David Kenning: Speech to University of Utrecht: April 2016

This speech was given at the Great Hall in the university of Utrecht to help launch the Dare to be Grey campaign - an initiative from the students of Utrecht to combat polarisation and radicalisation.

                                                12 April 2016, Utrecht                              

Let me begin by apologizing for speaking in English. I could try it in Dutch but we would here a long time…

I am honoured to be invited. I’m originally from Belfast where I grew up with community-based terrorism in a radicalised society where violence, divided and polarized and destroyed the way we wanted to live our lives. I was educated as a philosopher specialising in my post-graduate research on the great Dutch thinker Benedict Spinoza. Key aspects of my approach also owe much to my training in psychoanalytic thinking. 

I’m notan academic or researcher. I am a practitioner in a field for which no formal qualifications are possible and my views reflect the steep learning curve gained from first-hand experience of running terrorist anti-recruitment campaigns in war zones, across the Middle East and North Africa and in countering recruitment in Europe. I have been doing this for fourteen years. For obvious reasons, we do not – indeed, we cannot -- publish our methods, insights or successes – and there is no ready handbook for how to do this.

In countering radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism there is only one strategic question: What’s the best – most effective - way to stop it – without damaging ourselves?  It seems an obvious question, but the answer is anything but obvious – and that’s the problem. The way we approach this question depends not only on what we see, but on howwe think. Within this there are 3 further questions we need to ask: 

1.        What are the psycho-social mechanismsof radicalisation and radical movement formation? (note, I did not say causes)

2.        Once we understand the mechanisms, what kind of interventions will enable us to jam or disrupt the process?

3.        What’s the best way to reach his mind when we don’t know who he is or where they are?

And all of this must be performed within the overarching principle – Do No Harm. And by harm, I mean, harm to our own cause – not theirs. We need to ensure that, in the course of preventing terrorism that we do not, through out own efforts, do the work of the terrorists for them.

But first, a little bit of escapism.

It’s July 1540 and it’s a lovely summer’s day in Poland…. You’ve nothing to do but lie on your back in the long grass and look up at the sky. During the course of the day you observe the sun crossing the sky from east to west. As the sun sets, you head off to the local tavern to meet a friend and tell him that you’ve passed the day just watching the sun going around the earth. 

Your friend is an enthusiastic mathematician and star-gazer and says:  “I too was looking at the sky - but I saw the Earth spinning around the sun.”

You burst out laughing, “Be serious. I sawit cross the sky – with my own eyes. You can even time its progress with a sun-dial.”

He says, “I know how it looks, but I have a theory that explains why that’snot happening at all,” and he starts drawing some diagrams and writing equations.

You look at them. “Does this mean my eyes are deceiving me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. It’s about how to interpretand explainwhat you see – what’s really happening - and it’s not always obvious.”

You say, “But everybodyjust knowsthe sun goes around the Earth. It’s common sense.”

“That doesn't make it true. Just 50 years ago everyone believed the Earth was flat.”

And as you take another long sip of beer you mutter to yourself - “Ridiculous. Next, they’ll be telling us space-time is a continuum.”

Yes. Your friend was the great Nicolaus Copernicus. My first pointis that the deception of the senses – and common sense -- is so strong that for thousands of years it never even occurredto people to ask, what would it look like if the earth went around the sun? These two accounts – the heliocentric and the geocentric – appear identical, but what is actually happening couldn't be more different. To summarise: One account is accurate (but not obvious) and the evidence for the other looks overwhelming, but is false.

The second pointI want to make is slightlydifferent. It doesn't really matter what we believe, in life, if that belief doesn’t create any practical consequences for us. However, understanding the underlying reality – as opposed to the appearances - becomes criticallyimportant when we need to influence an outcome. 

“Science of jihad”

The science of violent jihadism is still in its infancy, but it can never become rigorous. The process is too complex – there are just too many hidden variables. Actual Islamic terrorists are rare, often remaining hidden, until they become active and do not make good subjects for controlled laboratory experiments. Parents, teachers and others often express surprise at their sudden radicalisation and, so far, statistical correlations have proved practically meaningless – although that may be changing.

