Interview: Professor Roger Griffin
By Charles MaggsFollow @charlesmaggs
The threat of terrorism has passed its hysterical post 9/11 peak but continues to hang over western civilisation. We've been speaking to academic Roger Griffin – who spends his days attempting to get inside the heads of those who try to kill the innocent.
Some of the most horrific and brutal acts know to man have been carried out in the name of terrorism. From the mass shootings of Anders Breivik in Norway to the 7/7 bombings in the heart of London, individuals driven to extremes by the thought of being subject to a higher calling – part of a greater good that transcends this life – can kill and maim in the hundreds or even thousands. Surely not anyone can be driven to such extremities?
"That's one of the chilling inferences of this book," says Griffin, a professor in modern history at Oxford Brookes University.
"If you're born in a situation like Palestine or a Tamil in northern Sri Lanka at a certain point, then there's going to be very real socio-political circumstances bearing down on you which make it quite understandable that you could be driven into extremism.
"But the cases that interest me are ones like Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma bomber), David Copeland (British Neo-Nazi nail bomber) or Ander Breivik, or even the 7/7 bombers who didn't have anything exceptionally catastrophic about their lives, no obvious triggers, yet somehow go through a process of radicalisation that takes them from normal citizens to committing extreme acts.
"It's one scenario that can potentially happen to a large number of people."
Essentially, for people to turn to terrorism, a number of ingredients are required. People need to be very dissatisfied with their lives. They need to be looking for answers and a world view that can resonate with their problems for extremism to take root. Griffin compares people driven to extremes now to the Nazis of the 1930s, an area he has studied a great deal in the past.
Fanatics essentially separate the world into good and evil, a process he calls 'splitting'. It's followed by 'heroic doubling', whereby people see themselves as warriors in this cosmic battle between good and evil. So how does this relate to modern Britain?
"People growing up in a minority faith are susceptible to a radicalization process that makes them retrieve their lost or threatened identity by fanaticising their faith and making it so powerful that they regard many people within their own faith group as Luke-warm and even infidel – what Muslims call Kafir.
"Fortunately it's a very small minority when you consider the problem."
One response to living in a dominant culture is to acclimatise to it, essentially to adjust and move towards integration. Another is to "dig one's heels in and become more Muslim than the Muslims, and that's where the availability of Islamist websites and preachers becomes very important because their language, about war on the west and a global caliphate, suddenly seems like a revelation."
But the threat of extremism doesn't only come from minority communities. Far from it. The killings by Breivik and Copeland were white reactions against multiculturalism. With groups like the EDL and the BNP still threatening to make inroads, how great is the prospect of violence from the 'native' community?
"Multiculturalism puts a strain on people who feel their cultures are threatened and that things are changing and that Islam is taking over. They are, in their own way, potentially a threat to Britain and civil society as much as Islamism," Griffin explains.
"It's just that historically the Islamists have got their act together world-wide much more than the neo-Nazis."
There are even startling examples, of neo-Nazis who have converted to Islam because they see it as a much more powerful way of attacking the west and attacking Jews.
"Historically the Islamists have been the major threat, but if we were talking in Norway we wouldn't see it like that.
"The Breivik affair really did shake Norwegian society to its roots.
"That was a very good example of how someone could take a sense of their culture being swamped by Islam and going way beyond the EDL and starting what he sees as a war of liberation against multiculturalism."
But there is little chance of a return to the political extremes of the 1930s, according to Griffin. The world is too fragmented to see a revival to the far-right ideologies of the past, but the whole of society needs to be vigilant to the violent threats of extremism and not just leave it to the police.
Griffin also wants to see a more sophisticated response to the questions multiculturalism poses to identity, be it for the indigenous or immigrant population.
"Breivik was a monster," he makes clear, "but the points he was making about feeling a stranger in his own country, we have to take that seriously.
"It [his violence] mustn't be validated, but his views are a valid response to a situation and issues of identity have to be taken seriously by a range of people including politicians but in a way that is sophisticated so we don't have Nick Griffin creating alarmist messages."
So what would this 'sophisticated' response look like? I asked him what he thought about the infamous appearance by the BNP leader on BBC's Question Time programme back in 2009. His response was rather surprising.
"I wish that had been handled better," he says, before explaining how he travelled to Westminster in the days before the shows filming to brief Jack Straw about the BNP.
"I think it [having Griffin on the show] was a good policy. If Hitler had been on Question Time, or its equivalent in the 1930s I think it would have done a lot to destroy his charisma." But he is critical of how the episode panned out.
"To have a witch-hunt against him where all the questions were directed towards him and all the panellists were ganging together against him, I thought that was very a unfortunate and very bad way of dealing with an extremist," he says.
The show didn't construct a genuine debate, he believes. Rather it simply ridiculed Nick Griffin and his beliefs. It would be far better, he argues, if the BNP leader was a lone voice on BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze programme discussing immigration and multiculturalism, rather than him being the subject of the debate.
Griffin doesn't sympathise with the views of the far right, but he stressed the need to understand why people look to it for political answers.
"There's a terrible danger that we sensationalise things by putting a beam of light on him. I think that's the wrong way to do it but we have to accept that it's only natural that people do feel very threatened and do have extremist responses."
He goes on to say that the fear of mainstream politics to address concerns about immigration and multiculturalism have led to a political void which can be filled by groups like the BNP.
"The idea that you can't talk about race or multiculturalism without being a racist is a dangerous one and it's one of the few valid points in Breikiv's document, about a taboo around raising issues around immigration.
"Such as: how many Muslims can a country absorb percentage wise without their being an issue in certain areas about indigenous Christians or post-Christians feeling like strangers in their own society?
"And should Muslims be allowed to carry out certain Muslim practices even if they contravene certain liberal principles about freedom, about marriage and hysterectomies etcetera?
"There's a huge silence about a lot of issues which are real issues and I think race has been handled very badly."
Tacking extremism itself has to be the first line of defence against the violence it can breed. Griffin seems to agree with US president Barack Obama's recent speech at the UN, when he suggested that the best way to tackle extremism is by more free speech and more debate. The best defence against violence remains reason. Griffin's approach is a simple one: it can't be possible to challenge extreme views without at first understanding what those beliefs are and how they are born. It's time for the political establishment to take a firmer, more mature grasp, of the issues of race and identity.
Griffins book 'Terrorist's Creed' is available to buy now.