacher."41 Prominent clerics can be termed Mavens. They have the knowledge and the social skills to start a word-of-mouth epidemic, though what really sets them apart is not so much what they know, but their desire to help others, which turns out to be a very effective way to gain others' attention.42 Mavens and Connectors have different personalities and act for different reasons. But they both have the power to spark a word-of-mouth epidemic.43 Mavens are data banks: they provide the message. Connectors are the social glue: they spread it.

A Maven or a Connector, however, is not is a persuader.44 Persuaders are the types Gladwell describes as Salesmen, who have the skills to persuade us when we are otherwise unconvinced about what we are hearing.45 They are able to quickly build trust and rapport among their audience, and thereby exert an enormous amount of influence over others.46 In UK Muslim communities, this category of people does not exist as a separate type. Rather, some of the individuals from the other two groups (Connectors and Mavens) undertake Salesmen-like tasks. Once recruits are indoctrinated, and as they adopt their new role as Islamists, they start canvassing as Salesmen. The radical organization they join trains them in persuasion techniques. Those who do this job efficiently later become Connectors, and some of these end up as Mavens as well.

The "Stickiness" Factor

According to Gladwell, exceptional people who are capable of starting wordof- mouth epidemics can always be found. You just have to identify them. The same is true for stickiness. There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. By carefully structuring and formatting their material to enhance its attractiveness, people who want to spread a message engage in "stickiness engineering." Islamists always try to come up with innovative ways to convey messages. When they cannot tamper with the message itself, they devise new propagation techniques. In Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath identify six different tools that can be used to make a message stickier.47 I will use these to elaborate how Islamists make their message sticky.

The first is simplicity. Developing a succinct message requires stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. Many of Islamists' sticky ideas are actually "generative" metaphors in disguise. Generative metaphors, like proverbs, derive their power from a clever substitution: they replace a complicated idea with something that is easy to understand.48 For example, "Islam is the Solution" and "Allah's Law in Allah's Land" offer the listener tangible, easily processed slogans that can be used for guidance in complex, emotionally fraught situations. Such simple ideas are especially helpful in guiding individual decisions in an environment where people share common beliefs, by offering rules of thumb for expected behavior.

Unexpectedness is the next tool for making a message stick. How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when it takes time to get the ideas across? According to the Heath brothers, the most basic way to grab someone's attention is to break a pattern. Our brain is designed to be keenly aware of changes. The Heaths say that smart designers are well aware of this tendency and make sure that, when products require users to pay attention, something changes.49

It is possible to use surprise—an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and focus—to grab people's attention. But surprise does not last. In order to ensure their idea will endure, Islamists generate interest and curiosity by making use of the Gap theory and arousing their audience's curiosity.

According to the Gap theory, we need to open gaps in people's knowledge before we close them. Islamists believe it is a mistake to give people facts right away. First, they make people realize they lack information by posing a question or puzzle that confronts the listener with a gap in his or her knowledge. 50 In 1994, the Hizb in the UK drew people's attention by suggesting that something momentous was about to happen in the Middle East. They propagated the notion that the Khilafat (Caliphate) would soon be announced in some Arab country. For publicity purposes, they put stickers everywhere stating: "Khilafat—Coming Soon to a Country Near You?" The message attracted a lot of attention, and many people who otherwise would not have taken an interest wanted to know what this was all about.

Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. Concreteness, by contrast, is another technique to make a message stick among a broad audience. Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. If you have to teach an idea to a roomful of people, and you are not certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language to use because it helps you construct building blocks out of people's existing knowledge and perceptions.51

What makes a message "concrete"? Islamists always build their argument around some religious perception or set of fundamental Muslim beliefs. For example:

Allah is our Lord
Mohammad is our Leader
The Qur'an is our Constitution
Jihad is our Way
Martyrdom is our Desire52

If we analyze these messages, we will appreciate that most Muslims cannot object to any of them. Together they cover the entire spectrum of a Muslim's life. They are easy to remember, because they are short and succinct, yet so meaningful that people can spend hours discussing each line.