Suicide bombing – martyrdom - is particularly difficult to understand since the prime source of evidence is destroyed with the act. We know we’re dealing with extreme (invariably adolescent) and hysterical states of mind that are intensely subjective and that behavioural science can't come close to explaining what’s reallygoing on inside their heads. We have no choice but to apply good theory and see if, over time, the theory is supported by a slowly mounting body of evidence. We must be willing to challenge our own implicit assumptions about the process.  We must be willing to think that the earth might orbit the sun.

Outline of where we are

Up to now the trajectory of radicalisation has been – more or less – the story of individuals. Global jihad has only a very recent history and there is no cultural or historical narrative to drive it - as there is for, say, IRA or ETA terrorism in Europe. But if rampant Islamophobia were to go mainstream – as it could threaten to do – and Muslim communities became defensive, ghettoized or victimized, the outcome may be very different. If we get this wrong, the very thing that we fear – a conflict between the West and the Islamic world – may be the product of ouractions as much as that of the terrorists we seek to defeat.

Al Qaeda was a martyrdom machine fixated on spectacular destruction. That was its brand appeal to recruits and it recruited psychological losers – people who preferred a notorious death to living out life. IS has recruited 40 times that number in Europe alone through a brand that appeals to victimsrather than losers. Every victim wants a second chance and the Caliphate offered a new life, new name, new bride, new brothers, new everything. The problem for IS - and us - is that the appeal of the Caliphate is fading fast. They made the mistake of trying to turn a fantasy into reality. It never works. Once the second – new - life narrative begins to fail, victims can once again become losers and losers are more inclined to martyrdom. And I think this is what we’re seeing. 

So, I want to lay out some axioms, and suggest how your effort – Dare to Be Grey – is exemplary new thinking. 

Basic axioms of new thinking

Thefirstaxiom that defies common sense, is that we are not in an ideological struggle with radical Islam. We are in a psychological war around states of mind that is being played out in the media. So far they are damaging us more than we are damaging them. Our western democracies are under pressure from FEAR - fears around security, rising Islamophobia and xenophobia in ways that would have been unthinkable 14 years ago. Dressing it as an ideological struggle is causing us to lose our way. Radical Islam isn’t the cause, it’s the excuse;When we focus on the so-called religious content, we take our attention away from the real processes that we must understand. We end up defining the conflict in terms that make recruiting easier since it makes participation in the conflict more meaningful. And meaning is what they’re looking for….

Second axiom – brand not ideology

The second axiom is that it’s not the ideology that is the effective agencyof radicalisation. Of course, just as the sun appears to move across the sky, it looks and soundsas if radical Islamic ideologyisthe big problem. They shout about it, make constant Islamic references and quote parts of the Koran as the justification for killing innocents. 

But it’s the brandas a kind of fashionable, cool, icon that they’re after and rather than being blind-sided by the content of the ideology, we need to focus more on what the IS and al Qaedabrandsmean, inspire and licence – and how, like most brands, they offer meaning to the consumer and empower their self-esteem. We need to think of the ideology not as the essential radicalising factor but as a false passport – a kind of psychological key – gripped purely for convenience at the end of a process that enables them to enter and inhabit the notorious brand. Incidentally, al Qaeda lost control of its brand – ISIS is much more media-savvy and will not make that mistake.

A difficult issue is the way Western policy-makers and CT people keep focusing campaigns on discrediting the radical Islamic ideology. This is both naïve and optimistic - it’s been tried now for 14 years and just doesn't work. The substantive content of the ideology qua theology is simply not inspiring – it’s boring. It’s an old man’s credo. And arguments about the real meaning of Islam have the unintended consequences of raising societal levels of Islamophobia by Islamizing a process that is muchmore complex than mere religiosity – and doesn’t explain the 30+ percent converts who sign up. It also keeps the argument going without resolving anything. Instead of undercutting recruiting,it pumps value into the brand.

The third axiom – reason for personal beliefs

Personal beliefs are held because they fulfil a function in our lives. And people who hold extremebeliefs invariably do so for psychological reasons – they grip ideas and form attachments for their symbolic significanceand subjective meanings. In other words, they don't actuallybelieve them so much as need them. Of course they will defend them vigorously when attacked – but more often than not it’s because they have become entangled with their personal psychopathology. Extremists are extremists because they need to believe extremely, not because of what they chose to believe.

