The word radicalisation is currently used primarily to explain parts of what happens before the “bomb goes off”: the processes that lead individuals and groups to carry out terror. There is broad consensus that radicalisation must be prevented and fought. However, there is a lack of accord over exactly what radicalisation is and the role it plays as a source of terror. The main distinction is between those who link radicalisation to a willingness to use violence and those who interpret it in a more general fashion as a shift towards more extreme movements and ideologies.
Extremism, radicalisation and participation
There is no simple correlation between taking an extremist view of the world – of reality – on the one hand and the ability to perform acts of violence on the other. Organisations that use terror as a means to an end usually legitimise their actions with ideology. Yet organisations often resort to violent action after a process in which they have failed to win support for their views through other channels.
Some terrorists have not been ideologically radicalised. Some ideologically radicalised people live in harmony with democratic society.
There are also numerous examples of people who carry out acts of terror without having gone through ideological radicalisation. Similarly, there are many people with fringe or extreme views who do not engage in violence, instead living their lives in harmony with democratic society.
It is therefore useful to distinguish between radicalisation on the one hand and participation on the other. Radicalisation is the process that leads individuals to gradually change their attitude towards and view of the society in which they live and seek out extreme thoughts, ideas and opinions. The process can cause them to support, justify or legitimise other people’s use of violence (non-violent extremism) or to participate themselves and be willing to use violence in order to effect change in society (violent extremism).
Radicalisation is the process that leads an individual to gradually change their views and attitudes towards society and seek out extreme thoughts, ideas and opinions.
Both non-violent and violent extremism can be defined as immoderate thoughts, opinions, ideas and actions often linked to totalitarian ideologies. The words radical and extremist are often used interchangeably. One distinction between the two is that radical can also have a positive and honourable meaning. Across large parts of the political left, the word radical has a positive resonance, referencing a politics that takes seriously the need to change power structures in society. In a religious context, to many people the word holds a positive desire to return to the original message of the religion.
The word “radical”
The word “radical” has served different purposes over the course of history, from describing the root (the natural, the inherent) of something to becoming a reference to anything that deviates from the accepted norms of society (Mandel 2009).
Radical is derived from the Latin word radix, meaning “root”.
Radical is derived from the Latin word radix, meaning “root”. Its linguistic meaning thus points to something fundamental. This meaning can be found at OxfordDictionaries.com, which describes the word radical as “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something”.
In the 19th century the understanding of the term was broadened to include things that could result in changes to the root of something (Mandel 2009: 104). The definition was further expanded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when radical came to be used as a reference to comprehensive, major political change – reforms that go to the root of something.
Radical also became a reference to those who represent or support the extreme faction of a political party. Extreme/extremism comes from the Latin word extremus, which translates as “outermost” and/or “utmost” (Gule 2012: 15).
In extreme sports, the word radical can represent something positive, albeit also risky or on the edge.
In 60s and 70s slang the word was used to describe something that was “fantastic, outstanding, far out” (Mandel 2009: 105). This meaning originated in the surfing community and remains in widespread use in various extreme sports. Here, the word radical represents something positive, albeit also risky or on the edge.
The different definitions of the word can also help give radicals a positive and honourable understanding of the term and therefore also of their ideas and actions. For instance, to Christian youths being referred to as radical can be seen as something positive, since it means returning to the “natural” or “fundamental” interpretation of their religion.
Radical as a relative quantity
The interpretation of the words radicalisation and extremism depends on how we view what is normal, what is moderate or in the middle. This means that our understanding of these phenomena will always be subjective, relative and context-dependent to some extent (Coolsaet 2016; Mandel 2009).
Our interpretation of the word extremism depends on what we deem to be normal. For example, denying women the right to vote or have an abortion would be considered extreme in Norway today, while in the 19th century it was the acceptance of these actions that would be deemed extreme. Freedom of speech is another example. In democratic Norway it is considered to be important, while in countries such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea freedom of expression is deemed to be extreme. Peter Neumann highlights this by paraphrasing a familiar adage: “One man’s radical (or terrorist) is another man’s freedom fighter” (2013: 878).
It is important to understand that being radical is not dangerous in itself. This is particularly true when it comes to young people, who will often be going through a phase of exploration in which they may sometimes express fringe views.
It is important to understand that being radical is not dangerous in itself.
Where, then, do we draw the line between positive and more negative forms of radicalisation? In its negative form, radicalisation will often mean adopting totalitarian ideologies, something that can be destructive and dangerous to society. In its positive form it can be seen as an important fight against unfair norms or standards, e.g. the fight for equality.
The risk of misclassification
It is also important that teachers are aware of the major consequence that a selective and relative understanding of the term can have for innocent people who are misclassified as being radicalised. Ill-defined suspicion based on religion and ethnicity can lead to more radicalisation (Veldhuis and Staun 2009: 19). It is therefore important that we try to be as accurate as we can when seeking to understand and explain the phenomenon. This is especially important since the terms radicalisation, extremism and terrorism are often used interchangeably.
Ill-defined suspicion based on religion and ethnicity can lead to more radicalisation.
The existing definitions of the term have helped give practitioners, the media and the public a general framework that they can use to understand and prevent radicalisation. However, some of the existing interpretations of the term have had the effect of shifting the focus away from certain groupings, beliefs and actions. It is therefore important for teachers to remember that radicalised individuals and groups come in many different shapes. For instance, the word is used as a reference to radicalised Muslims, left-wing radicals and people who have embraced more extreme right-wing ideologies. One example of the latter is Anders Breivik, who went through a radicalisation process in which extreme right-wing ideology played a part.