What is it about concreteness that makes ideas stick? The answer lies in the nature of our memories. There are some terms that resonate with us and are saved in our minds, and any reference to these by others adds strength to those people's arguments. For instance, the words jahilia, Kuffar, Mushriqeen, and Khilafat resonate deeply for most Muslims. Making such references creates a concrete shared "foundation" on which people can come together and collaborate. "Everybody feels comfortable that they are tackling the same challenge."53

Credibility is the fourth tool that increases a message's stickiness. How do we make people believe our ideas? If we are trying to persuade a skeptical audience to "buy" a new message, we are usually fighting an uphill battle against a lifetime's worth of personal experiences and biases. In such situations, we seldom have an external authority who can vouch for our message; most of the time our message has to vouch for itself. It must have "internal credibility." 54 What is unusual about the Islamist case in the UK is that Islamists simply manipulate their message and package it in a wider belief system that people are already familiar with. In other words, Islamists' message has automatic credibility due to its link to the audience's existing beliefs.

Another factor that makes Islamists' message credible is the stature of the messenger. Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen in the Muslim community are people already trusted for their knowledge. Islamists who fill these roles use their networking ability to effect. What is more, the people who preach and invite others to engage in jihad are mostly those who themselves have experienced jihad in Afghanistan, Bosnia, or Iraq, which makes their credibility unimpeachable.

Once they have an audience's attention, how do the Islamists get people to care about their ideas? Sometimes what is hardest about making a message sticky is to find the right emotion to harness. When people think analytically they are less likely to think emotionally.55 Hence, to influence people, we need to demonstrate how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about. "We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities— not only the people they are right now but to the people they would like to be."56 Islamists do all this. Their messages are emotionally charged, intensely associated with things people already care about, and always carry an appeal to identity. For example, one of the leaflets being distributed by Hizbut-Tahrir in January 2009 declared: "Mobilising the troops for battle in response to Gaza slaughter is mandatory on the rulers, else it amounts to treason with Allah, His Prophet, and the Believers!"57

The oldest tool of influence in human history is to tell stories.58 An emotional idea makes people care, and the right story makes people act.59 People do not necessarily want more information. To borrow from Gladwell, people want faith—faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell. Facts do not give birth to faith. Faith needs a story to sustain it—a meaningful story that inspires people to believe in you, and one that renews hope that your ideas indeed offer what you promise.60

Telling a story is a pull strategy.61 When you want to influence someone, trust becomes the connection that serves as a conduit for your message. Other methods of influence—persuasion, bribery, or charismatic appeals—are push strategies. Islamists understand that if their story is good enough, people of their own free will come to the conclusion that they can trust the storytellers and the message they bring.62

The Power of Context

Epidemics are sensitive to conditions, meaning the circumstances of the times and places in which they occur. Context—which can be defined as the whole background to a particular situation, issue, or problem—strongly influences participants. In The Medium is the Massage (sic), Marshall McLuhan writes: "Our environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other."63 Pushing his argument further, McLuhan says that "the environment that man creates becomes his medium for defining his role in it."64

Radicalism as an Epidemic

This idea of radicalization as an epidemic may seem a little strange. We can speculate that Islamists' radicalism has proliferated like a contagion because the environment provides the necessary context, but it is not clear that radicalization follows the same rules that fashions or fads do. Fashion trends involve relatively straightforward and simple things—a product and a message. Islamists' radicalism, on the other hand, is not a single discrete thing, but a phenomenon used to describe an almost impossibly varied and complicated set of behaviors. What is more, radical activists can face serious consequences for their actions, and what activists do often puts them at great personal peril.

It does not seem that the psychological predisposition to break the law would be transmitted casually, from one person to another. Yet, somehow in the UK, this is exactly what has occurred. In the first half of the 1990s, the UK saw the spread of a wave of radicalism that reached its peak at the end of the 1990s and continued into the early 2000s. There were as many religiously inclined people living in the UK at the peak of this radicalism as there had been before, but for some reason a small number of these individuals suddenly dominated the environment.

