Islamist radicalisation in current academic literature seems to enjoy the same status as pornography in the 1960s ‘we know it when we see it’ (Jacobellis v. Ohio 1964). There is a widespread assumption that the term is somehow selfexplanatory, definitions are scarce and when they do appear, the focus is usually on the symptoms or the results of radicalisation rather than on what it is and how it works. Adding to the confusion is the occasional overlap with other concepts such as extremism and fundamentalism. The report prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism (Reinares et al. 2008: 6, 7) starts off with the definition provided by the European Commission ‘embracing opinions, views and ideas which could lead to acts of terrorism’ and makes some important distinctions as to whether it might necessarily include the use of violence or not and whether or not adherence to ideas needs to be accompanied by corresponding behaviour. Yet a definition or explanation of what radicalisation might be is nowhere provided. Furthermore, the conceptual delineation between ‘radicalisation’ and ‘violent radicalisation’ and the analogy to ‘socialisation’ might suggest that the term radicalisation is superfluous. Apart from being a prominent example of conceptual confusion, this definition points out a series of other general trends with regard to the way we have come to see radicalisation. The context of discussion, and arguably the underlying situation which makes radicalisation an issue in the first place, is homegrown Islamist terrorism in Europe and the West in general. Before 9/11 and in spite of previous waves of terrorism in Europe – left-wing, nationalist and even Islamist but not of the Al Qaeda type and not homegrown, radicalisation was not a commonly used term and was not a matter of utmost concern; one would combat terrorism, not radicalisation. Some European countries such as France continue to deal with Islamist terrorism as terrorism, while some others, such as the Scandinavian countries, pushed the entire extremist spectrum under radicalisation. Yet the majority of EU Member States and indeed the EU Commission itself have increasingly focused on processes of radicalisation as a sort of preliminary phase to engagement in terrorism. A second underlying trend, although not explicitly mentioned in definitions, is the focus on Islamist radicalisation rather than radicalisation in general. The somewhat misleading yet
understandable implication of this has been a preoccupation with the role of Islam and Islamist movements in the Middle East and the Maghreb in the radicalisation process. This is an important issue to consider since it not only artificially isolates Islamist radicalisation from other types of engagement in political violence and political protest, but also has the potential of stigmatising certain groups in society as harbouring specific features which would make them more prone to radicalise. Finally, and perhaps understandably considering the locus of responsibility and concern at the state level, there is an implicit association with violence. This set of underlying assumptions has serious implications on the adequacy of the way radicalisation is not only conceived but also researched in terms of levels of analysis and corresponding literature. If, for instance, radicalisation is conceived as the process leading to terrorism, the literature of reference would be that on terrorism, the phenomenon of interest would be ‘becoming a terrorist’, while the analysis could consider the levels of individual involvement, organisational logic, historical development and chronologies, or more recently the construction and securitisation of the term. If radicalisation is understood as the politisation of Islamic fundamentalism, this would mean resorting to the literature on political Islam and the respective social movements; one would look at things like the political, economic and cultural situation in Islamic countries, the role of state repression, the interaction between the state and political challengers and, on a broader level, Islamist radicalisation in Europe would be a spillover of external conflicts. If radicalisation refers to the resort to violence over the trajectory of existing engagement in political protest, the discussion would need to shift towards psychological and social theories of aggression, as well as perhaps social movement theories on conflict escalation. By and large, radicalisation has been conceptualised as a process of individual evolution towards certain ideas, in some cases accompanied by a corresponding behaviour and of violence. Ongering (2007: 3) defines it as a ‘process of personal development whereby an individual adopts ever more extreme political or politic-religious ideas and goals, becoming convinced that the attainment of these goals justifies extreme methods’. In Taarnby Jensen (2006: 61), ‘Radicalisation, in this context [jihadism in Denmark], is understood as a process during which people gradually adopt views and ideas which might lead to the legitimisation of political violence.’ Neumann and Rogers (2008: 5, 6) see radicalisation as a process of drifting into ‘political extremism’, and as a term that ‘describes the changes in attitude that lead towards sanctioning and, ultimately, the involvement in the use of violence for a political aim’. Olesen (2009: 8) defines radicalisation as ‘the process through which individuals and organisations adopt violent strategies – or threaten to do so – in order to achieve political goals’. (Korteweg et al. 2010: 31) see radicalisation as ‘the quest to drastically alter society, possibly through the use of unorthodox means, which can result in a threat to the democratic structures and institutions’. Waldmann (2010: 8) states that ‘a person with radical goals questions the status quo of the socio-political order with a view to replacing it with another – either a revolutionary or an extremely
reactionary one.’ Belaala (2008: 17) takes a more functionalist approach to the definition, arguing that radicalisation is a ‘process of rupture’ with the previous cultural group in a first phase and then with the national community with regard to the political order in the second phase. At the level of content, several implications and difficulties arise from these definitions. First, that radicalisation is a process involving a cognitive and/or a behavioural component. It remains however unclear how these two components might interact, in particular whether and how radical ideology affects violent behaviour or whether the relationship is perhaps inverse. Additionally, the exact location in time of the process is not consistent: while some authors emphasise the process nature of a cognitive change, some others place it at the level of behaviour. Also unclear remains the conceptualisation of the process as such, as for instance social learning, passage, crisis or something else. Indeed, except for Belaala’s definition, the definitions above rather elaborate on the ideological and behavioural result of radicalisation, rather than on what radicalisation is in itself, namely what types of stages or mechanisms ‘adopting certain ideas and behaviours’ actually consists of. Another implication is the association with a series of other concepts namely extremism, political violence and violence. Apart from the apparent liberal use of essentially different concepts, this raises questions into the level of overlap or possible identity of meaning between the radicalisation process and others, such as ‘becoming an extremist’ or ‘becoming a terrorist’. Finally, there is ambivalence as to whether violence is a necessary or a contingent element of both radicalisation and its end result. In terms of sphere of application, most of the conceptual approaches refer to the radicalisation of ‘individuals’, although there are also references to radicalised communities or social movements. Githens-Mazer (2008: 555) sees for instance radical violent Takfiri jihadism in Britain as a form of insurgency – social movements that challenge basic state legitimacy. Waldmann’s (2010) Diaspora theory is also focused on second-generation Muslims in Europe in general, considered prone to radicalisation, rather than on particular individuals. A workable definition of radicalisation needs to clearly identify and delineate conceptually the content and sphere of application of the term. Concretely, at the level of content, one needs to see
1 whether we are dealing with a phenomenon, a set of ideas or ideology, or a type of behaviour;
2 the relationship with other concepts, in particular terrorism, Islamism, extremism and democracy; and
3 its main characteristics, including the incidence of violence and legitimacy.