Rethinking radicalisation: why we have to reinsert the political into the radicalisation and extremism debate
Radical, radicalism, radicalisation. Much has been written to define these words, especially since Islamist bombs came to Europe in 2004, but they remain a source of conceptual confusion (Sedgwick, 2010). Donatella della Porta and Gary LaFree described seven different uses of the term radicalisation (2011), all of which include a move to violence. Other definitions do not require any mention of violence, but merely a movement towards extreme views. In this short piece, I wish to redefine radicalisation, but without defining radical, radicalism or extremism.
Indeed, I wish to reclaim radicalisation as a word describing a process, precisely because all those end points (radical, extremist and so on) are contested concepts. As pointed out be Schmid, ‘radical’ once described those agitating for democracy against despotism (Schmid, 2013). Definitions of ‘extremism’ that rely on difference from an assumed norm are dependent on the nature of the norm and some sort of ‘relative, evaluative and subjective’ (Mandel, 2009, p. 105) comparison. What the mainstream sees as the problematic end-points differs across time and space. Hence ‘one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’ if there are differences in ideological norms. What we consider to be violent or unacceptable conflict depends on where we put the limits of acceptable conflict: disagreements here are why we have debate in Western nations about the limits of free speech and what can be prosecuted as terroristic.
More importantly, the drawing of a line can reduce the concept of radicalisation to the process of crossing the line. Radicalisation ought to mean the process leading up to the crossing of the boundary, and subsequent processes of escalation. This problem of definition, in essence, is that objects like radical, extremist, violence and terrorist are ones that require bounding – one is either a radical or one is not, an incident is violent or it is not – whereas radicalisation describes a process which does not have a boundary. Given that individuals, groups and societies are not wholly circumscribed by what happens to be the law at a given moment, any line drawn is arbitrary and cannot be the whole story of the longer process.
Radicalisation, as a sociological concept, could therefore be much simpler. One such definition could be ‘movement towards conflict’, or as McCauley and Moskolenko put it ‘as changes in beliefs, feelings and behavior in the direction of increased support for a political conflict’ (2010). This, then, is something that is everyday and commonplace, and is something that individuals, groups, governments and societies are undergoing all the time: there is constant movement towards and away from conflict, and this conflict can be legal or illegal, violent or nonviolent. Such a definition implies no moral judgement, and places radicalisation as the process in which politics moves along a scale from total consensus to war. From any particular political/ideological viewpoint, some radicalisation is done in aid of the good, and some furthers the bad.
This definition makes radicalisation a process akin to aging, albeit with plenty of potential for reversal. Radicalisation is to radical as aging process is to aged. Just as we can accept that the aging process is something that all life undergoes all the time, but we reserve the term aged for those that have undergone lots of it, so we can reserve the term radical for those at the furthest point in the process. Young people are aging and may or may not become aged (they may not get there). Ordinary people radicalise and deradicalise, and may or may not become radical or extremist. Undergoing the process, defined like this, is not dependent on the crossing of a socially constructed line.
Furthermore, this definition is not reliant on the attempts to create solid foundations that are found in definitions of radical or extremist. Unless we assume that the liberal democracy we have now is perfect (can’t be true) or is at least the best we will ever have (can’t be proved), the labelling of something as radical or extreme is contingent, and may be subject to historical change. When distance from the political norm, and the willingness to use violence, are the markers of radical or extremism, then we must include Nelson Mandela and the Suffragettes (but perhaps not suffragists or Martin Luther King). Such examples show that judgements made to which radicalisations are acceptable and unacceptable are inherently political, and attempts to depoliticise the debate are bound to fail.
Seen this way, radicalisation is not seen as automatically problematic from some imaginary neutral position, but is deemed problematic from a specific position. It is important to note that the notion of movement towards conflict requires at least one other party: one group needs another to conflict with. Furthermore, there are usually multiple actors in any conflict, and while the state might attempt to draw lines around what is what I call ‘problem radicalisation’, these may not coincide with the lines that others may draw. So while the legal framework may protect free speech, some speech can be seen by others as on a radicalisation spectrum. While freedom of conscience, culture and religion are promoted by liberal democracies, some expressions can be viewed as problematic. Thus from a US perspective, the flying of a flag should raise no alarm bells, and from the perspective of 1950s UK wearing a veil would raise no alarm bells. In contemporary Britain, both can be interpreted as low-level radicalisations that are legal but somehow connected to the more problematic radicalisations of the far-right and radical Islamists, white and Muslim terrorists. Thus what is called ‘reciprocal radicalisation’ can be one set of people’s response to another sets actions, even when those actions are not recognised as problematic by the rest of us. More importantly, given the distribution of power, movements towards conflict made by the state can be felt as a threat, even when not meant to: the banning of demonstrations, or the criminalisation of dissent, is a radicalisation that some will view as problematic.
So while this definition of radicalisation – movement towards conflict – is broad, and without a value judgement, the dynamic of radicalisations and the limits set on good or bad radicalisations cannot be approached without political referents. Responding to radicalisation cannot be done with reference to some neutral viewpoint, but is political, as we should assume that at least the extremists disagree on visions of the good society. This was evident to me when interviewing an imam, fed up with the al-Muhajiroun extremists on the street outside his Friday prayers. He wanted them banned, but also for fairness wanted the BNP banned because they were ‘the same’ and because ‘racism is illegal’. This, then, ought to be subject to analysis and debate. For either the BNP and al-Muhajiroun are the same level of threat and should both be banned or both be legal, or they can be shown to be different, and different penalties apply. This debate ought to have been something that all could take part in, and with different positions allowable: otherwise the minor radicalisations are such that ordinary political conversation is replaced by more conflict.
This post was written a few months back for a corporate blog, but due to a rebuild of the site it got a bit lost. Now it's a trailer for a forthcoming piece in the Journal for Deradicalisation, written with Phil Edwards at MMU...