The incidents that took place between 1990 and 2000 had a huge impact on Muslim society, and were a major factor in helping Islamists to propagate radicalism. The broader context for the British Muslim community's discontent at the time included: hostility toward the Saudis for allowing the U.S. military and other "non-Muslim" forces to be stationed in the Kingdom—an act many considered to be a betrayal of Islam; hostility to the politics of Western governments and specifically the British government on domestic issues; and antagonism toward the British government for its refusal to ban novelist Salman Rushdie's controversial book, The Satanic Verses. Additional sources of tension were Britain's involvement in the first Gulf War, its rejection of military action to aid Bosnian Muslims, and its commitment to the United States' Global War On Terror.

Broken Window Theory

According to social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken and the appearance of anarchy will spread from the building to the street, sending a signal that anything goes.65

This Broken Window theory can help us understand the UK Muslim community's radicalization. When people started displaying an unusual inclination toward religion in the 1990s by setting up exclusive foundations in mosques, canvassing on behalf of extremist positions, and openly espousing radicalism, the British government did nothing. As Ed Husain writes, "Britain offered the Hizb the freedom to express its ideas freely and recruit uninhibitedly. The Hizb was legal in Britain, but illegal in the Arab World."66 As a result, people in particular Muslim communities thought their activism was the right way to publicly express themselves. When this public expression spread from the closed quarters of mosques to the streets without eliciting a response from the authorities, it sent the signal that "anything goes." That signal in turn rendered radicalism as contagious as urban decay, which can start with a broken window and spread through an entire community.

Malcolm Gladwell applies the Broken Window theory to what he terms the power of context. Both are based on the premise that "an epidemic can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment." 67 Both suggest that a radical activist is someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit to Islamist theory (in our context) based on his perception of the world around him. For example, Ed Husain's bias toward religion was grounded in his early home life. He moved along the path of radicalization slowly. Small incidents against Muslims kept reinforcing his belief that the West was in fact at war with Muslims. Consequently, Husain and many like him started idealizing those who had fought in the Afghan jihad. The UK government's silence about jihadis from Britain encouraged the younger generation to follow the jihadis' example. No one foresaw in the mid- and late-'90s that these trends one day would lead to violent radicalism.

Context of Narrative

When we are trying to make an idea, attitude, or product tip from obscurity to popularity, we are trying to change our audience in some small yet critical respect: we are trying to infect them, sweep them up in our epidemic, convert them from hostility to acceptance. That can be done through the influence of special kinds of people, people with extraordinary personal connections, such as Mavens. It can also be done by changing the content of communications, by making a message so memorable that it sticks in people's mind and compels them to action—this explains the importance of the Stickiness Factor. But we also need to remember that small changes in context can be equally important in tipping outbreaks into epidemics. Environmental tipping points are things that we can change.68 We can, for instance, thwart Islamists' organizations and overshadow their message with our own message, and by shifting ground.

Reversing the Tide of Radicalism

As long as Muslims in the UK see other Muslims in different parts of the world being victimized in ways that may resonate with their own feelings of exclusion by the broader British society, they are apt to experience collective dissonance and a cognitive opening. Islamists have proved able to exploit this cognitive opening and push fellow Muslims toward radicalism. In that sense, radicalism itself acts much like an innovation, whose "newness" often amounts to simply seeing the same world (or set of problems) from a new perspective.

Gladwell's concepts, substantiated through anecdotal evidence, provide a workable framework for understanding how the proliferation of radicalism has taken place among UK Muslim communities. By following the simple rules of marketing, a small number of Islamists made their message credible, persuasive, and stickier. Word of mouth and interpersonal connections were critical, as was context and the environment.

For almost a decade, a small percentage of British Muslims has been following the radicalists' path. Today, however, the Islamists' innovation of the 1990s has come full circle, and has reached a point where its adopters have started to become isolated from the mainstream society. The violent ends of this innovation have created a distaste for it among its target audience. A number of British Muslims are now engaged in what Everett Rogers calls a "discontinuance" phenomenon—a decision to reject an innovation after having previously adopted it.

This could be the result of the dissatisfaction that comes about when an innovation is inappropriate for most individuals and does not result in any perceived advantages over other alternatives. This state of dissonance that Muslims in the UK suffer from seems to be due to their frustration with not finding the right means through which to redress their grievances. Here, then is our cognitive opening. Here is a situation that we can potentially rescue by diffusing a new innovation.

