Extremism and the conveyor-belt fallacy

The conveyor belt theory is a caricature of those who seek to tackle extremism


In discourse around counter-extremism we often hear about the ‘conveyor-belt theory of radicalisation’, widely understood as the idea that non-violent extremism acts as a conveyor belt leading to violent extremism.

Or, in other words, non-violent extremists are heading towards violent extremism in a linear fashion, hence to prevent terrorism we must tackle non-violent extremism.

Critics of those that point to the role of non-violent Islamist groups in the radicalisation process, such as CAGE, keen to rebut this theory, refer to it as ‘discredited’ or suggest there is no evidence to support it.

What seems to have evaded most concerned with this subject area is that the conveyor belt theory actually doesn’t exist. Yes that is correct, there is no conveyor theory of radicalisation and no-one has proposed such a theory.

I would be happy to be proven wrong on this point but my research suggests such a theory was never put forward by anyone and the term ‘conveyor belt theory of radicalisation’ was concocted by those that are now critics of the theory. It is a grand straw man; the mother of all straw men if you like.

When asked about proponents of the fictitious conveyor belt theory, the critics often end up pointing to the Quilliam Foundation. However, no Quilliam spokesperson has ever referenced the conveyor belt theory. According to the Quilliam website:

“One can be a radical without being violent, or advocating violence. However, some who follow an Islamist agenda do use their political/religious beliefs in order to justify acts of violence, including violence that deliberately targets civilians. As such, Islamists often provide a narrative in which Islam as a faith is portrayed as being under attack. Such an interpretation can play into the hands of those who argue that Islam is in need of self-defense, even if it includes attacking civilians, including Muslims. Non-violent Islamists can champion this narrative, providing the mood music to which suicide bombers dance.”

This is a far cry from the conveyor belt theory that critics claim Quilliam posits. It therefore appears that the conveyor belt is nothing more than a caricature of those who seek to tackle non-violent extremism, often because such individuals are non-violent extremists themselves or allied to them. Having exposed this dirty trick, a number of additional points also need to be made.

Firstly, the term ‘non-violent extremism’ is slightly misleading because the organizations and individuals that it refers to (such as Hizb ut Tahrir) are not really non-violent but do not believe in terrorist attacks as a means of achieving political goals. They certainly believe in offensive jihad to conquer territory once their Islamic state has been established and they certainly intend to be violent towards gays, ex-muslims and those that do not conform to their moral norms.

So non-terrorist rather than non-violent would be more accurate.

Secondly, regardless of whether or not it causes terrorism, such non-terrorist extremism is problematic in itself. To have groups of individuals preaching the destruction of the West – as well as the necessity of establishing an Islamic state that implements barbaric capital punishments and kills dissenters – can cause a few problems in society. One of those problems being that it helps create a future support base for such a state when it does emerge, as we are now learning.

Thirdly, where there are non-terrorist extremists, terrorist extremist will eventually emerge just as if racism or homophobia were to proliferate in any society there would eventually be violent racist and homophobic attacks. This is just plain common sense and is borne out by the facts. Throughout the 90s we had Hizb ut Tahrir preaching the importance of defeating the West and establishing an Islamic state. Towards the late-90s, al-Muhajiroun splintered off and eventually began engaging in calls for jihad with many adherents now convicted of terrorism related offences.

Ideology interprets grievances, shapes identity and presents idealistic solutions that ultimately guides behavior. Extremist ideology preached with fervor sets the kettle boiling and eventually some of the water spills over.

Interestingly, those keen to deny the links between violent and non-violent extremists often argue the opposite when it comes to Islamophobia. They are very keen to point out the links between groups like the English Defence League, Britain First and anti-Muslim hate crime. Ideology suddenly becomes key and a precursor to violence when it is right-wing but not when it is Islamist.

We have a bizarre situation in this country whereby few are interested in trying to understand radicalisation yet many appear keen to use it to critique their political opponents. In the eyes of the hard-left, radicalized Muslims are a tool to exploit in a grand strategy to oppose western capitalism. Islamist extremists who preach the importance and necessity of establishing an Islamist state suddenly pretend their efforts are not linked to those seeking to establish their ideology through violent means.

Meanwhile we have sections of the press and academia that have already decided that the real issue is nasty Tory policies like Prevent – rather than extremists advocating religious supremacy.

