How a government makes sense of violence directed against it usually tells us at least as much about the nature of that government as it does about the nature of its violent opponents.
In 1976, West German security officials secretly removed the brain of left-wing radical Ulrike Meinhof after she was found hanged in her prison cell. They hoped neuropathologists might discover why she gave up her successful career as a journalist to co-found the Red Army Faction, a far-left armed group.
To the government, it seemed more natural to locate the source of her violence in brain deformities than in the political conflicts of post-war Germany.
Likewise today, in the “war on terror”, the stories governments tell themselves about the forms of violence they confront are rooted more in fantasy and prejudice than in fact.
A recently republished policy document compiled by the United States Air Force Research Laboratory is a case in point. The document, entitled Countering Violent Extremism: Scientific Methods & Strategies, is intended to help the White House develop programmes to engage Muslims communities within the United States. Yet the analysis it contains ranges from the superficial to the dangerous.
One chapter in particular has attracted attention for its theory of what causes radicalisation. It claims that headscarves worn by Muslim women are a form of “passive terrorism” and that terrorism is driven by “sexual deprivation”.
Of course, no data is provided to support the claim that “increasing numbers of women begin[ning] to wear the hijab” is typically associated with the proliferation of what the document calls “violent Islam”.
The report merely offers a citation to the scholarship of Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, whose writing actually makes the exact opposite argument: that the meanings of veiling vary widely and cannot be seen as an indicator of support for terrorism. To claim that hijab-wearers are “passive terrorists” is to demonise millions of women in the most prejudiced way.
Likewise, the theory that terrorism is caused by sexual deprivation is a long-standing prejudice. It is in fact an updated version of the false claim, often made in the early Cold War, that communism spreads by attracting sexually frustrated loners.
Bizarrely, to support this argument on the causes of terrorism, the United States Air Force document cites the Journal of Psychiatric Orgone Therapy, an online publication without academic credentials dedicated to promoting the views of Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.
Reich thought uninhibited orgasms could cure cancer and schizophrenia. Perhaps, to cure them of their extremist ideology, the US government is now planning to place would-be terrorists in the “orgasm machines” that Reich designed.
The United States Air Force document is not an isolated example of misguided analysis. Over the past 10 years, a mini-industry has emerged in the US to churn out bogus radicalisation theories. Their quality varies, from the ridiculous to the partial.
National security think tanks, academic departments funded by the Department of Homeland Security, and US government intelligence agencies have all received millions of dollars to produce models of the process by which someone is radicalised into terrorism.
As the more objective scholars in the field have started to point out, such radicalisation theories make a number of flawed assumptions. First, they assume a deep difference between “Islamic” and other forms of political violence, such as far-right extremism. Muslim violence is then analysed separately and its scale inflated.
Since September 11, more people have been killed in the United States by far-right extremists than by Muslims but the latter receive almost all of the attention from security officials and the news media.
Second, radicalisation theories tend to assume some form of Islamic religious ideology is the key factor in turning someone into a terrorist. This assumption is what leads expressions of Islamic religious ideology, such as wearing a hijab, to be wrongly seen as warning signs of a terrorism problem.
Empirical evidence does not support the claim that religious ideology causes terrorism. The European ISIL volunteers who arrive in Syria with copies of Islam for Dummies are not motivated by Islamic ideology. Nor was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged leader of the November 2015 Paris attacks, who was reported to have drunk whisky and smoked cannabis.
Yet radicalisation theories that focus on religious ideology have been officially accepted. In New York, for example, the Police Department’s radicalisation model supported a mass surveillance programme in which the city’s Muslim population was systematically monitored – in mosques, cafes, community organisations, bookshops and places of work.
The police did not just look for terrorist plots. Rather, their flawed radicalisation models told them to look out for young men who had started to wear “traditional Islamic clothing”, grow a beard, or become involved in “social activism and community issues”. All of these were, apparently, indicators of radicalisation. So, too, was giving up cigarettes, according to the New York Police Department. To avoid being suspected of radicalisation, Muslim New Yorkers would apparently do well to keep smoking.
If there is no evidence for such radicalisation theories, then to what do they owe their influence? Part of the answer is that radicalisation theories are useful to governments because they provide a rationale for wide-ranging surveillance.
For law enforcement agencies, it is easier to look for religious ideologues than it is to look for those secretly plotting an attack.
But, more fundamentally, radicalisation theories are attractive because they give the US policy elite a simple story it can tell itself about the causes of terrorism. In this story, terrorism is straightforwardly blamed on Islamic ideology. There is no need then to acknowledge the more complex causes of violence that implicate the history of US foreign policy in the Middle East, South Asia, and North and East Africa.
The claims that the hijab represents “passive terrorism” and that terrorists are motivated by sexual frustration are not just ignorant or stupid. They reflect an ignorance and stupidity that has been cultivated by a US elite in denial about the destructiveness of its own policies.
This elite likes to think its violence is rational and reactive, whereas its enemies’ violence is fanatical and aggressive. But the US also bombs journalists, children and hospitals. It too has radicalised, as it has become more willing to use violence in a wider range of contexts – from torture to drone strikes to proxy wars.
A US elite that did a better job of understanding its own capacity for extremist violence would not need bizarre theories to explain the violence of its enemies.
Arun Kundnani is the author of The Muslims are Coming! He teaches at New York University