Today’s Radical, Tomorrow’s Hero
Over the last 15 years, the concepts of radicalization and deradicalization have emerged as omnipresent terms for understanding the processes and transitions that turn people into terrorists and extremists. It is time to reexamine the way we look at these concepts and revisit how we present them in media outlets and social contexts.
There are major disagreements amongst academics and other stakeholders on the meaning, nature, and threat of radicalization. While many scholars have devoted time and energy to proving that this phenomenon is not a risk per se, others have worked hard to convince us that it is the root cause of most of today’s violence and does constitute a major threat to modern societies.
The origins of the debate are the historic complexity of the term itself and the vague nature of definitions.
For instance, in many western democratic countries, not only is being radical no crime but, more importantly, the very idea of ‘radicalism’ can have positive connotations in nations where founding principles were seen as radical (Neumann, 2013).
Indeed, the history books are full of examples of heroes, founding fathers, and freedom fighters such as Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King who were considered dangerous ‘radicals’ by their contemporaries, but are celebrated today as champions and peacemakers who made positive contributions to society. The same is true of whole movements of the 19th and 20th century that fought for civil rights and equal rights for women and minorities but were categorized as radical because they challenged the dominant status quo.
I can even go further and say that every single movement that fought for change was attacked and accused of being radical.
Moreover, many activists did not, and still do not, mind proudly describing themselves and their political and ideological epiphanies as radical.
So what’s going on here? Is radicalization good or bad? Should radicals be encouraged or rehabilitated and reinserted into society? Various experts have tried to solve this definitional dilemma by suggesting that the term “radicalization” can be problematic in its relationship to unlawful behavior, but ‘radicalism’ is now the expression of legitimate political thought (Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (ECEGVR, 2008, p. 5).
What Do Scholars Say?
In the academic literature, radicalization is defined as the rejection of the status quo, but not necessarily in a problematic way (Bartlett & Miller, 2012).
While discussing this phenomenon, researchers often seek to investigate a state of mind that precedes terrorism (Mastors & Siers, 2014, p. 379). However, radicalization, extremism, terrorism, fundamentalism, and so on often mean different things to different people. Ambiguities are often based on the political interests, cultural background, and religious affiliations of the beholder. In other words, radicalization, like terrorism, is a matter of perception: “one man’s radical is another man’s freedom fighter” (Neumann, 2013, p. 878).
This ambiguity stems from notions of radicalization that emphasize extremist thought -“cognitive radicalization” – and those that focus on extremist action – “behavioral radicalization.” The latter involves engaging in radical activities, whether legal or clandestine, which could lead to terrorism (Hafez & Mullins, 2015, p. 7).
Understanding the mechanisms behind radicalization’s forms is key to understanding “why and how individuals move from cognitive to behavioral radicalization” (Koehler, 2014, p. 125). It does not necessarily entail action. It can simply mean support for extensive and vast changes to a system or society, without using violent means to this end (Hirsch-Hoefler et al, 2015). Radicalization into violence is a complex and ambiguous process. It is seen as the process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs that might lead to violence.
Moreover, radicalization of thought is not and should not be considered equal to or as dangerous as radicalization of action. Radical tendencies won’t necessarily turn into violence or terrorism. Not every radicalized individual will transition into terrorism, and not all terrorists are radicalized, either politically or ideologically (Horgan & Altier, 2012). In fact, most radicals never turn to violence to express their views and achieve their goals (Schmid, 2013).
Most radicalization studies focus on major factors that help to create a conducive climate for violence and terrorism.
Radicalization is sometimes seen as emerging from and through specific factors, or as a linear progressive process with recognizable stages, signs, factors, and trajectories (King & Taylor, 2011). The main popular radicalization and terrorism models are Borum’s pathway, Wiktorowicz’s theory of joining extremist groups, Moghaddam’s stair case to terrorism, the New York Police Department (NYPD) model, and Sageman’s four prongs.
Moreover, Koehler (2014) divides schools of radicalization into four theoretical types: (1) sociological, (2) social movement, (3) empirical and (4) psychological theories. The sociological school, says Koehler, links radicalization to the individual’s identity crisis; the “social movement” sees radicalization occurring due to networks, group dynamics, peer pressure and a constructed reality; the empirical theory looks at the motivations, socio-economic factors, backgrounds, and affiliations of individuals; and the psychological school “states that emotional vulnerability, dissatisfaction with current political activity, identification with victims, belief that the use of violence is not immoral, a sense of reward and social ties into the radical group, among others, are very important” (p. 124).
The Challenge Persists
Even though there are currently various theories and countless analyses relevant to the study of radicalization, there is neither a settled profile for radicals, nor a consensus regarding the main radicalizing, protective, or risk factors. The titles of many academic papers, such as Peter Neumann’s “ The Trouble with radicalization,” Mohammed Hafez’s “ The Radicalization Puzzle,” Anthony Richards’ “The problem with radicalization,” Mark Sedgwick’s “The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion,” and several other scholarly works suggest that scholars themselves see the study of radicalization as ambiguous and difficult to tackle.
