Alison Boulton gains some insight into radicalism from an expert at Oxford Brookes

Roger Griffin, Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University, is a mild-mannered man who could charm the birds from the trees. He’s also an expert on some of the darker impulses of human nature, which he is radically re-interpreting on a global stage, with his insights into the terrorist mindset.

First concentrating on the Nazis and Mussolini (Griffin’s The Nature of Fascism has become a classic, and his subsequent book Modernism and Fascism explored further what drove the rebirth myth at its core), terrorism is his current preoccupation.

His latest book Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning explodes the dangerously divisive myth of a world peopled by good and bad, inviting us to step inside the terrorist’s mind and understand the subtle process in which the quest for a higher purpose in life can have such a deadly outcome.

“What is being lived out in the Middle East is what Christianity went through for several hundred years: religious crusades, persecutions, torture, mass murder of civilians in the name of a single, indivisible religious truth,” he said.

He is now increasingly concerned with understanding radicalisation – and suggesting strategies for effective intervention before further acts of violence are committed.

“Redirecting the urge to create a better world which attracts terrorist recruits is the best hope for de-radicalisation”, Griffin believes, and the front-line soldiers in the struggle against radicalisation are not Government ministers or even social workers and teachers, but parents and family.

“If we can get them to understand how radicalisation occurs, even to bright normal people with prospects in mainstream society, then progress could be made.”

The only child of a single mother who made loose covers and curtains and housed lodgers to make ends meet, Griffin grew up to the dual sound of an industrial sewing machine accompanied by Schubert’s Lieder or the St Matthew Passion.

“I remember doing my homework on a low round table while my mother sewed. As she listened to the music she had tears rolling down her cheeks,” he recalls.

“I came to associate learning with a deep emotional warmth that has never left me. My mum’s love of life and genuine, passionate response to art set the tone for the whole of my intellectual career.”

Griffin’s mother died of cancer when he was 24 years old.

“A strong Christian with enormous courage and determination, I didn’t realise how much she gave me until it was too late,” said Griffin.

“There was so much about her I never knew, especially about her relationship with my father who had abandoned her before I was born. I saw him occasionally, but he had another family by then. I never thought of him as my father. It was only when I had a son of my own that I realised what a huge father-shaped hole had been torn in my life.”

Griffin was a clever child who took refuge in his studies. He won a scholarship to John Lyon School, the day school of Harrow School. Despite being captain of Athletics and football and deputy head of school, Griffin felt ostracised as a swotty ‘free place’ student. Neither did he fit in at Oxford, having won a scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, to read Modern Languages.

“Socially I was very unhappy during my time as a student here. I was lonely, with very little money, but I loved my course and soon realised I was fascinated less by literature as an art form than as a way of communicating a unique vision of the world,” Griffin said.

Graduating with a top First, Griffin spent three subsequent years at Oxford University studying for a doctorate in German literature but with little supervision and guidance, he became discouraged, and abandoned it with an acute sense of failure.

It was then that he heard that the head of History at Oxford Polytechnic (as it was then) wanted to develop a course in the History of Ideas. Even though some of his academic colleagues wanted a ‘proper’ historian to augment the growing department, Griffin seized the chance to stay in Oxford. It was to prove advantageous for both parties.

“I’ve never been very good at change. I’m a bit of a mole. If I feel content in a particular environment I stay there and try to mould the environment around me rather than restlessly keep changing scenery. If you’re existentially fragile, familiarity has a cushioning effect,” Griffin said.

“I love Oxford, I get an irrational sense of community and belonging just from knowing that my ephemeral existence will have been lived out in a town where knowledge has been accumulating for centuries, like termites building a vast termite-mountain full of frenzied activity in a super-organism which outlives any one termite. Griffin’s personal and professional life came together when he met his Italian wife. Concurrently he completed a DPhil in political science at Oxford University, expanding his theory into a doctorate.

The resulting book, The Nature of Fascism, published in 1991, was met with utter indifference at first, but 25 years later is still in print and widely regarded all over the world as a seminal text in comparative fascist studies, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Leuven in 2011 for his services to fascist studies.

Having redefined fascism, Griffin wanted to understand better what drove the rebirth myth at its core, the longing for regeneration, for anthropological and temporal revolution.

This led him to his second major contribution to the human science – his rethinking of the term modernism to embrace social and political phenomena. In Modernism and Fascism, his most densely scholarly book, he rethought the concept of modernism as a term covering myriad attempts to restore to modernity a sense of renewal, meaning, hope, and purpose.

So does he finally feel at home here in Oxford? At this, Griffin laughs.

“In this microenvironment you do not feel weird if you are interested in the most bizarre topics and outlandish theories, topics and theories which would seem mad outside the ring road,” he said.

“I know that everywhere I go in this mythic city there are people who know things I don’t and have been to places or come from places I will never see. It’s an urban habitat as full of the exotic bio-diversity of science as the Botanic Garden.”

* Prof Griffin's talk The Terrorist Mindset will take place at Oxford Brookes University on Wednesday, March 16 at 6.30pm. See