Contours of a De-Radicalization Campaign

Two alternatives suggest themselves for helping to counter radicalization among Muslims in the UK. The first is to theologically propagate a softer image of religion—something along the lines of "Islamic Enlightened Moderation." 69 The second is to help strengthen the Muslim community by reinvigorating family values. Both alternatives could be pursued independently or diffused side by side as described in this section.

A Theological Innovation—The Need for an Alternate Community

As we have seen, Islamists have an elaborate system by which they spread their message. The Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen who assist with this are individuals who are not necessarily Islamists themselves, but almost all have a bias toward religion and being religious. They, like any good religious followers, adhere to certain beliefs that would be very difficult to alter.

Here I need to be clear. I am not suggesting that beliefs can never change. Instead, it appears to me that people's religious beliefs evolve through a long natural process; the radicalization of a small segment of society simply hooks onto this. Hence, if we want to bring about some change in religious thinking among the UK's Muslims, this too can only be done over a prolonged period and through inculcation of an altogether different mindset. To accomplish this will require an alternate community to support the proliferation of new theological ideas, and the creation or identification of such an alternate community would present major challenges.

For instance, enlightened moderation is the quality or state of becoming rational or having reasoning power, or being able to think clearly and make decisions based on reason rather than emotions. The concept of enlightened moderation was proposed by the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. His premise is that enlightened moderation should apply to all spheres of life, but most importantly to the practice of Islam. The aim is that a moderate version of Islam should be practiced, as opposed to a fundamentalist version.

Presently, however, there are very few Mavens in the UK who could act as beacons of Islamic enlightened moderation, and even if there were such experts somewhere and we parachuted them into the UK from abroad, imported Mavens would require time to establish themselves. As for Connectors, we are somewhat better off. But still, social networks among UK Muslims are dominated by those willing to promote the Islamist message. It would be futile to try to transmit an opposing theological message through these same Connectors. Lastly, the most vocal and active Salesmen are already committed to the Islamists' message. If they wanted to "sell" moderation, presumably they already would already be doing that. Besides, there is skepticism among Muslims regarding any new interpretation of Islamic teachings; it would be very difficult for the persuaders to introduce new theological reasoning.

Potential Pitfalls

Although poll results indicate that most Muslims in the UK espouse moderate religious views, any new religious interpretation would be looked at as an innovation in the field of theology and could prove counterproductive by appearing to promote fitna or bid'ah (heresy or innovation). Any new interpretation of religious thought, especially one supported by the UK government, cannot be expected to draw much of an audience.

For an idea to spread we need a conducive environment; the Power of Context is important. In an environment where most UK Muslims still feel the West is hostile toward Islam, it would be a mistake to go forward with any plan that counts on a theological innovation—especially one that Islamists can construe as Westerners trying to change Islam. Just as no fashion store should expect to sell great coats with much success in the middle of summer, one must not try to sell a new idea about a theological reinterpretation in the wrong climate. In fact, doing so might give renewed energy and impetus to the Islamists' fading narrative, especially in the absence of a robust alternate community to support or promote the new religious thinking. Hence, to counter radicalization our idea should not be one that the radicals can counter on theological grounds. Instead, it should be one that they cannot theologically dispute at all.

As part of the overall context, it is also important to understand how the British general public would view the promotion of enlightened moderation. Some segments of British society might not be comfortable with or supportive of the idea of sponsoring or spreading religious ideas. Britons might find these threatening. Islam, after all, remains a religion practiced by a thin minority of the population. Lending undue importance to Islam might create problems within British society, which strives to appear ecumenical and multi-cultural. Similarly, giving too much prominence to Islam might not be politically feasible for authorities, since there is already an argument made by many non- Muslims that any concession in terms of religion might embolden Islamists and threaten the security of the UK government and the English people.

In other words, there is reason to believe that this counter-radicalization alternative might not only be hard to implement, but could well backfire. It is likely to be less successful than assisting with the reinvigoration of extended families.

