Anyone following the news from the largest global media houses couldn’t have done so without noticing a trending polarisation between various political movements in the Western world. In terms of reporting on radicalisation, holding strong predispositions and therefore refusing to dismantle a sensitive subject has done nothing but help destructive groups evolve, while succeeding in silencing critical voices. No wonder people are getting fed up and looking for alternative media channels and alternative ideas. But are they any different at all?
As we speak of the public space and elaborating on social issues when most needed, there’s no reason to feel anywhere near proud of what media in the past few years has accomplished. In addition, institutions aimed at providing citizens with guidelines and information on current challenges have been impressively bad at doing so, whilst holding onto the view that if we do as we always have done, things will change. And in regards to the radicalisation-terrorism connection? Nothing. Silence.
What is radicalisation? Ever heard of the Stanford experiment?
Hearing the word radicalisation today most likely brings about an association to radical Islam and terrorists. However, the Oxford Dictionaries define radicalisation as “the action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political or social issues”, leaving a broader space for conversation.
Thus, in terms of radicalisation, a particular lack of will to do anything other than carefully noting that this phenomenon exists and is complex has led to what we experience in our Western societies today. There are growing class issues, racism, Antisemitism, anti-Muslim tendencies, terrorism, anti-capitalism, anti-news, Islamism, neo-nationalism, neo-patriotism, extreme Leftism and Rightists becoming louder every day. But admitting that radicalisation is a process? Nah.
In addition to that, there’s neo-feminist extremism, anti-men, anti-genderism, what many people now refer to as a post-postmodernist time of reasoning. Extremism in general seems to be the new cool thing to do, while naming it something else to make it look nice. Naturally, in this new state of existing, anything even slightly critical of these views is deemed wrong, racist or unreasonable. Not only that, anything even slightly critical of these views is deemed bereft of even the slightest understanding of the world in which radicals would like the rest of us to live, i.e. a world in which dissenters are silenced.
As known from the infamous Stanford prison experiment in 1971, it only takes a little effort to create an atmosphere that fosters a certain behaviour of preference, and people will respond accordingly. In this experiment, a group of volunteering students were divided into two groups, dressed as guards and prisoners, and asked to act accordingly. It only took a short while before the guards adopted an authoritarian personality, enforced law, legitimised violence and supported each other’s destructive behaviours towards the prisoners.
Likewise, pretty soon into the experiment, the prisoners (acting accordingly) had fallen into the role of victim and accordingly developed a hatred for the guards whilst constantly watching out for danger. A clear hierarchical structure was established by the participants in both groups, leading to a distribution of completely different levels of punishment doled out to the prisoners by the guards.
While it was much more violent and extreme than anyone could have imagined, social psychology experienced a great leap thanks to this six-day study – the line between reality and fiction was almost completely blurred out, with guards and prisoners normalising their given roles. As stated in the study, by psychologist Dr. Zimbardo, “At that point I said, ‘Listen, you are not #819. You are [his name], and my name is Dr. Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let’s go'”.
All of the participants felt that they experienced a loss of identity, yet proceeded holding their roles without questioning. As far as the information provided on the official website of this experiment, none of them had any radicalised views before entering this study, yet they all turned into radical personas as the days went by. In order to understand the scope of the event, many of the students’ parents were in complete shock of what their children had experienced, hiring lawyers and initiating legal processes against the university.
The Islamist terrorism connection, Jacques Derrida and society
Now, obvious as it may seem, radicalisation isn’t exclusively connected to a certain group of people or those holding some sort of belief in something. As of the current state of media reporting, that’s easily overlooked since most of the news featuring radicalised people also has to do with terrorism. Not only that, but acts of terrorism having a connection with Islamism in particular.
In the 80s and 90s, various fractions of Christian sects were highlighted in the media with interesting reports given of those victims of radicalisation who were manipulated into adopting the strong beliefs that such sects were propagating. One of the most well-known examples of such groups is the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, USA, which is particularly famous for its hate speeches against LGBT people, Catholics, Muslims, American soldiers and politicians. According to the followers of this church, the former US president Barack Obama was the Antichrist, giving a clear picture of their collective sanity level.
Radicalisation is therefore fully blown in institutions without necessarily having to involve any form of violence or aggression. While there are many other well-known radical voices in the world, the lifespan of the so-called waves of terrorism is about 30-35 years, with a period of 15-20 years into one wave before moving to the next. As professor of political science at the UCLA David C. Rapoport states, these four waves of modern terrorism have all indeed included violence and aggression, but with arguments from different political or ideological frameworks.
According to him, the fourth wave is the religious wave, where the religious extreme doctrines hold organising principles and provide justifications for terrorist attacks, “Islam being at the heart of this wave”. He also states that, “the failure of a democratic reform program inspired the first wave, and the main theme for the second was self-determination.” The third wave theme was that existing systems weren’t truly democratic and the fourth, current wave “appears to be explicitly anti-democratic”.