Amjad Khan is a Muslim writer and commentator

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28 Responses to “Extremism and the conveyor-belt fallacy”

  1. Johnny Wong

    The non-violent extremism to violent extremism theory is bunk as is most of Quilliam’s ideas as the emperical evidence illustrates.

  2. Ian Hamlett

    And the award for posting a reply to an article he’s not properly read goes to….

  3. The Great Cornholio

    Great article.

    Does anyone know if the author has a twitter account?

  4. Khalid

    ‘However, no Quilliam spokesperson has ever referenced the conveyor belt theory.’ Mr Khan it is well known in the Muslim community that tQuiliam were founded by two money grabbing, opportunistic egomaniacs, it is disingenuous of you to make this statement when one of these founders Ed Hussain is on record for being a major proponent of the conveyor belt, first alluded to in his 2007 publication ‘The Charlatanist’

  5. TN

    The fact Quilliam is vilified by large sections of the British Muslim community says a lot about the community itself. In denial of the bigotry, hypocrisy and denialism within the community about any problems which QF have bravely drawn attention to. The most conservative Muslim voices in this country only get a platform because the white hard left supports them.

  6. Mfundo

    Illuminating article Mr Khan. This article should be in the Guardian though so that more people can access and read it. The scourge of Islamism is the threat to the whole world.

  7. Johnny Wong

    I have read it. Unfortunatley Khan seems to be unfamilar with Quilliams writings. In 2008, Quilliam advocated the conveyor belt theory:

    “there remains a core of Wahhabite-Islamist activists and groups who continue to advocate separatist, confrontational ideas that, followed to their logical conclusion, lead to violence.At the very least, the rhetoric of radicals provides the mood music to which suicide
    bombers dance.”


    And as an above comment mentions, Ed Hussain has been a major proponet of this theory. He used the very words ‘conveyor belt to terrorism.’


    So, Im afraid Mr Khan needs to do more research.

  8. GordonHide

    If you bring up kids to believe it’s all right to believe in stuff for which there is no empirical evidence you should hardly be surprised when they accept other stuff for which there is no evidence which meets their emotional needs. Then error in belief leads inevitably to error in action.

  9. Deiscirt

    It’s depressingly rare to read such clear and incisive critique of British Islamists and their water carriers on the hard left. Bravo and please keep it up.

  10. Jugurtha

    “Meanwhile we have sections of the press and academia that have already decided that the real issue is nasty Tory policies like Prevent – rather than extremists advocating religious supremacy.”

    I think this is it in a nutshell. This idea that attempts to reduce Islamist violence (however efficacious or otherwise) are in fact its cause. This is such a common trope within the Guardianista worldview that it is even starting to spread into other issues. Just this morning the guardian’s chosen angle in covering the situation at Calais was Cameron’s unfortunate ‘dehumanising language’. No suggestion of a solution, no real analysis, just the notion that whatever’s going on, the whole situation would be a thousand times better if Cameron hadn’t called them a swarm since dehumanising language makes people realise the desperate nature of their situation and spurs them on to act in ever more desperate ways…the implication being, I suppose, that if he’d called them a ‘merry throng’ or a ‘good-time gang’ or whatever, it would have left them with a warm glow, made them feel good about themselves and started them thinking about returning home to set up a small business making organic muesli or tie-dye kaftans with any profits ploughed into local trans rights organisations.

  11. Jugurtha

    That’s right. And so instead the Muslim community chooses to unite in its opposition to Islamism by joining its own organisations such as…erm…y’know….thingy.

  12. Jack

    You’re quoting Quilliam in 2008. DO you think that is strictly relevant now? What if they have developed intellectually; is it still valid to criticise the policy recommendations they give today fi they bear no resemblance to their beliefs in 2008?

    You also seem to not be understanding the nuances of the point. While morons who buy into “non-violent” groups may never become violent extremists themselves, the ideas they espouse, taken to their logical conclusion, lead to violence. That is not the so-called conveyor-belt theory that people criticise, but a statement of clear fact.

    No, not all members of so called ‘non-violent’ groups become violent. Their ideals will always have a violent spectrum though, being as they are deeply supremacist, bigoted, and backward.

  13. Johnny Wong

    And yet the evidence suggests otherwise.


    Please feel free to produce some studies which support your claims.

