RadicalizationGovernments should turn to academics for advice on radicalization, religion and security

By Tristram Riley-Smith

Published 7 December 2015

Western governments are deploying a range of strategies and tactics to deal with the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State. David Cameron is recruiting more spies, and parliament is discussing profound changes to the way in which digital intelligence is collected. But we must not ignore the invaluable supply of knowledge and insight available from our men and women in academia. Research can provide evidence-based context to contemporary challenges, including an enlightened understanding of the place of religion and faith in a security context. We can stop mistakes being made in terms of misguided policies and knee-jerk reactions. And researchers can help the design and deployment of interventions that make a real difference, focusing limited resources effectively.

In August 1939, the operational head of Britain’s Government Communication and Cypher School, Alistair Denniston, wrote to the Foreign Office about the need to recruit “men of the professor type” into the wartime code-breaking hub at Bletchley Park in order to help combat the Nazi threat.

Following the horror of marauding attacks in Paris, the British prime minister has announced he will be recruiting a further 1,900 personnel to the Security and Intelligence Agencies. “Professors” may also be able to add value to these organizations and wider society. The government should not forget the wealth of talent available within our universities to offer insight and depth to the judgments of decision-makers.

In my capacity as champion to the Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research, I organized a workshop recently where four leading academics discussed how best to get research on religion and contemporary security challenges in front of politicians, policymakers and the press, to help them deliver better service to the public. The academics were historian of Muslim thought Robert Gleave; Kim Knott who researches ideologies, beliefs and decision-making; Peter Morey who explores trust between Muslims and non-Muslims, and John Wolffe who works on the interface between religion and security.

One key message from this debate was that those in positions of authority and influence must overcome the tendency to regard religious issues as marginal until they become a security risk. Religion is poorly understood, and while academic focus on definition can be dismissed as pedantry, there is a need for clarity when talking about religion and security — to avoid millions of devout people around the world being swept into a bucket labelled “terrorist.”

Improve religious literacy
For instance, research helps us to draw a distinction between religion and faith. Religion is defined by creed, doctrine, framework and practice; whereas faith is more personal, abstract, emotional and often at some distance from the teachings of established religious institutions.

We must improve religious literacy among politicians, policymakers, the press and the general public. In a security context, this should include a more nuanced understanding of the variants of institutionalized religion, while comprehending the universe occupied by men and women of faith.