Strengthening the Family

Family values are important to Muslims, especially to those from South Asia and the Middle East. Therefore, the push to strengthen the family as a basic building block of a non-violent community would not be considered incompatible with Muslim traditions. Families normally believe that when parents directly monitor and/or supervise their children's interaction with peers, they facilitate and regulate the development of children's social skills. Parents consciously and subconsciously influence whom their youngsters spent time with in an effort to shape their values and attitudes. Family elders are certainly already apprehensive about the prospects of their children losing their forefathers' traditions. For them, a call to rebuild Muslim society around families would be a welcome step. Also, since they themselves have experience living within tightly bonded families, it would be easy for them to adapt and organize their lives accordingly.

Tellingly, Islamists offer a sort of substitute family; they too use community to control and monitor their activists' activities. As Ed Husain's autobiography and other literature makes clear, the sense of belonging and warmth activists enjoy within their group is stronger than what they feel for their own families. This is primarily because parents are either too busy to spare sufficient time for young people, or parents are considered by their grown-up children to be too traditionalist. When parents are seen to be old-fashioned, they cannot provide the necessary guidance regarding day-to-day problems. Feeling neglected when it came to handling the challenges of adolescence, Ed Husain, for instance, sought guidance from Islamists—and later offered the same to other Muslims.

If the family system were reinvigorated and supported by the mosques, parents could win back control of their children from Islamists. A reinvigorated family system would assist parents to monitor standards of acceptable conduct, maintain limits, and encourage participation in some activities and discourage participation in others. The aim here would be to bring Muslim children back into the fold of their parents' tolerant and non-violent religion.

Reinvigorating and strengthening the extended family system would also provide social warmth. Belonging to an extended family would make children feel secure, not stifled. By encouraging more family-oriented events, the community would ensure that, with lots of cousins, aunts, and uncles nearby, youth never feel alone. In large extended families, everyone would be able to find a trusted confidante to turn to for advice and to share personal concerns. If every member found himself or herself occupying a place of value in a large welcoming family mosaic, much-needed harmony, which most young Muslims now miss, would be available. Also, and just as important, the more warmth and significance families retain, the less the lack of British society's warmth should matter and, as a result, the less alienated Muslim youth should be feeling.

Not only would strengthening this family connectivity reduce Islamists' ability to dominate the British Muslim community, but it would make the family the cocoon in which adaptation to living in the West is best handled—families make traditions together.

A vigorous family-based social life would also provide parents and other family elders an excellent means by which to engage youth and fully exploit familiarity and word-of-mouth persuasion techniques for raising respectful young people. Father, mother, elder brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and multiple sets of grandparents would all be there to provide the necessary support and guidance to the family's adolescents. Indeed, the stretch (or breadth and depth) of extended families would ensure that the influence of adults could remain strong since parents would have other adults to rely on. They would be able to gather strength from numbers, which in turn would enable them to relax their individual vigilance. This should help ease tensions with their children. At the same time, more parental warmth and clearly defined limits would let adolescents know their parents care for and about them.

Non-Muslim Britons have an equal stake in containing this contagion of radicalization among young Muslims. Many Britons consider the decline of family values to be a national problem. One can assume that most Britons would support British government assistance to help revive strong families in Muslim communities. In fact, an argument could be made that the only longterm approach to defusing racism—and even exclusion—would be for Britons to see that Muslim parents want their children to grow up well educated and well-mannered, able to participate comfortably in the broader UK society, while still retaining a proud but non-defiant sense of identity.

Potential Objections

Strengthening the family system might seem to run counter to fully merging Muslims into British society, because their attachment to tradition could exacerbate the sense of exclusion. There is also the chance that, by strengthening traditional family bonds, Muslims in the UK might end up importing foreign influences from South Asia and the Middle East, where the mood is generally anti-Western and the environment is unstable. In Londonistan, Melanie Phillips describes how fears of these kinds of connections inflamed sentiments in the UK.70

For their part, those Muslims who belong to the second and third generations living in the UK might find family bonds too restrictive. The generation gap between these youth and their parents might also hinder any move toward making the family a building block of Muslim society. Most second and third generation Muslim children regard their forefathers' home country traditions as being too orthodox and constraining. Consequently, a call to strengthen family traditions could aggravate the clash of values that already exists between parents and their British-born children. Another problem is that most Muslim families belong to the lower or lower-middle class. In such cases both parents work, often at odd hours. Parents in such families are so preoccupied with trying to make ends meet that it could prove too costly a luxury for them to spare sometime for themselves and family.

