Over at Political Violence at a Glance, Michael Kenney has a post on the idea of “conveyer belt[s] to terrorism.” Kenney is discussing the hardline British group Al-Muhajiroun, whose leader Anjem Choudary is scheduled for release from prison, but Kenney’s observations apply more widely. Here is an excerpt from his post:
The conveyor belt [thesis] suggests that most people who participate in al-Muhajiroun will escalate to political violence, but this is not the case. In my forthcoming book, The Islamic State in Britain, I show that many people who are exposed to al-Muhajiroun’s message do not join, and most people who join do not escalate to violence. Participation in this controversial network, which specializes in high-risk activism, is neither necessary nor sufficient for mobilization to violence.
If what Kenney says goes for a hardline movement such as al-Muhajiroun, then it is even truer of wider trends and movements, particularly the Salafi current as a whole and the global missionary movement Jama’at al-Tabligh. In the Sahel, in West Africa, and around the world, these tendencies are often accused of incubating or even causing the rise of groups such as Ansar al-Din (now part of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or JNIM) and Boko Haram. It is undeniable that the founders of these violent groups had direct connections to wider movements – JNIM’s top leader Iyad ag Ghali was deeply involved with Tabligh during the 1990s and early 2000s, and Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was connected to the wider Salafi movement and the Izala organization in northern Nigeria during the same period. But it does not follow that involvement with Salafism or with Tabligh is inherently radicalizing or inherently conducive to violence, as one often hears. Jacob Olidort has put it best (p. 4, footnote 1): “While percentages are hard to measure, if most Salafists globally were involved in forming political parties or in direct violent activity, the world would look very different.” The growing scholarly literature on both Salafism and Tabligh, including in West Africa (for example, Marloes Janson’s book on Tabligh in Gambia), does not give the impression of increasing propensity to violence so much as it gives the impression of deep changes in conceptions of piety.
Not everyone agrees with Kenney about al-Muhijaroun, of course:
But we would do well to recall Kenney’s phrasing: “neither necessary nor sufficient.” The argument is not that a group can’t function as a gateway, the argument is rather that we need a multi-factor analysis to determine what makes someone willing to commit violence. I have no stake in the specific debate about al-Muhajiroun, but I do have a stake in the wider debate about “conveyer belts.” If certain ideological perspectives and affiliations are seen as the sole factor in predisposing someone to commit violence, then a great deal of other data can get screened out, and we risk demonizing large numbers of people – and, in the worst case, pushing people into violence who might not otherwise have leaned that way.