It is in these descriptions in particular that the radicalising phases are exposed. A narrative where democracy is the root to all evil has to be created successfully for potential radicalisation of people to take place. The radicalising element here is the key, from which Islamism has emerged and through which the political ideology is taught. Not only that, but terror has become the choice of method for implementation of that ideology. In their book “Islam and the future of tolerance”, Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris describe this brilliantly, with Maajid defining various structures of Jihadists who hold certain beliefs while neglecting others, and situating them in local and global frameworks respectively (pp.19-20).
This explanation helps tremendously in understanding the pattern of radicalisation on a local and global scale. Interaction, sharing ideas and communicating has become so much easier these past years, and terrorists use these tools themselves in order to connect with potential radicalising subjects. In the case of Islamist terrorism, there has been a wave of leaderless radicalised individuals; jihadists, emphasising the fact that no clear hierarchical structure is needed for anyone to become radicalised. This shift towards a leaderless jihad is most definitely securing its success through the easy-access material online, and it also provides freedom to cherry-pick truths and ideas.
But how does someone actually become radicalised? According to terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, radicalisation is “the process of adopting for oneself or inculcating in others a commitment not only to a system of [radical]beliefs, but to their imposition on the rest of society”, clearly emphasising the active aspects of this phenomenon. Looking at the psychology behind becoming radicalised, the staircase to terrorism, defined by professor Fathali M. Moghaddam, explains the transformation from regular citizen to a full-blown terrorist through five clear steps.
Starting off at exploring perceived options to fight unfair treatment, the subject then slowly moves on to displacing aggression, moral engagement, legitimising terrorist organisations of choice, all the way to the grand finale of conducting violent action against civilians.
Drawing from that information, propaganda and marketing are very important means by which to recruit and maintain members of any radical initiative. An example, of course, is ISIS or Daesh, who invest time, skills and a lot of money into producing attractive marketing material on a frequent basis. They share this information in groups and fora, reaching out to thousands of people all over the world through their social media channels. In using these conventional methods, they and others like them spread a characterisation of themselves as heroes on an important mission.
For someone who is interested in their operative methods, there are thousands of sources available online, but the most interesting part in this case is how they create an atmosphere in which radicalisation makes sense. They don’t refer to it as radicalisation, but something more attractive as “choosing the right way”, following your true religion, challenging the Western destructive ways of life and so on.
While this may not seem to be an effective marketing campaign, but the tens of thousands of ISIS members recruited during these past few years paints the opposite picture. The data on the exact number of ISIS fighters wary between 20,000-100,000 of which foreign fighters are approximated to be around 20,000. However, these numbers are highly questionable, and according to an NBER study from 2016 the estimated total amount of fighters count up to 30,000.
Now, there are actors in our societies who work to counter this fourth wave of terrorism and key issues with regards to radicalisation, one such organisation worth naming is the Quilliam Foundation ran by ex-extremist Maajid Nawaz. While progressive initiatives like this one are received well by the progressive part of the public, aggressive criticism is also initiated, in this particular case by the legal advocacy organisation SPLC who declared Maajid, a Muslim himself, an anti-Muslim extremist back in October last year.
Considering himself a Liberal, working with reforming Islam, countering terrorism and devoting himself to challenging rigid views in general, this categorisation seems highly unlikely. Which naturally brings us over to yet another radical wave of today, the extreme or Regressive Left. These guys are all over the western world, allegedly working for human rights, supporting free speech and equality in all respects. Yet, even trying to have a conversation with someone who considers them part of this wave most often results in ridiculous accusations like the one to which Maajid was and is subjected.
These radical minds have succeeded in establishing a worldview with a given set of approved ideas, ways of debating and subjects which are OK to deconstruct ad absurdum. Conveniently, this road to [insert appropriate word]has gained popularity, especially due to its non-invasive, non-reflective, non-offensive nature. Everything within the extreme Left framework is accepted, even cherished, but there’s no room for discussion whatsoever; it’s all brutally censored. Nothing can be criticised because this means the criticiser disagrees, which automatically makes him an enemy. Or her. Or whichever pronouns feel plausible.
While absurdity is a delicate subject in itself, what seems to be the most contradictory aspect of this is the current experiment on the state of democracy, one that is is working hard to provide a lot of room for the radical anti-Leftists, often called alt-Right. As indicated in the name, these groups basically subscribe to the opposite of what the extreme Left believes is the one true path to ultimate happiness, making it an easy job whilst gaining followers who are tired of what is known as “mainstream”, used as a synonym for the Left.
If this isn’t a hunch of the blind leading the blind, I don’t know what is.
Speaking of creating narratives, as creating a world view is central for any form of radicalisation to succeed, the discourse is central. Jacques Derrida famously described this in an informal letter exchange with Jean Paul Sartre, where an event, any event, however impossible it may seem, is in itself possible to create. If you can deconstruct a concept, a phenomenon, then in itself must also lie the ability to construct it.