Constructing Suitable Narratives

What might help convince people that concentrating on rebuilding family could be a worthwhile investment? To propagate an innovation requires a suitable narrative. The most complex aspect of any de-radicalization campaign is to write or contextualize the narrative to support the innovation. This involves constructing meta-narratives, which act as overarching big themes that set the parameters for "stories" to be told at the individual, local, and community levels.

An example of a meta-narrative for strengthening family would touch on topics like forced marriages, drugs and criminality, employment issues, racism, political representation, faith, freedom, and the notion of home and belonging, all of which are among the problem areas that pop up frequently whenever one discusses the predicament of young British-born Muslims. To overcome these problems Muslims need to not only maintain their distinct identity, but to project themselves as useful members of the broader society. However, in order to ensure that members of the younger generation follow a more progressive path, become better human beings in terms of this world and the world to come, and do not get absorbed or seduced by the wrong kinds of Western values, they must be plugged back into old, neglected traditional family values.

Part of the pitch would be that British Muslims need a system that insulates their children from the wrong influences of society and provides them with the warmth they long for in an environment in which they often feel alienated. Family offers this strength. Just as the strength of a building depends on its foundation—if the foundation is weak the building is going to crumble— likewise, the Muslim community's foundation rests on the family system, a vibrant home life, how parents bring up their children, and how connected parents and children stay throughout their lives. The application of a meta-narrative demands the construction of many small narratives, which is a long-term process. At this point it might not be possible to correctly project how the "reinvigoration of family" innovation might be received. Some major sub-narratives can be identified, however, and these could be emphasized as areas to work on. These might include, for instance, the quality of family support structures; cohesion—the commitment of family members to one another; expressiveness—the degree to which family members act openly and express feelings; conflict mitigation—addressing disparities among and between members of the family; the transmission of ethical standards from parents to children; daughters' close positive relationship with their mothers; other relatives' influence during adolescence; and so on.

Spreading the Idea of Strengthening the Family System

As for the social infrastructure that could be used to propagate the revival of families, one question that looms is: Would we need to identify new "influentials" in the community or are they already present? Thanks to the non-theological character of this innovation—in contrast to enlightened moderation—it would not be necessary to build an alternative community through which to spread the idea. In a system with traditional norms, the opinion leaders who favor old traditions are always present. This increases the probability of finding enough "influentials" who would carry the new "family" message. These persons could effectively spread our message through their social networks.

Mavens are the information specialists who are readily available to assist people with information sharing, and whereas the numbers of qualified people are limited when it comes to religion, those knowledgeable about social themes like "family" should know no such limits. The Mavens we would need can be identified in two different age groups: older people who enjoy respect and credibility for their insight and wisdom, and younger British-born Muslims who are viewed as successful. The message can also be propagated through religious channels since Islam itself places great importance on family values. Other Mavens from many other walks of life could include journalists, social workers, school teachers, or anyone with communications skills.

As people with a special gift for bringing the world together, Connectors are not particular or choosy about information, and enjoy passing on to others anything they find interesting.71 They are people who naturally occupy the hubs in multiple societal networks. In the case of "family" as an innovation, we would not require any separate set of Connectors.

Salesmen's role will be the most critical to this process. Salesmen help reduce uncertainty about an innovation. These individuals must be clear in their own minds about what goals lie behind adoption of the innovation. Unlike Connectors who mostly help with propagating information, Salesmen are practitioners of innovation. Much of their credibility rests in their actions. Thus, to persuade people to adopt family values, Salesmen must show people the practicability and usefulness of adopting this innovation. They must walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Clearly, to transmit ideas to help this innovation take off, or tip, Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen will have to use language that resonates with the experiences of Muslims in the UK. Because the message has to be engineered to appeal to both elders and members of the younger generation simultaneously, Salesmen will have a tough task. Old values will be acceptable to the elders, but to attract the attention of younger people old ideas may require some creative re-tailoring.

