Meet the Team: Dr Laura Zahra McDonald

This third interview in the series of Meet The Team with DRIVE members features Dr. Laura Zahra McDonald, who is a founding director of ConnectFutures, an independent civil society organisation based in the UK, that works with young people, communities and professionals to prevent violence, extremism and exploitation.

"The social, political and personal implications of this subject matter – around extremism, violent extremism, and the concept of radicalisation is extremely sensitive and contested."

Within the DRIVE project, you represent ConnectFutures, an independent civil society organisation based in the UK, that works with young people, communities and professionals to prevent violence, extremism and exploitation. Can you tell us more about your role within the DRIVE and what perspectives you seek to bring to the project?

We are one of two civil society organisations on the DRIVE project, so we bring a different perspective or set of skills and understanding, with a focus on practice and the practical. We are very interested in ways to harness knowledge from research and academia in an applied way, so being part of the DRIVE project is exciting and important to us. So, our involvement works both ways as we are learning new things that will contribute to our own evidence-based practice and learning frameworks. We hope we can bring our experiences of working in the field with young people, communities and practitioners to help contribute to the research and its interpretation, especially helping to contextualise information within social spaces, both on and offline, and contribute to the project outcomes.

Why is it crucial to implement a multifaceted and “whole-of-society approach”, with an emphasis on community partnership with young people when tackling radicalisation?

The social, political and personal implications of this subject matter – around extremism, violent extremism, and the concept of radicalisation is extremely sensitive and contested. Over decades, internationally, we have seen top-down approaches fail, which in many cases have also violated human rights, rendering such attempts both ethically bankrupt and usually ineffective. This is a double failure and has created long-term exacerbation of the issues, and a highly politicised, hostile backdrop to tackling violent radicalisation. These issues are complex and intersectional and require partnership work to tackle them, within an explicit human rights framework. Co-creating knowledge and practice from the grassroots up, with inclusivity, is crucial to effective, impactful and sustainable work that has the credibility and nuance required. The DRIVE project is taking these issues into account, working across communities within and between the country partners involved, to glean knowledge from a whole spectrum of people and perspectives.

In what ways can we bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners in the P/CVE?

There can be a perception of hostility between academics and practitioners, in which the two elements are pitched as antagonistic, one without thought, the other without action. I would argue that academic and experiential knowledge are two sides of the same coin, required to illuminate, understand, and make a change. By working together as we are in DRIVE, in a collaborative and creative way, we can harness interdisciplinary and multifaceted approaches to tackling the issues at hand. It is fantastic to see CSOs involved more deeply in a large research project but also the diversity of expertise from psychology, public health, sociology, religious studies, politics – a wide and deep range of methods and traditions which enable both theory and practice to gain in ways far deeper than sticking to traditional boundaries and limitations. I am also excited that the end results of the research will be able to inform practice, that is working both ways from start to end.

Your research work related to P/CVE significantly focuses on the gender dimension. Why do you think it is important to bring gender perspective - and a more inclusive approach in general - to enhance our understanding of radicalisation and violent extremism?

Beyond the obvious ethical problem, the exclusion of any group in the understanding of an issue is creating a vacuum or a blind spot. This is especially true for the subject of violence and extremism which has traditionally been mired by problematic approaches to gender, both by violent extremist groups and individuals operating and perpetuating negative gendered frameworks (often misogyny), but also by those of us studying, interpreting and practicing in the arena. The ‘boys with guns’ imagery and interest in a certain perception of masculinity and violence have limited our understanding of gender dynamics in the creation of extremist violence and its prevention. Research has revealed some of the ways intersections of gender and violence operate, for example, the relationship between domestic violence and terrorist violence by perpetrators, and also our wider social contexts in which gender dynamics - cross-culturally - shape the landscape and heighten the likelihood of violence and reduced chances of preventing it. Gender is an absolutely central intersection in understanding the issues at hand, and tackling them effectively, alongside many other factors - social, personal, environmental, and political. Even at a very practical level, for example, engaging young people within a school assembly – the way we talk about the issues, the imagery we use, the vulnerabilities we address, must all be fully inclusive, or we are failing the young people in front of us, and indeed the whole of our societies.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the next interviews!

This second interview in the series of Meet The Team with DRIVE members features Dr. Mark Sedgwick, who is the Principle Investigator at Aarhus University.

"Nowadays, there are rather more Muslims around, and some of those who have grown up in the West engage in a very similar spiritual search, and many find their way to Sufism."