  14. Jack

    The link takes me to a blog that quotes studies which purport to show that individuals supporting a certain “non violent” (which I will hereafter use in its loose, misleading sense) group are not particularly likely to support a militant group. I can reasonably conclude then that you didn’t read my comment carefully enough.

    The individuals supporting a given non-violent group may or may not support a militant group. That does not negate the proposition that the ideas put forward by certain non-violent groups are ideas that, if embraced by other individuals who may not support the non-violent group at all (probably because they are not violent enough), logically lead this other individual to violence.

    It is obviously easier for individuals to become violent extremists if there is an abundance of very vocal, active groups, who normalise things like anti-Semitism, chauvanism, and racism in society. These individuals may never support the non-violent groups that express bigoted ideals, but that doesn’t mean they won’t take these ideas on board, and bring them to their logical conclusion – violence.

    Do you understand now? I can rephrase it using letters so you understand the different actors involved here:

    Person A is a part of a non-violent group that thinks all Zs are bad. Person B also thinks that all Zs are bad, but he has no time for group A. Instead, person B feeds off group As hatred for Z, who act as a handy normaliser for B’s even more extreme hatred of Z. There is a reason we dont stand for things like nationalism in this country, you know.

  15. Johnny Wong

    And again, please produce some studies which back your claims up rather than armchair theorising.

  16. Jack

    I like how you say “armchair theorising” as if positing an opinion is unacceptable. You yourself are yet to post any studies that relate to anything that I am saying; all you have done is post a link to an article that references some studies that claim to show that membership of certain groups is not a good predictor of membership of another, which in no way refutes my point, or the point made in the article. You can therefore stop the pretence that what you are offering is any more of a critical analysis than what I am offering – neither of us are yet to reference a relevant study, not that doing so gets us any closer to the truth!

    Supposing your concept of truth is not entirely reliant on the mere number of “et al”s I can fit into a paragraph, I’ll indulge you.

    Here’s an interesting article, written by one of the foremost scholars on terrorism, which explores how the dichotomy between violent and non-violent extremism is a false one, seeing as religious extremism is inherently violent.


    Of course, that is not a sufficient fact for us to conclude that non-violent groups make it easier for people to become violent extremists because of the general atmosphere that they create (my position, and the position of the author of the article that we’re commenting on). That is quite a difficult thing to prove through empirical analysis – you can’t quantify, or expect an honest answer to, “do you think you would have bought into ISIS’ ideology if there weren’t other groups on your street that, while denouncing ISIS, made it clear that homosexuality, Judaism, Christianity, the Western world etc., were all evils?”

    If you are unable to reason anything out without the assistance of studies, I imagine you have quite a hard time getting through your day to day existence. There are plenty of supposedly non-violent groups in this country that we do not allow to operate (not that that is what is being argued for in this article!), to have a platform, or to actively recruit, because doing so would be seen to give their ideas an iota of legitimacy. That is just a reasonable conclusion to come to.

    In case you are completely incapable of rationality without the assistance of “et als” (the great arbiters of truth), then here’s a rather thorough study which goes some way to showing that:

    “for some people considering violence — either in a cell or not — the credibility and status attached to violent activity motivated them to vocalise their activities and beliefs: there was talk, and it was picked up and argued over at the
    community level.”


    Will that do? Or do you need something to be the last thing on your reading list for it to be right (I assume you are a 1st, maybe 2nd year politics student, based on your inability to comprehend the substance of my argument)? Everyone knows that’s where truth comes from; that’s why Foucault is always last.

  17. Johnny Wong

    Poor baby. You really are upset and confused aren’t you?The argument made by Demos was that many of the al qaeda terrorists in Western states have barely passed through a so called radical phase. Most of them have little knowledge of religious scripture and are drawn to violence as a peverse form of counter culture. They have gone directly to a violent phase in a reasonably short space of time and not gone through the whole Quilliam conveyor belt or the whole ‘taking on certain ideas phase’ you describe. The point also made by Demos was that non-violent extremist groups may even represent a space through which people can express dissent without taking on violence and so should be looked upon as useful allies in counter terrorism policy. They argue that dealing with non-violent extremist groups should be addressed through social policies not counterterrorism policies as Quilliam does.