Again this is not important, until we want to make an effective intervention and realise that it makes arguing against them pointless. I have likened this to trying to change a Feyenoord supporter into an Ajax supporter through argument. It’s not going to happen. This is not a rational world and more than one brilliant philosopher has stated that “Reason is the slave of the passions”. Everyfanatic is hiding a secret doubt and some kind of inner drama around denial and self-deception is often being played out. 

The fourth axiom – gripping and gripped

The fourth basic axiom that governs the mechanism of radicalisation represents a kind of Copernican moment. Despite appearances, despite the way the ideology appears and is talked about as a powerful infectious disease that takes over and infects minds, it’s always people who grip ideologies – not ideologies that grip people.All ideas, all beliefs, require a specific mind-set to act as their host. If the mind is not ready, not prepared, not open, to host an idea, the idea will not, cannot, stick. This is another reason why it is a waste of time to argue with it.

In turn -ideologies allow people to “grip” each other - to find a community of comrades, and of meaning – where before they most often had none.  The misfits, the marginalized, those feeling distant from society, can acquire both meaning and community within the extremist experience – hence the increasing conversion of criminals into extremists.  

Fifth axiom

The fifth axiom is, that the ideology as a force for violence is weak. 99 % of the world’s 1,7 billion Muslims are immune to it since, like most of the rest of the world, they can’t grip it. Since al-Baghadi announced the Worldwide Caliphate in 2014 and called on the ummato join it, it has attracted around 20,000 outsiders from around the world – most from the Middle East – which amounts to less than one thousandth of one percent of adult Muslims. Even when we throw in The Taliban, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, as Nusra, Al Shaba and others, it’s still less than one percent. It may be dangerous, but it’s not a winning idea. And we should remember that much of this Islamized violence is actually being used cynically in political power struggles.

Sixth axiom

The sixth key fact is that 90% of jihadists today are under 24 or 25 years of age – and that the average age is falling. Fareed Zakaria writing in the Washington Post a few weeks ago said: “The average age of a European jihadi from 2001 to 2009 was 27.7. Today, it is close to 20. A decade ago, it took years of religious indoctrination to turn people into jihadis. Today, the decision to join the Islamic State is usually sudden and impulsive.”This is critically important. If the ideology was the key radicalising agent, it would operate equally across the demographic-age spectrum. It doesn’t. It ends up sticking mainly to adolescents. 

The Adolescent Mindset

There’s no way of avoiding the factthat – whatever else we’re also dealing with -we are dealing primarily with the adolescent mindset. This is one area where the statistics can be measured accurately. I say this because understanding this fact represents, Ithink, the most effective place to make useful interventions. There are two or three particular characteristics I want to mention quickly in this regard. 

The first thing is that psychological experiments in control situations haveshown conclusively that the adolescent brain (whose physical and mental characteristics can endure until well into the late twenties) has difficulty in seeing things from the other’s point of view. They can be particular susceptible to the appeal of black and white fundamentalist simplicities. This marks a key target audience for the Dare to be Greycampaign

More obviously, accidental deaths, murders, and binge-drinking spike during these years. It’s the time of life when psychosis, eating disorders, and addictions are most likely to take hold. Surveys show that everyday unhappiness also reaches its peak in late adolescence. Adolescents’ – particularly adolescent males - judgment can be overwhelmed by the urge for new experiences, thrill-seeking, and sexual and aggressive impulses. They sometimes seem driven to seek experiences that produce strong feelings and sensations. Resisting social pressure is also more difficult. Much of their troubling behavior, from gang violence to reckless driving and drinking, occurs in groups and because of group pressure. 

But these are behavioural characteristics that can and do apply to adolescents everywhere and don't lead to violent extremism. What makes a jihadist different? Well, I think the answer, increasingly, lies in the interaction between his deep psychology and larger social conditions and particular interpretive narratives. For example, recurring issues we come across are unresolved identity issues, chronic family issues, feelings of resentment at social discrimination or exclusion, a sense of victim-hood, issues around authority and unresolved inner conflicts. Often there is a violent, absent or obscene father. 

This also describes a lot of unfortunate young men who do not become terrorists. But some may find a solution in radical, fundamentalist, escapism when the “strong story” is out there. The story, the sense of grand drama, of meaning in conflict, of struggle that it meaningful existentially, historically, and given a global stage – provides deep answers to deep needs. As it did for Achilles more than 3000 years ago – and this is what the French sociologist Olivier Roy means when he says that we are not witnessing the radicalization of Islam so much as the Islamization of radicals. ISIS is instrumentalising their condition and they are turn are instrumentalising the ISIS brand for their own purposes. It is this bind that we need to break.