As a Principal Investigator for the DRIVE Project, what perspectives are you bringing to the project?

I originally trained as a historian, and I think this still has a lot of impact on my perspectives. I like to look at the long term and the big picture. This is one reason why I am so keen on looking at the whole issue of social exclusion, which DRIVE does: it is precisely the sort of big factor that historians like, and that I feel has been missing from much recent work on radicalisation in the West. I also bring perspectives related to my earlier work on Islam, which is the main focus of my research. Radicalisation is absolutely not all about Islam, but Islam does have something important to do with it, and I know Islam from many perspectives, not just its relationship with radicalisation. I have also worked on the history of terrorism, and most recently published a chapter about anti-colonial terrorism in Egypt. I am probably best known for my work on definitional and conceptual issues related to radicalisation, and I think these issues are really important, even though they are also really difficult. Finally, I have worked on the ideology of the radical right, and I recently edited an anthology on this. So, for the DRIVE project, I have perspectives on both sides, so to speak.

In your book Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age (2016), you provide a dense historical examination of the many manifestations of Sufism in Western cultures since the seventeenth century. What is the state of Western Sufism today?

That is a very good question, even though it has very little to do with radicalisation or DRIVE – except, perhaps, to remind us that Muslims in the West do many things that have nothing to do with radicalisation or terrorism. Although I must admit that there was actually a Sufi group in London in the 1970s that was almost as radical as it was possible to be. Nowadays they would probably all have been arrested, but in those days the world was very different, and so far, as we know nobody got at all worried about them. And in fact, they never got anywhere much towards launching the jihad had that they hoped for, and ended up doing high-quality translations of scholarly texts instead. In a way, they ended up fighting “the jihad of the pen”. That is something that is important for Western Sufism today: a lot of work towards explaining Islamic theology in Western languages and in terms that appeal to Westerners is done by Sufis. Sufism in the West started off appealing to non-Muslim Westerners who were engaged in the spiritual search, at a time when there were very, very few Muslims in the West. Nowadays, there are rather more Muslims around, and some of those who have grown up in the West engage in a very similar spiritual search, and many find their way to Sufism. So Western Sufism today is doing quite well, and is increasingly Islamic as well as distinctively Western.

Could Sufism be considered as a “positive branding of Islam”, providing a counter-narrative to Salafist-inspired religious extremism?

Certainly, many people see it that way. If the jihadis are the “bad Muslims”, people want to find the “good Muslims”, and Sufis seem to fit that role quite nicely. In fact, though, engagement in Sufism and attitudes towards jihad have very little to do with each other. It is true that most jihadis nowadays are Salafis, and one of the few things that different types of Salafis all agree on is that they disapprove of Sufis, but that is about it. In the nineteenth century, when there were very few Salafis, most jihadis were actually Sufis, and there is nothing about being a Sufi that means that you can’t be a jihadi as well. It is not about theology, but about politics, identity, and social conditions. Among other things! Theology matters, because jihad is an action that is understood to bring religious rewards, but there is no particular disagreement about this. Sufis, Salafis, and nearly everyone else agree that engaging in jihad is a good thing – so long as it is a proper jihad. That is what there is disagreement about, and the question of whether something is a proper jihad or just murder or criminal activity is more of a political question than a theological one.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the upcoming interviews!

How is a Horizon 2020 project conducted? Who are the professionals working on DRIVE and which perspectives do they bring to the project? In this series of interviews, you will get to meet the team members of DRIVE and learn more about their areas of expertise and the role they play throughout the course of the project.

This first Meet The Team interview features Prof. Tahir Abbas, the scientific coordinator of DRIVE.

"Extremism and radicalisation, in my mind, are less about religion and more about politics, economics, and society."

Apart from being the Scientific Coordinator of the DRIVE project, you hold thorough experience and expertise in the field of CT and PVE. What has led you to pursue this path?

I have been looking at issues of violent extremism for two decades. The events of 9/11 spurred me on to try to explore some of these issues in more detail, especially as before this tragic day, several related concerns were going on in the city of Birmingham that made me think twice about what was happening to young Muslims concerning identity, ideas of belonging, and issues to do with the violence that was being forged into a heady mix with significant implications.

I know several colleagues who had got into this field because of some direct and indirect experience related to extremism and radicalisation, whether it was a close friend who was routinely subjected to harassment by the police or somebody they knew at school who found themselves implicated in some plot later in life. People like me, who are born in a country different to that of our parents, are habitually challenged by questions of identity and belonging. Some of us can reconcile these issues while others can see it transformed into something far more problematic. 