Another aspect that deserves consideration when creating stickiness in messages is sustainability. In order to reach a point that the new idea becomes institutionalized, an innovation should be open to modification to fit a wide range of conditions. Therefore, the tone of the message will have to be adjusted as behavior gradually changes. People are usually attracted to an innovation when they feel the need for a new alternative. This means creating awareness among people that it is in their interest to seek a stronger family system, given the dissatisfying environment in which they find themselves.

The psychological scars of racialism and disenfranchisement may take a long time to fade away in the Muslim community. But interestingly, this should help the acceptance of our innovation by providing the proper context. Under threatened and strained conditions, it is going to be easier to propagate counter-radicalization messages by stressing the need to pull together and look within, which is what a return to family offers. Nevertheless, overnight changes should not be expected. Ideally, family control over younger generations can, in the short term, slow down the process of radicalization. By reshaping the environment in this way, the plan would be to continue to steer Muslim society away from the Islamists' path.


Perhaps there is something beyond family that would draw its strength from ideas that are non-theological in character, yet could undercut Islamists' activism. But I cannot think of what that might be. On the one hand, the family environment significantly determines children's social development. On the other hand, we live during a period of time when events in the wider world are bound to continue to provoke a sense of moral outrage at apparent injustices against Muslims, and when there is unprecedented media influence on adolescent identity. Accepting these two givens, the significance of family as an indirect tool for reversing the process of radicalization among Muslim diasporas in the UK seems unmatched.

Certainly, the terrorist threat to the UK is not new; between 1969 and 1998 over 3,500 people died in the UK alone as a result of Irish-related terrorism. 72 Recent Islamist terrorism, however, is quite different. It is linked throughout the Muslim world. At the same time, there is a domestic and homegrown aspect to this terrorism as well.

In 2009, the UK government revised and issued a detailed counterterrorism strategy called "CONTEST," organized around four themes: pursue, prevent, protect, and prepare. My approach is fundamentally different. Instead of preventing terrorism from happening, I have proposed reversing the radicalization process itself.

What Islamists have achieved is an innovation. That is why the best course of action for de-radicalizing British Muslims is to go well beyond using prevention strategies; these are important, but far from sufficient. To trigger de-radicalization, we must encourage Muslims to seek a better alternative. Any effort to counter-innovate via religious thought, however, is likely to seen as abid'ah and will fail. Rather than contesting the Islamists on theological grounds, it makes more sense to reinvigorate "family" as a counter-radicalization tool. By pursuing this strategy, the UK government would avoid direct confrontation with Islamists on religious grounds. At the same time, it would be introducing a small change (a nudge, basically) that no theologian could argue against. In one package, making something of extended families could mitigate social strains, hamper Islamists' mobilization mechanisms, and trump their methods of message propagation techniques based on both familiarity and word-ofmouth persuasion. In other words, reinvigorating family would steal the stickiest of Islamists' methods right out from under them and might even help strengthen the idea that family values are critical overall to a healthier British society.

About the Author(s): LTC Rehan Mushtaq is a Pakistan Army officer currently studying in the National Security and War curriculum at the National Defense University, Islamabad.


1. Petter Nesser, "How Does Radicalization Occur in Europe?" Presentation given at the 2nd Inter-Agency Radicalization Conference, hosted by U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C., 10 July 2006.

2. Quintan Wiktorowicz, "Joining the Cause: Al-Muhajiroun and Radical Islam," n.d. :

3. Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 13.

4. Ibid.

5. Sageman lists three levels of analysis: the micro-level, which focuses on terrorists; the macro-level, which focuses on the environment; and the middle-range analysis, which bridges the gap between micro and macro approaches and examines how terrorists act on the ground. Sageman, 13–23.

6. Some experts believe that the UK's Muslim population may be as high as 2 million, if undocumented asylum-seekers or illegal immigrants are added to the government's official figures. Paul Gallis et al., "Muslims in Europe: Integration Politics in Selected Countries," Congressional Research Service Report, Order Code RL 33166, 18 November 2005, Committee Print, 10.

