Tolerance, not terror: Preventing radicalisation (Part 1)

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
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Drawing on research evidence, there are clear roles for schools in pulling young people back from the risk of radicalisation. Karen Sullivan explains in the first of a three-part series

The multiple “causes” obviously make it difficult to pinpoint both those at risk of radicalisation and those who are in its clutches.

However, researcher Magnus Ranstorp (Förebyggande av Våldsbejakande Extremism I Tredjeland, Ranstorp & Hyllengren, Swedish Defence University, 2013) concludes that “violent extremism can be best conceptualised as a kaleidoscope of infinite individual combinations”.

He continued: “There are some basic primary colours which create complex interlocking combinations: 1) individual socio-psychological factors, 2) social factors, 3) political factors, 4) ideological and religious dimensions, 5) the role of culture and identity issues, 6) trauma and other trigger mechanisms, and three other factors that are a motor for radicalisation: 7) group dynamics, 8) radicalisers/groomers, and 9) the role of social media. It is the combined interplay of some of these factors that causes violent extremism.”

Rashad Ali, of the counter-radicalisation organisation Centri, confirms this, stating: “I don’t think there is a typical profile. It actually could be anybody.”

One factor that does come up, time and again, including in Ranstorp’s research, are the socio-psychological factors, including grievances and emotions such as alienation and exclusion, anger and frustration, grievance and a strong sense of injustice, feelings of humiliation, rigid binary thinking, a tendency to misinterpret situations, conspiracy theories, a sense of victimhood, personal vulnerabilities and counter-cultural elements.

Add to this social factors, including exclusion, discrimination (real or perceived), marginalisation, limited social mobility, displacement and lack of social cohesion, and there is a clear portrait of someone who does not feel like they “belong”, one of the factors that predisposes young people to join “gangs”, in this case, one with over-reaching and violent motives.

Speaking to the BBC (see further information), Ismael Lea South, a rapper and activist who converted to Islam, says the crossover with gang culture is clear.

He says: “In gangs there is a sense of brotherhood, if you mess with one you mess with all of us ... many people who are isolated, going through issues, when they are in a gang they feel a sense of belonging. In Islam we are taught we are all one brotherhood, but certain extremist groups use that to exploit their poison.” And exploitation is key. Radicalisation targets the vulnerable, and in a culture that is rife with Islamophobia (and other forms of xenophobia and racism), which alienates communities, the pickings are rich.

Scott Atrana says that, “extremism arises, in part, when membership in a group reinforces deeply held ideals, and an individual’s identity merges with the group’s” (Devoted Actors Sacrifice for Close Comrades and Sacred Cause, Atrana, Sheikhb & Gomezc, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111 no. 50, 2015).

In a moving piece, published in The Independent, Allan Hennessey suggests that young, marginalised British Muslims are going to extreme lengths to feel a sense of belonging and identity. He wrote: “An African proverb says it all: ‘If you do not initiate the young men into the village, they will burn it down just to feel the heat’.”

And this is where schools and other educational institutions come in. Creating an inclusive environment and opportunities for social bonding between faiths and race, providing support for marginalised students, and teaching tolerance, understanding and acceptance, can help to reduce feelings of alienation and encourage positive and productive peer relationships that foster emotional health.

It would be puerile to suggest that these measures can eradicate this growing problem, and there are many, many factors at root, including political and religious, which, supported by social media, can undermine any attempts to create a sense of inclusion; however, we know more now than ever about what draws young people to increasingly deadly missions.

Arie Kruglanski, in The Psychology of Radicalization and Deradicalization: How significance quest impacts violent extremism (Advances in Political Psychology, Vol 35, Suppl 1, 2014) suggests that key “draws” are: “A sense of belonging to a cause, ideology or social network; power and control; a sense of loyalty and commitment; a sense of excitement and adventure; a romanticised view of ideology and cause; the possibility of heroism, personal redemption, etc.”

If we can replicate these, in any small way, in the educational environment, we can perhaps slow down the rate and even the number that are radicalised.

In my next article (on November 16), we’ll look at signs that a student might be being radicalised, ways to help students who are vulnerable and perhaps already on the radicalisation “schedule”, and, most importantly, the means to create a school environment that can provide some of what’s missing in the lives of those who subscribe to extremism.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to


  • Roots of Violent Radicalisation, Home Affairs Select Committee, January 2012:
  • As a working class Muslim, I know what causes radicalisation. So why don’t these rich white men believe me? Allan Hennessey, The Independent, January 2016:
  • Young, British and radicalised: Why people want to join Islamic State, BBC, November 2015:
  • The Root Causes of Violent Extremism, Radicalisation Awareness Network, January 2016:


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