Using mindfulness to reduce vulnerabilities to violent radicalisation
How to prevent violent radicalisation is a question society is wrestling with. Latest research into the impact of mindfulness on vulnerabilities shows how it could act as an effective addition to prevention strategies.
Research indicates lacking a sense of significance in life can increase one’s risk of being violently radicalised. Mindfulness has been demonstrated to foster a sense of significance in life. Investigating the efficacy of mindfulness interventions to reduce vulnerabilities to violent radicalisation could be a proactive approach to preventing terrorism.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the capacity to actively focus one’s attention and awareness on one’s thoughts, feelings, and experience of the present moment. It is a mental state as well as an ancient meditative practice. Practicing mindfulness is to exercise receptive and non-judgmental thought on a moment-by-moment basis, in order to attain higher dispositional mindfulness.
Changing the approach to terrorism
The question of why people engage in acts of terrorism has been long debated by different professionals across various fields; from historians and theologians to psychologists and politicians. In finding out why, we can then potentially remedy what brings people to this point.
In the past, national and international approaches to terrorism have been palliative ones. Armed conflict as a reaction to an event proves unsuccessful as a long-term solution since it fails to address the root of the problem. Fortunately, current research has provided us with a more comprehensive understanding of why violent extremism occurs and in turn allows for the development of more effective means of tackling the issue.
This has been achieved by moving away from macro-factors, such as ethnicity or religion, towards micro-processes within an individual. While radicalisation has been demonstrated to occur at a group level, current literature focuses on individual trajectories and the dynamic elements involved.
Looking at the individual
It is important to acknowledge that no one factor is considered to have the determining role in someone being violently radicalised.
Nevertheless, it is understood that for external influences to have an effect, individuals would have to have a pre-existing internal state of incongruence. Then, even regarding internal angst, many mechanisms are at play and all contribute differently to a person’s vulnerability to being radicalised. However, one factor which has gathered substantial support is one’s sense of significance in life.
The need for significance
Michelle Dugas and Arie. W Kruglanski developed the Significance Quest Model as a means for understanding one’s vulnerability to radicalisation. According to the authors of the model, significance is defined as ‘the fundamental desire to matter, to be someone, to merit respect’. The research indicates a lack of significance in life leads people to engage in terrorism in an effort to restore said lost significance. The notion is not as alien as one would assume but, in fact, relatable to many people.
When we feel down and detached from our community we can be swept up by the first group that gives us a sense of belonging and purpose, especially when the narrative is tailored to satisfy these specific needs. Unfortunately, as is the case for some individuals, finding a sense of significance may be through becoming involved in terrorist organisations or movements.
Using mindfulness to combat vulnerabilities to violent extremism
Such situations mean we should be looking at ways to foster a sense of significance in the lives of the general public. In doing so, a step towards combating vulnerabilities to violent extremism can be achieved.
For example, due to the commonalities between one’s sense of significance and dispositional mindfulness, mindfulness could be the way forward. The capacity for mindfulness entails awareness, attention and openness to the present experience as well as exercising acceptance of our internal states above judgement towards situations. It is a state of mind as well as a practice. Natural aptitudes for dispositional mindfulness vary depending on the person. However, one would train in mindfulness so as to achieve higher dispositional mindfulness.
Mindfulness as a protective factor
A recent piece of research, conducted in 2018 by the author of the present article, looked at dispositional mindfulness as a potential contributor to increased life significance; the intent was to focus on the implications of mindfulness as a protective factor against violent radicalisation. The study used online surveys measuring dispositional mindfulness and life significance among 217 participants.
The results demonstrated mindfulness to predict life significance. In other words, the more mindful a person is then the higher their sense of life significance.
When applied to the context of violent radicalisation, mindfulness could prove a cost-effective and useful tool for preventative programmes, risk assessments, and interventions for at-risk individuals. But it is not only those at risk that merit our attention. It is worthwhile to look after the mental health of the general public so that no one has to reach the point of being labeled a risk.
The simple acts of promoting mindfulness in general and introducing mindfulness training into schools, universities, workspaces and prisons could go a long way. And, thanks to our ever growing technological world, computer-based mindfulness training programmes allow for this practice to be easily accessible for the masses.
We need to be proactive, as opposed to reactive, when it comes to violent radicalisation. It is all very well helping at-risk individuals and rehabilitating terror-related offenders, but being at the forefront of terrorism as opposed to managing the aftermath of terrorism would be conducive to the prevention of violent radicalisation.
Therefore, understanding mindfulness as a protective factor and a push towards utilising its benefits will have a positive impact on the well-being of individuals and in turn ensure the public safety of our society.
Isabella has a masters degree in forensic psychology from Newcastle University. She is currently looking to further her career in crime prevention and security.
Prevent: safeguarding younger people by Waqar Ahmed MBE, Prevent Manager, Equalities, Community Safety & Cohesion, Birmingham City Council
Understanding the Jihadist Mindset: Adam Deen, Head of Outreach at anti-extremist think tank, The Quilliam Foundation, and former senior member of the British-based, Islamist extremist group Al-Muhajiroun
Prevent – resilience to radicalisation: Chris Williams, Senior Prevent Adviser, Office for Security and Counter Terrorism Home Office.