7. Ibid.

8. Interview with Mr. Umair Qureshi, Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK, 4 January 2009.

9. Interview with Imam Abdul Qayyum, Imam of East London Mosque, London, 6 January 2009.

10. Interview with Mr. Samad Nevasandu, an Iraqi asylum seeker, London, 6 January 2009.

11. James Wither, "A Work in Progress—The UK's Campaign against Radicalization," occasional paper prepared by George C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies, Germany, September 2006, 9.

12. M. Y. Alam, Made in Bradford (London: Route Publishers, 2006), 16.

13. "Islamophobia" was first identified in 1997 by Runnymede Trust's report. The report noted that hostility and hatred towards British Muslims was becoming more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous. Ziauddin Sardar, Balti Britain: A Journey through the British Asian Experience (London: Granta UK, 2008), 337.

14. Interview with Mr. Rizwan Ali, a Pakistani British national, London, 5 January 2009.

15. Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising, 89.

16. Ibid., 90.

17. Mathew Taylor, "BNP Accused of Exploiting Cartoons Row with Muslim Leaflet," The Guardian, 5 October 2006:

18. A report published by the Open Society Institute's EU Monitoring and Advocacy Program found that Muslims in Britain (who represent 3 percent of the population) are the most disadvantaged faith group. They are three time more likely to be unemployed than Christians, have the lowest employment rate of any group (38 percent) and the highest level of economic inactivity (52 percent). They tend to live in the most disadvantaged wards, and their employment tends to be in low-paid manual and self-employed sectors. Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in London have the highest proportion of children in workless households (30–40 percent). See Brendan O' Duffy, "Radical Atmosphere: Explaining Jihadist Radicalization in the UK, "Political Science & Politics, 2008: 40.

19. Alam, Made in Bradford, 20.

20. Ibid., 18.

21. Ziauddin Sardar, Balti Britain, 288.

22. Alam, Made in Bradford, 1.

23. O'Duffy, "Radical Atmosphere."

24. Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising, 89.

25. Ibid., 1.

26. Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 18.

27. Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising, 5.

28. John Lofland and Rodney Stark, "Becoming a World Server: A Theory of Conversion to Deviant Perspective, "American Sociological Review," December 1965, 868.

29. Ed Husain, The Islamist (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 23.

30. Ibid., 113.

31. Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising, 89.

32. Yan Jin, "Comparative Study: Does the Word-of-mouth Communications and Opinion Leadership Model Fit Epinions on the Internet?" University of Missouri, Columbia, 6:

33. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000), 33.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid., 35.

36. Ibid., 37, 38.

37. Ibid., 41.

38. Ibid., 46.

39. Ibid., 49.

40. Ibid., 62.

41. Ibid., 69.

42. Ibid., 63.

43. Ibid., 69.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid., 70.

46. Ibid., 86.

47. Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (New York: Random House, 2007), 61.

48. Husain, The Islamist, 61.

49. Ibid., 65.

50. Ibid., 85.

51. Heath and Heath, Made to Stick.

52. Husain, The Islamist, 52.

53. Heath and Heath, Made to Stick, 123.

54. Ibid., 137.

55. Ibid., 167.

56. Ibid., 203.

57. Hizb ut-Tahrir: The Liberation Party–Britain: http://www.hizb.

58. Annette Simons, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Arts of Storytelling (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 2006), xix.

59. Heath and Heath, Made to Stick, 206.

60. Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 3.

61. Simons, The Story Factor, 3.

62. Ibid., 5.

63. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage (New York: Random House, 1969), 24.

64. Ibid., 157.

65. Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 141.

66. Husain, The Islamist, 87.

67. Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 146.

68. Kevin Brooks, "The Context Quintet: Narrative Elements Applied to Context Awareness," Motorola Human Interface Labs, Cambridge, Mass., 2003, 167: edu/~brooks/storybiz/Brooks-context_quintet.pdf

69. Pervez Musharraf, "A Plea for Enlightened Moderation," Washington Post, 1 June 2004, A-23: http://www.washingtonpost. com/wp-dyn/articles/A5081-2004May31.html

70. Melanie Phillips, Londonistan (London: Encounter Books, 2006), 1–18.

71. Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 38.

72. Office of the Prime Minister and Secretary of State, "Pursue Prevent Protect Prepare: The UK's Strategy for Countering Terrorism," HM Government, London, March 2009, 23:

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