Deconstructing ‘Radicalisation’

Extracts from an interview with Assistant Professor Nadia Fadil of KU Leuven, Belgium:

Radicalisation is a contested notion, due to its exclusive focus on Islam. Yet, radical thinking in itself is not necessarily problematic or undesirable. For example, the early feminists fighting for female suffrage could also be considered as radical thinkers. When and under which conditions then does radicalism become a problem?

I agree that the term ‘radical’ is not necessarily a problem, and in my work I therefore do not follow the reading that states that radicalisation is a problematic process. Actually, the concept has received its negative loading only since some decennia, more precisely since the first half of the 1990s, when it came to be associated with violence. Based on my research, that focuses on how Dutch Security Services launched the term radicalisation in 2001 and how they have defined it since, the term ‘radical’ associated with ‘violence’ can be traced back to the early 90s. But it is only since the years 2000s that radicalisation has come to denote a process that can lead to violence.

The knowledge we have on radicalisation is essentially practical knowledge. There is not a lot of systematically collected information and scientific research. How do you deal with that scarcity?

Everything depends on what your indicators are, on how you operationalize issues. In my own research, I don’t use the term radicalisation, because I consider it as a normatively and ideologically loaded term that is quick to pathologize certain (religious and non-Western) forms of political activism. I think that it is especially important to understand how ‘conflict’ and ‘violence’ (and that can be about material violence like wars, social violence like inequality or symbolic violence, like racism and islamophobia) are translated in new forms of protest that are mainly peaceful, but among which a small fraction can be violent. To research this, it is therefore important to employ a holistic approach, that examines the interactions of youth with their environment (thus also educational institutions, teachers, other institutions where they stay…) and the extent in which these actors are able to tell a hopeful story that works inclusively. Because what is called ‘radicalisation’ is nothing less than the conviction that the available political instruments, narratives and utopias are no longer credible, and one searches for ‘radical’ other stories to give meaning to the world. A first step is therefore to understand why one would no longer belief in the hegemonic frameworks that are transmitted (democracy, Western values, the media offer) and to take these critiques seriously.

How can a government deal with issues like ‘radicalisation’, ‘Syria-warriors’ and so on, without stigmatizing communities, knowing that citizens expect from their government to deal with these vigorously?

The story on ‘radicalisation’ is another one that of ‘Syria-warriors’. In the first case, it is mostly about youth who are found to be in a deep state of ‘crisis’ and/or ‘mistrust’ towards transmitted hegemonic frameworks. This state of mistrust can be healthy, and it is important to take these critiques seriously, to examine their validity, and to understand how these critiques (often but not always) also imply a righteous critique on the extent in which our political system is failing. Concerning the ‘Syria-warriors’, youth who have effectively left to Syria and from which some have returned, it is important to differentiate, taking into account that can never anticipate how an individual will act (whether someone has left for Syria or not). Only a small group of leavers has returned, of those returnees a large part has left in the first wave and often they have returned disillusioned. One cannot suppose that among those first returnees there are people who have participated in violent acts; many of them went for humanitarian reasons or just for adventure.

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