Since the imposition of lockdowns in the UK, and around the world, numerous media outlets have reported an increase in incidents of domestic violence. At the same time, governments and media reports have warned of an increase in radicalisation due to the extra time people are spending online and accessing the social media output of extremist groups. However, very few have made a connection between these two seemingly distinct but inter-related phenomena. This piece will explore the relationship between domestic violence and extremism and argue that we need to be concerned about this now more than ever.
In July 2017, Joan Smith, writing for the Guardian after a series of terror attacks on the streets of Britain, argued that vulnerability to terrorism often begins in the home after exposure to domestic violence. This seems to have been the case with many of the individuals responsible for the series of terror attacks that shocked the country in that year. Witnessing and experiencing violence in a familial context helps normalise it as a response to anger and frustration. It can also cultivate a fear of violence that can subsequently manifest as a fear of showing weakness in the face of perceived threats and, therefore, replicating patterns of violence and abuse.
In my work as a local community activist working with vulnerable women and girls who have been exposed to extremist recruitment, I have seen a lot of evidence of the link between exposure to domestic violence and vulnerability to extremism over the years. Growing up witnessing and experiencing violence in a domestic setting can have a serious impact on one’s sense of self-esteem, self-worth and confidence. A negative self-image can leave one vulnerable to engaging in behaviours that attract the approval of others and the need to be accepted into a social circle. Extremist groups are very adept at seeking out individuals with such personal vulnerabilities and offering them both an explanatory narrative and a place where they are accepted, embraced and valued.
This is not just something that affects young men, young women with similar experiences also express the same vulnerabilities. Again, being approached and be-friended by older men who meet their need for acceptance and admiration can be a pathway into radicalisation and other forms of abuse and manipulation. Extremist groups can offer a social environment in which the rules are different and hierarchies are determined by the extent of one’s attachment to the ideology. Thus, sacrificing one’s time and effort for an extremist ideology becomes a means by which one can compensate for what has been taken away from them by domestic violence.
I have also come across examples of extremist ideology being used as justification and motivation for domestic violence and abuse. In both Islamist and far-right ideology toxic forms of masculinity are often endorsed and promulgated. Since nothing is more important than ‘the cause’, family members and partners must not get in the way of the activism and, thus, be kept in line. This way of thinking often entrenches traditional gender roles and limits the agency of women and girls. It also paves the way for control, domination and abuse that is often justified for the sake of the ‘greater good’.
The above dynamics are not only being exacerbated by lockdown but seem to be largely unacknowledged by government policy, both locally and nationally. Lockdown is not only encouraging people to seek socialisation online, it is also worsening existing vulnerabilities through prolonged periods of isolation. Being devoid of human contact whilst stuck in abusive family settings with little respite is not only deleterious for one’s mental health but renders one a prime target for abuse, manipulation and radicalisation.
Whilst there are existing policies to tackle radicalisation and domestic violence, there is currently a limited understanding of the plight of those at the intersection of these two forms of abuse. I run a small non-for-profit organisation called The Groundswell Project that seeks to plug gaps in delivery and support vulnerable women and girls in hard to reach communities (amongst others) who are currently not visible to publicly funded initiatives. We hope that our work can help reduce the impact and prevalence of domestic violence and radicalisation in these difficult times. However, a greater understanding of how various forms of abuse and exploitation relate to one another is needed before we can truly prevent some of the unintended and, as yet, unmitigated consequences of lockdown.