Extremism and radicalisation, in my mind, are less about religion and more about politics, economics, and society. Having spent many years before the events of 9/11 exploring race relations, the understandings I was able to figure out in terms of minority experiences and the implications this had for a sense of engagement and participation is no different from some of the genuine existential problems that young people face when trying to work out their paths in life per se. But a lot of this analysis is a million miles away from the programmatic approach taken by state-centric-led initiatives concerning countering violent extremism that continues to deemphasise the bottom-up, community-oriented issues related to extremism, which are more about social exclusion than anything else.

What, according to you, makes DRIVE special?

The Drive project is a unique opportunity to bring together social scientists and public mental health experts  for the first time to explore some of the most challenging concerns facing societies in northwest Europe today. We understand that there is much that has already been written and expressed concerning questions of extremism, with a lot of it being polemical and often without any empirical support. Ours is a systematic attempt to try to enhance our understanding of radicalisation through exploring the wider issues of social exclusion in northwest Europe in a way that could not have been possible until recently.

Until recently, the far-right, alt-right and incels were not on the radar of policymakers. With a range of counter-competing and in some cases reciprocal radicalisation becoming the norm, the Drive project uniquely allows the project team to explore the synergies between diverse kinds of radicalisation based on an understanding of local area experiences. In this regard, we are interested in identity politics, intergenerational change, the idea of space and belonging associated with it, and the complex generalisable relationship between the extremism put forward by elements of the far right and the extremism put forward by elements of Jihadis because both sets of outcomes are not independent of the same social structural factors. Both sets of groups are looking for something beyond their own experience to buy in to, to believe in, and to support. In some cases, by whatever means necessary.

What are the most acute challenges the youth is facing today that might drive some vulnerable and marginalised individuals to radicalisation?

Having looked at this question for the last twenty years, the most important point is the issue of belonging. Unless young people have a sense of belonging, they do not have a sense of purpose. By not having a sense of purpose, they are easily distracted and persuaded, especially if they are young and impressionable. And then they face issues of being stuck in an echo chamber of negativity that becomes an added risk factor.

It is from these situations that we find the young people making the analytical and conceptual leap from holding frustrated grievances to enacting solutions to their problems through violence. While society considers their acts of violence as the problem, for the young people implicated, their actions are the solution. What compounds a lot of this is the unidirectional thinking on the part of states and supranational bodies which adhere to a top-down agenda based on the idea that the problem is inherited within a particular faith and the ideal would be to get to a vulnerable individual before radicalisation is operationalised from within.

All this does is enhance and legitimise Islamophobia, in the case of Islamist groups, but it also takes attention away from the genuine everyday realities that face so many people who end up with violent extremism as their solution. The need to understanding the social exclusion dynamic in radicalisation studies is to build solutions that are about looking at society, and not distinguishing these radicals as somehow separate us from the rest of us. They are remarkably like the rest of us but different enough to warrant paying further attention to their particular needs and wants.

In your recent book Countering Violent Extremism (2021), you provide a detailed critique of the concept of countering violent Islamist extremism, which according to you, is largely focused on ideology. What implications and/or unintended outcomes does this have on the marginalized Muslim communities and the wider society?

The main critique I have of the current counter violent extremism paradigm is that it reproduces Islamophobia. All the tension among groups and individuals that somehow have gone wrong are seen as being due to some internal issues that are unresolvable and that these can be defined as being a result of interpretations of religion and practice. From all of the extensive research, practice and practitioner-oriented experiences, we realise that radicalisation is often an outcome based on everyday social processes.

In parts of the global south, we have instances of not just underdevelopment, inequity, and tribalism but also corruption, cronyism, and militarism and in some cases people who end up being radicalised because it is a form of employment. The far right targets unemployed and impressionable young men and offers them employment opportunities. Many who went from various parts of North Africa to what was the Islamic State did so because they were being offered paid employment, something that was difficult to sustain in places like Tunisia especially, after the events of the Arab Spring.

Overall, we need to take attention away from the fact that radicalisation is akin to someone’s faith somehow going wrong and see it more in the round. Rather, that radicalisation is a concept which aims to elaborate on what tips individuals from various stages of being radicalised and that these are much more about wider societal experiences rather than the more wicked end of the problem that policymakers tend to fixate on due to the urgency of what is seen as the problem and the need to provide solutions in quick response.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the next interviews!


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