Hafez and Mullins (2015, p. 20) assert that there are four factors that lead to political and religious radicalization: (1) personal and collective grievances; (2) networks and interpersonal ties; (3) political and religious ideologies; (4) and support structures. In many instances, ideology can be particularly effective in convincing individuals that “the status quo” is problematic and that the guilt lies with others that ought to be considered enemies, such as broader society, the West, the Jews, the Muslims, and so on.
Scholars and concerned stakeholders are still trying to understand what ultimately motivated and incited Western youth to reach a state of cognitive radicalization, and then to move from there to a rhetoric of behavioral violent radicalization. Some mention Islamophobia, discrimination, and racism. But I would argue that radicalization could also be incited by something else altogether: instead of feeling marginalized, young people may claim they are being called as the chosen ones to change the world or to save their society and their ancestors’ heritage and achievements.
For instance, for some young Muslims who joined ISIS, the declaration of the Caliphate created an obsession with purity, utopia, and forgotten prophecies of the Islamic religion (Creswell &Haykel, 2015) that gives life to the idealized world they are dreaming of. The same can be said about others who bought into other radical or violent ideologies.
In sum, the challenges facing security and intelligence services are immense. Even though radical beliefs do not necessarily lead to terrorism, it is very difficult to know which groups or individuals will turn to violence.
Sometimes attacks committed by those who were not considered a real threat, such as the attack against three Indonesian churches by a whole family that spent time in Syria, will force governments to reevaluate the way they deal with suspects who hold these beliefs, despite not showing any violent tendencies.
Even though radicalization could be a normal phenomenon in society, it becomes problematic when it is merged with other ideologies that inherently deny individual freedom to out group members and “thusly the degree of ideological incompatibility with a political culture based on human rights and pluralism”(Koehler, 2014, p. 125).
As I have shown above, the study of radicalization is becoming more complex. Our words and labels have an effect on those being “labeled”. Therefore, my humble proposal to practitioners, researchers, policy makers, and to anyone whose work tackles radicalization and terrorism is to employ the term “problematic radicalization” when referring to any form of behavior or thought that needs preventing and countering.
In other words, as the problem of radicalization might be seen as a definitional one, I think we should look at it from at least two central lenses. First, we can look at positive radicalization, which is a necessary approach in modern democratic societies; second, we can consider problematic radicalization, which is unlawful, promotes violence as a means of change, and is politically or ideologically motivated. The crucial difference between the two is that the first is meant to bring about positive social change through peaceful and lawful means while the second seeks to destabilize society for the purpose of broader social harm. The challenge, however, is who decides which one is positive and which is problematic.
And even though radicalization’s present context is usually employed to describe a pre-terrorism stage, we won’t get tired of repeating that it is not confined to a religion, a nation, an ideology or an ethnicity.
Bartlett, J., & Miller, C. (2012). The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Radicalization. Terrorism and Political Violence, 24(1), 1-21.doi:10.1080/09546553.2011.594923
Creswell, R., Haykel, B. (2015). Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry. Accessed 17/11/2015 at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/08/battle-lines-jihadcreswell-and-haykel
Hafez, M., & Mullins, C. (August 05, 2015). The Radicalization Puzzle: A Theoretical Synthesis of Empirical Approaches to Home-grown Extremism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38, 11, 958-975.
Hirsch-Hoefler, S., Canetti, D., &Eiran, E. (2015). Radicalizing Religion? Religious Identity and Settlers’ Behavior. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 1-19.doi:10.1080/1057610X.2015.1127111
Horgan, J., & Altier, M. B. (July 01, 2012). The Future of Terrorist De-Radicalization Programs. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 13, 2, 83-90.
King, M., & Taylor, D. M. (2011). The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence. Terrorism and Political Violence, 23(4), 602-622.doi:10.1080/09546553.2011.587064
Koehler, D. (2014). The Radical Online: Individual Radicalization Processes and the Role of the Internet. Journal for Deradicalization, Winter (2014/15), 116-134.
Mastors, E., & Siers, R. (January 01, 2014). Omar al-Hammami: a case study in radicalization. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 32, 3.)
Neumann, P. (July 12, 2013). The trouble with radicalization. International Affairs, 89, 4, 873-893.
Schmid, A. P. (2013). Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review ICCT Research Paper. The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.
*Hicham Tiflati is a fellow at the German Institute for Radicalization and deradicalization Studies (GIRDS), and a senior researcher with the study, Canadian Foreign Fighters, based at Waterloo University. Tiflati is also a fellow at the Center for the Research on Religion (CREOR) at McGill University, and a Ph.D. (abd) in the Department of Religious Studies at UQÀM). Follow him @htiflati.