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Sensing the murder of the young journalist Lyra Mckee was a disaster for them, the Real Ira admitted it had ‘made a mistake’. If you are going to murder people… Continue Reading…

A Radical Cure

Sensing the murder of the young journalist Lyra Mckee was a disaster for them, the Real Ira admitted it had ‘made a mistake’. If you are going to murder people in the name of a cause, the killers should at least make sure they hit the right targets.

The massacre of Christians in Sri Lanka shows yet again that ideology knows no mercy.  Both these tragedies also make clear that psychiatry and psychology have not lived up to now ancient promises of the 1920s. Then behaviourists like John B Watson and the humanist therapist Carl Rogers both believed that the right therapy could really change people. (Both men never managed to cure their own drinking problems, incidentally.)

Only Freud was more modest saying: “I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”

In the face of terror today, politicians are desperate to find ways of curing violent men of their violent tendencies. It is mostly men, though one of the suicide bombers in Sri Lanka was a woman.

Rogers and Watson would both be disappointed, I suspect, by how little we know about how to cure the violent of their violence. Not that that deters academics.  There is a Journal Deradicalisation Study which is an optimistic title. The Dutch researcher Feddess and the Italian Gallucini looked at de-radicalisation programmes in 12 countries and found evaluations were rather thin in terms of evidence presented.

Anecdotal accounts may have more to offer. France has seen much terrorism in the last two years. 240 people have died; some 350 “Islamic terrorists” are in French prisons; another 5,800 are under police surveillance, and 17,000 have been classified as a potential threat.

President Emmanuel Macron has said repeatedly that the fight against Islamic terrorism is France’s “top priority.” He has also drawn attention to the ideas of David Vallat, a terrorist turned writer. Vallat recently told the French Senate in an emergency meeting “The radicalization of our youth is a deadly social model”.

So how did he become ‘cured’? In his book Terreur de Jeunesee, Vallat explains.

When he was just over 19. Vallat, converted to Islam. It helped him deal with an existential crisis, as he put it.  He went with the French army to Bosnia where he had a number of terrifying experiences. He also met Saudi Arabian and Qatari fighters and admired their courage. He paid attention when they said that a true Muslim did not care whether he lived or died. In paradise, Allah was waiting.

When Vallat returned to France in 1994, he worshipped at a Salafi Mosque. Salafism is an extremely conservative version of Islam. Its proponents claim today’s Islam is a lily-livered product of colonialism. The true Muslim is a fighter. Death to the infidels should be taken literally. Vallat began learning Arabic and went to train at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. The young men there only thought about how to kill. Vallat came back to France, still a jihadist.

On August 29th, 1995, French police arrested Vallat.  A month earlier a bomb exploded inside a Paris metro killing eight and injuring 100. Vallat was sentenced to five years for engaging in terror activities. In jail, however, Vallat was not pressured to de-radicalise. He was left alone, and in his isolation, began to ask himself questions. He read two books a week and took university courses, studying French literature, history, geography, philosophy, and the Greek classics. Reading Machiavelli and Rousseau made him see the value of humanist values – and the abomination of killing. After four years in prison, he was “completely deprogrammed,” he wrote. The jihadists issued a fatwa against him in 1995 when he began to speak out against them.

Vallat’s journey suggests that serious education is an answer – and that is different from many deradicalisation programmes which then insist repeatedly you were wrong – and should admit you were wrong. It feels like incarcerated terrorists and policy-makers (free) elsewhere would do well to take a closer look at such a journey, it may have much to teach.

David Cohen

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A Room in Town,
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8/10 Hallam Street,