  18. Jack

    Please don’t confuse the terse portions of my reply for anger. They were written quite calmly with detached distaste. Believe it or not, but it’s quite possible to reply to someone on the internet without being angry. The lack of tonality that is inherent to comments makes it easy for people, such as yourself, to make it seem like the person they are dealing with is angry when they aren’t. It’s usually a good indication of when someone is feeling insecure about their hitherto unshaken feeling of intellectual superiority.

    But, in the spirit of debate, please quote some studies showing that people who write stridently on the internet are usually angry when they do so.

    “Most of them have little knowledge of religious scripture” – please explain the relevance of that statement as a reply to my position. I never once claimed that violent Islamist extremists adhered to your definition of what makes a good Muslim. You really will need to grasp the concept of a straw man at some point.

    “Point made by Demos was that non-violent extremist groups may even represent a space through which people can express dissent without taking on violence” – Indeed they can. Now please explain why that entails that they cannot ALSO create an environment that makes even more extreme, and crucially violent groups, seem more appealing.

    You obviously didn’t read the Schmid article I linked you, because while DEMOS may think non-violent groups can be useful “allies”, he disagrees, as do a number of other social scientists he references. For every study, there’s another that refutes it. I’m afraid that’s the way social science is. You can throw all the et al.s you want at it, but it won’t change a thing (can’t wait for you to straw man that into me saying that scientific endeavour is invalid while you ignore my questions; such is the mind of a pompous 2nd year politics student).

  19. johndowdle

    They key point – obscured, as ever – is that western imperialism lies behind almost all the violent actions.
    Giving zionists Palestinian lands following the Balfour Declaration in 1917 sowed the seeds of conflict.
    Gross intrusions ever since in support of cheap energy for the West has had a similar effect.
    Invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank area of former Jordan by the West and its partner in crime Israel all led to a completely understandable sense of resentment among Muslims.
    Before we in the West point fingers at Muslims, we need to look at our own contributions to extremism.

  20. Bquad

    That is not the key point surrounding this subject whatsoever. The article doesn’t really dispute your claim, as it is not a discussion of the grievances that play a role in the radicalisation process. This is a discussion of the ideology that individuals choose to adopt once grievances are formed, and the implications of them doing so:

    “Ideology interprets grievances, shapes identity and presents idealistic solutions that ultimately guides behavior. Extremist ideology preached with fervor sets the kettle boiling and eventually some of the water spills over.”

    Your response seems guilty of the notion expressed by the author that people just want to discuss the topic of radicalisation as a political tool rather than treating the arguments presented seriously.

  21. johndowdle

    THE failure in addressing radicalization is the failure to accept and understand the extent to which Western forces have contributed towards radicalization.
    For example, allowing Zionists routinely, systematically and daily to murder Palestinians and – again – routinely, systematically and daily to steal Palestinian land and property without the West adopting a truly ethical stance on it all serves the sense of grievance.
    Zionists inside and outside Israel have to be challenged to start behaving like decent human beings if we are to at least diminish some little part of the sense of grievance young Muslim men and women currently feel.
    Until we in the West shed our hypocrisy and historical blindness on the subjugation of other peoples we cannot provide a rational rejoinder to the radicalizers.
    I accept that finding the bases for following such courses of action is not easy.
    Enslaving peoples in the Americas is a largely European course of action in recent history.
    However, relations between European descendants and indigenous peoples in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia are gradually improving as a result.
    We should do the same thing where what we refer to as the Middle East (more correctly South West Asia) is concerned. Then, much of the heat of grievance would be removed. We must learn to stop interfering and leave the peoples there to sort out their own affairs.
    ISIS is in reality a creature of the West, funded by America and supported by Jordan, the Saudis, Turkey and – indirectly – the Zionists in Israel. They all made ISIS possible.

  22. Bquad

    You speak of the West and the Muslim world as they are two singular monolithic entities. Even if your argument regarding foreign policy is true for some cases of radicalisaton, this does not explain terrorist attacks in other European countries that have very little history of foreign imperialism or adventurous foreign policies.

    Simplifying the complex process of radicalisation to one casual factor is frankly sheer lunacy. The notion that people suddenly decide to believe in an ideology that wishes to impose a state based on theology solely on the basis of perceptions of foreign policy ignores so many other factors. The Muslim world is not one homogenous group and radicalisation has many causes, it removes any agency from the person becoming radicalised. I’m not arguing that foreign policy isn’t a significant cause of grievance to some who become radicalised, but your analysis (if it can be called that) is far too focused on one causal factor.

