Sofia Mahmood: No '˜one size fits all' for violent extremists

FROM the entrance hall of the Manchester Arena to London Bridge and the streets of Finsbury Park, the UK has seen its fair share of horrific terror attacks in the past year.

A young girl leaves a message on the first anniversary of the London Bridge terror attack.
A young girl leaves a message on the first anniversary of the London Bridge terror attack.

Radicalisation is a complex process, but that hasn’t stopped people – from psychiatrists to politicians – putting across their own theories of why certain individuals are driven to commit such heinous crimes,

Today I work with people at risk of or affected by extremism. I’ve found that stereotyping is all too common, and extremely dangerous. For example, some have recently argued that we should look at the gender of violent extremists more closely, pointing to the “fact” that a significant proportion are young men. Such theories are interesting, but fail to tell the whole story.

The truth is that there is no “one size fits all” as Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, launches a new counter-extremism strategy.

At Empowering Minds, we deliver free workshops, mentoring and training to the public, to help deal with the root causes of radicalisation and extremism. The people we work with have different fears, different desires and different backgrounds. However, one thing is true. Whatever their gender, their age, or their religion, they can still be vulnerable to extremist messages.

That’s the problem with placing such a big emphasis on gender. Like our race or religion, it’s only part of who we are. In this case, it’s socially ingrained within us. It informs how we are raised and who we become: from the new-born’s pink or blue balloons to who gets down on one knee.

As a practitioner, I believe there’s almost always a range of factors underpinning violent extremism. Terrorist ideology is a constant factor, but others vary and feed on one other. Pretending there can be only one, whether that’s gender or something else, is a dangerous red herring, and actually undermines the work being done to combat radicalisation.

What I think it comes down to is what someone thinks of themselves and their lives. It’s important that people feel like what they do and what happens around them matters. Isolation, lack of prospects, political marginalisation and other issues are never justifications for extremism, but they do begin to explain how radicalisation works and why some people can be at risk. After all, extremists often seek out those who are most vulnerable.

People want to feel like they belong and have a purpose: in the house, at school, in their community. It’s when they don’t that they become alienated and can be vulnerable to people who want to take advantage, like gangs, groomers or extremists. Again, it’s not a justification for their choices and actions, but it’s a way of better understanding the process in order to deal with the issue.

Ultimately, we all have a part to play in helping them. It’s about making people feel, and be, part of society. As parents, siblings, friends and members of a community, we have a duty to protect 
the people closest to us. It can be as simple as supporting someone who’s feeling low, or encouraging friends to make the most of opportunities around them. It might seem too straightforward, but small acts of kindness, support and understanding make communities resilient.

Stigmatising some sections of society or casting stereotypes isn’t going to help us end violent extremism. It’s as unhelpful as assuming that all white individuals are going to join the far right, or all Muslims support Daesh and al-Qaida. This sort of stereotyping doesn’t help people come together to tackle terrorism.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it takes a whole village to raise a child. As we lead the next generation, it’s essential that we address the real causes, choices and vulnerabilities behind radicalisation. That’s how communities can beat terrorism. Having these difficult conversations with vulnerable men and women might feel uncomfortable, but it’s a crucial part of how we keep our communities united.

Sofia Mahmood is the founder and director of Yorkshire-based Empowering Minds, an organisation specialising in counter-extremism, community engagement, combatting child sexual exploitation, and more.