‘Violence and the causes of violence’, op-ed en El País by Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Peter Neumann

Violence and the causes of violence


By Vaira Vike Freiberga and Peter Neumann

There are many explanations, theories and models for why people join militant groups. The pathways are said to be complex, the reasons multi-faceted. An entire field of academic study has emerged out of the search for the causes of violent extremism.

Yet no political scientist, sociologist, economist, historian or psychologist has discovered a universal formula. Nor is there a scholarly consensus on what factors – or combinations of factors – are important. The places in which political violence happens are too different, the individual circumstances too varied.

That doesn’t mean that nothing meaningful can be said about the causes of violent extremism. Many powerful explanations revolve around deep-seated grievances, the spread of extremist ideologies, or social dynamics.

One factor that is frequently overlooked – perhaps because it seems too obvious to mention – is violence itself.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, which is published by the Institute for Economics and Peace and draws on data from the University of Maryland, 82 per cent of all terrorist incidents in the years 2000-13 took place in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. More than a hundred countries, by contrast, experienced no terrorism at all.

This shows that terrorism cannot be explained with reference to psychology or individual characteristics alone. The vast majority of terrorism is part of long-standing conflicts.

Terrorism is not the cause of these conflicts, but simply its most visible expression.  Its underbelly are instability, ethnic and religious division, violence and repression.

In many of these conflicts, violence begets violence. Numerous studies have documented vicious and self-destructive cycles of revenge. Others highlight “cultures of death” from which many fighters originate.

We also know about “economies of war” and the powerful material incentives that keep conflicts going. In many places, joining an extremist group can be profitable. In others, it is the only way to escape hunger and poverty.

All of these dynamics can be observed in today’s Syria and Iraq. The longer the conflict continues, the more people will have to avenge their families’ deaths; “cultures of martyrdom” become more deeply ingrained; and fighting turns into a way of life.

Here too, the cycles of violence risk being institutionalised, and more and more people are being drawn into conflicts that become entrenched and self-perpetuating

That’s why the peacemakers in Northern Ireland insisted that the “paramilitaries” had to lay down their arms before reconciliation could begin. There could be no lasting solution without breaking the circle of violence. Everyone recognized: the conflict had become self-perpetuating. It needed to stop.

We realize this is not a complete theory of radicalization. It doesn’t explain how conflicts start, nor does it properly account for the role of beliefs, ideologies, and other important factors that we know play a role in causing violent extremism.

But it captures an important facet of the problem, namely the extent to which violence is not just the means whereby violent extremists express their aims, but also its cause.

It reminds us that combating violent extremist must involve tackling the underlying political conflicts that allow violent extremists to thrive.

Just like grievances do not always lead to terrorism, the existence of extremist ideas does not, in and by itself, produce extremist violence. It is when grievances and extremist ideologies resonate that radicalization happens.

It also highlights the danger of repression. Where the state uses violence indiscriminately or excessively, it risks setting off the cycles of violence and retribution that so many countries experience today.

These – and other – topics will be on the table at the Club de Madrid’s Global Policy Dialogue on Stopping Violent Extremism – a unique global summit that will take place on October 27-28.

It brings together current and former leaders, experts, and grassroots projects from the entire world with the aim of creating a new “Global Consensus” on how to fight extremism and create more peaceful, cohesive societies.

Ending violence is an important part of this. And doing so has never been more urgent than now.


Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President of the Club de Madrid and former President of Latvia

Peter R. Neumann is Professor of Security Studies and Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), King’s College London.