    Also how would you explain non Muslim converts to Islamic extremism? Why would these people choose to espouse these values?

    It seems like really you despise Western foreign policy, and are using the subject of radicalisation as a tool to push your dogma.

  23. johndowdle

    My measured response to your vituperative remarks is to take them specifically.
    When you ask “…how would you explain non Muslim converts to Islamic extremism?” my answer is that such phenomena is a gradual process. Obviously, those who convert to them do not start out by advocating extremist measures, do they?
    They start by appealing to their sense of lack of identity, saying that if they become converts they will become part of a new community in which they will be equally valued, in which all their past “sins” are forgiven by ‘Allah’ and they are re-born.
    It is only gradually that the rhetoric changes towards inducing them into an increasingly radicalized outlook such that they end up becoming completely deluded and ready to adopt a truly murderous and rapine mind-washed framework.
    That is why we in the West have to not only adopt a heightened moral and ethical stance but also act accordingly in a way which is beyond reproach.
    Do I despise Western foreign policy? Well, just look at what the illegal invasion of Iraq triggered and the wholly uncritical support of Zionism has attained.
    Can you or anyone else truly claim that these events, plus illicit support for ISIS has gained us any kind of respect among people who consume Muslim beliefs?

  24. Bquad

    Oh someone found the thesaurus, congratulations. Nothing bitter and abusive about my comment. It is lunacy to reduce the complex process of radicalisation to one factor as you seem so keen to do.

    Your argument does not account for attacks that occur in Denmark, a country who hasn’t really been involved in Western imperialism to any comparable extent with the UK. Why does France have so many terror incidents when they as a nation took a more moral approach regarding the Iraq War? If it was a simple matter of foreign policy decisions, surely they wouldn’t have had the attacks they have had.

    What do you mean our blindness to historical subjugation? The UK voted to recognise Palestine in the UK parliament last year. A lot of other European countries do the same and show great sympathy to the Palestinian cause. That to me does not suggest an uncritical support of Zionism at all.

    The way you talk about the Muslim world and the West is also highly problematic. The Muslim world has agency, it doesn’t just have things happen to it and not react. Islamic fundamentalism predates the fall of the Ottoman empire, it has a long history and it is not just dependent on the West pissing people off for its spread. We can adopt a heightened moral stance all we like, won’t stop Saudi Arabia spreading its hateful ideology around the world, it won’t stop the Pakistani government using terror as a political tool and it wouldn’t stop Hamas from clamping down on minority rights. Islamic extremism is simply not just about the interaction between the Islamic world and the West.

    Isis has not been illicitly supported by any significant way. Some armaments may have got to them, but to suggest the US is somehow in alliance with ISIS is a very farfetched statement, I would apply a considerable burden of proof before I believed that. Glenn Greenwald even dismissed the idea that the US/Mossad trained Al Baghdadi, so someone pretty close to Snowden doesn’t buy it. A false causality on your part I imagine.

  25. Jack

    Tracing back causes ad infinitum is quite a childish way to see the world. You choose the Balfour declaration really rather arbitrarily, if you are going to see things so abstractly, and not grounded in the world of power politics as they actually are. What of the forces that created the West? A lot fo people, and I assume you are one of them, love telling people how much the ‘West’ (taken, unlike the Muslim world, to be completely homogeneous in its evil) has been influenced by the East. Is the East, then, not the REAL cause of the Israel/Palestine conflict? What about Balfour’s parents? Or his parents? Grow up and can the verbosity; it’s disgusting. Also, stop condemning Zionism while supporting another movement that also claims ownership of land based on historical links. Its pathetic. Israel’s great.

  26. Jack

    The words you quoted don’t say that it wasn’t founded by two money grabbing, blah blah blah. It only refers to the statements made by its spokesperson. I’m sorry if attacking the man is a legitimate form of debate where you come from, I truly am, but it won’t wash here. Getting quite tired of these rather irrelevant whinges.

  27. Cassandra

    You are commendably patient.

  28. Deiscirt

    Violent Islamic expansionism (Jihad) predates the west’s imperialism by a thousand years. Your claim is absurd.

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