There are variations in this process.  It isn’t a single recipe.  And particularly once a story gets established, others are attracted for a variety of reasons.  The critical role of adolescent mindsets as a dominant process in violent extremism doesn’t mean that other individuals don’t come to violence by other psycho-social means. Once groups and a cause are formed, the rhetoric can penetrate through to marginal schizophrenics, sociopaths can see it as a career opportunity. These people are more likely to be “lost dogs” than lone wolves.

Dare to be Grey

Everything I’ve said tonight is really by way of paying tribute to the wonderful students of Utrecht University and placing their Dare to be Greycampaign in context. I had the privilege of meeting them – intelligent, curious and enthusiastic - with their dedicated and brilliant professor - Jacco Pekelder -- in Amsterdam a few months ago. I can’t believe they really listened to me!The campaign approach they have developed is all their own and, in my opinion, exactly right. There are a number of reasons I say this.

Do No harm

The first reason is that it passes the most important primary condition of all – it can do no harm to our position. No matter what happens, it can only do good. This may sound quite negative, but it couldn't be more important. In my opinion, most efforts in this sphere -over more than a decade -have made things worse. The brand speaks equally to the collective and the individual – and that couldn't be better.

 Importance of social cohesion

The second is that social cohesion – holding and growing the centre of our societies – has become a real security concern. The centre is under pressure everywhere to radicalise and adopt lazy, angry, populist thinking. Populist thinking, just like radical Islam, is not intellectually challenging – selling simple “thoughts” - and finds it easy to divide the world into black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. The process – like the strategy of IS – is to divide, polarize and radicalise our societies. What was seen as a position of marginalised and wasted protest vote 5 years ago is now emerging as a genuine political alternative. Just look at the mess in America. If we can encourage “the grey” of social compromise and tolerance, of nuanced and considered thoughts, we may just stand a chance of holding and growing the centre. And, if it can work anywhere, it can work here in The Netherlands.

Target is right – the subjective state of mind

Thirdly, it focuses the message exactly where it needs to be - on the individual’s subjective state of mind – and asks him or her to take personal responsibility. It is a kind of anti-victim message. In any event we can't continue with the failed strategy of attacking billions of pieces of ideology with counterfactuals and accusations of inaccuracy – and the vast majority of thinking individuals know this. On an individual level, Dare to be Grey weakens the potential to grip the radical Islamic ideology, cleverly, without mentioning it and therefore without publicising and validating it as something we oppose. The Islamic state strategy explicitly states that it is targeting young individuals in an attempt to change the grey of Live and let live into the uncompromising black and white of fundamentalist self-righteousness. 

And of course, it applies equally to Islamic and far-right extremists. 

Fourthly. Bydaringus, it makes developing a more compromising mind-set - an act of courage – which, today, it is. This is psychologically very clever. And of course this is its brand message. The challenge will be – in the coming years – to energize and refresh the desire to remain in the centre. Daring attracts, focuses energy usefully and provides meaning to our key target audience.

Which leads me to the fifth point – the “Dare to be Grey” brand has the core values of tolerance and personal responsibility, but it also has tremendous scope for growth and development built into it. Brands only succeed if they have the potential for emotional depth and growth. As a former so-called branding expert, I can assure you that professional agencies struggle to find brand concepts that are so elegant and economic in their message and have so much potential for refreshing and reinventing their appeal.

Finally, it addresses the single most oppressive characteristic of the Adolescent Mindset - the inability to resolve issues relating to inner conflict. “Dare to be grey”asks them, helps give them the courage, to keep going with unresolved issues. And speaking as a former adolescent – who still has his moments – this can require a certain heroic effort. Essentially it reminds us of the human condition – a condition where, often painfully, we can ask more questions than we can ever answer of ourselves. Grey is doubt is human.

The alternative, the black and white judgments and the false, brittle, certainties of fundamentalism, takes us on the path to extremism. It was the Irish poet WB Yeats who said of his own people: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We need to give the best some passionate intensity. 

Grey is where the difficult truths and half-truths of the human condition lie – the truths of the arts, of human relationships and the meanings we find in life itself. And it’s where our love for life must feel comfortable if we are to get to the end of it without perpetuating conflict.

Thank you.