However metaphysical, it seems perfectly reasonable to act and think in a certain manner, under specific conditions and holding the belief that what you think, do and say is, without question, “correct”, thus creating this new, impossible state of “correctness”. If deconstruction is to be a useful tool, you may use it in order to construct yourself, your political views, agendas and aims. All radical groups, whether only ideological or political and religious, focus on this element in order to legitimise, recruit and expand their movements.
Thus, holding the (strong) belief of being a good person and leaving no room for discussion, enables groups of people to act out these beliefs at the expense of hurting other people. This could all be a cool show to watch hadn’t it also been very dangerous and volatile. The radical element in these various groupings of people, which spreads to a global level due to the easily accessed communication tools online, isn’t to be underestimated. As we have seen in the case of the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a thin line between political activity and radical transformation.
Becoming a burden, a destructive tendency, a pattern of aggression however latent it may be, isn’t doing any good for society. If the current wave of terrorism is against democracy, while democracy itself projects somewhat fascist tendencies in its management (i.e. polarisation) of ideologies, then we have a problem. While the Left and Right fight over pronouns, statistics, racist-or-not terminology and other life-threatening issues, civil society really needs to start criticising itself.
How do we know that there isn’t enough of that already? Because the ongoing trends in liberal countries aren’t progress, but polarisation. What requirements must be met in order for polarisation to occur and to maintain its position and/or grow? Indoctrination. There must be one true narrative with no room for discussion, which will then engender a counter-narrative to be the one true story.
In the Leftist world, tolerance is the prophecy, but understood as a passive concept much more in tune with the phrase “anything goes, without question”. This delusional distortion of linguistics has led to completely different languages being spoken by the radicalised political sides. On top of that, there’s little or no communication between radicalised groups owing to the fact that they are perceived as each other’s enemies. They pass the buck on to each other whenever possible, fully ignoring each other’s existence in all other situations, and they hope that. with this behaviour, everything will be just fine.
Further clear tendencies are seen in the scarce interaction they have in which they only confirm the radical aspect of their existence through fully dismissing anything the opponent says as a false claim. As observed, the result of this is two perceived parallel-dimensions of belief of action.
Constructing these particular events on a regular basis requires heavy investments of resources, possibly explaining why none of them think ahead.
People, the public space and what (not) to do next
Considering the increasing level of polarisation among the populations in Western countries, we may want to chill out a bit on the heroism emphasis in our western cultures at the moment. If this pressure doesn’t go away, people will desperately continue to seek a way in which to fulfil what they think they have to fulfil, i.e. seeing anything else as a total failure. There’s no better motivation for becoming radicalised but fear; perceiving oneself as misplaced in society.
Media plays a big role in this game since it’s the primary source of information to many people. In a time where various actors have access to production of television, newspapers, radio and internet news, demanding quality could be a strong countering factor to those who wish to radicalise a population.
Unless we’re aiming to proceed into a global scale Stanford experiment 2.0, I would also suggest we start broadcasting questions in regards to radicalisation – a phenomenon affecting both active and passive citizens. However cool it may be to hear a story here and there about one young man or woman who became radicalised and violent without their parents ever suspecting anything, the focus can’t be put on story-telling.
Where’s the question on why this radicalising factor is present not only as a predisposition of terrorism, but also in within our democratic structure? How many serious discussions are there so as to whether some institutions have performed badly in meeting the needs of their country’s population? Speaking of which, how’s the debate going in regards to what the possible alternative is to the ever so failing (pluralist) multicultural project? Who is dealing with questions of radical Left and Right elements hijacking very important societal questions?
So far, this hasn’t been done by the media. Instead, the nature of media reporting has transformed into either real news or fake news, provided by traitors and victims. Everything is hate speech and everything is discrimination. Either they tell the truth or they hide the truth due to their horrendous plans to erase a people/culture/heritage. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Nuances are relativistic, right equals wrong, risk is opportunity and there’s no more room for discussion. Passive-aggressive tendencies are expected as a consequence in an environment where only some ideas are acceptable.
Instead of criticising every aspect of radical views, media channels promote them. Since a large proportion of people are susceptible to radicalisation neglecting and especially promoting this problem is not a great idea.
Meet the individual as well as societal challenges ahead of us in order to counter and prevent radicalisation from expanding. Start conversations about the manipulation of language, legitimising of radical viewpoints, and the building tolerance towards extremist ideas. Question why some groups demand the privilege to scream out their views with no obligation to argue for their sake, with no risk of verbal confrontation.
Admitting the problem is the first step in finding ways out of it, and thus providing an opportunity for the Left and Right movements to understand that both of them subscribe to the same postmodern philosophical framework. Recycling identity politics, understanding concepts as sovereignty, responsibility and strategy, analysing trends and tendencies in society – these are suggestions for how to ask better questions in regards to radicalisation.
The continuation of this identity war between Left and Right may want to stop, and maybe they should both reconsider their desperate waiting for their utopia. In regards to terrorism, aiming to find and test better ways in which to counter and prevent radical individuals to go violent may be useful. For radicalisation in general, it seems as though we’re in need of expanding our short-time view and total lack of self-criticism, in combination with learning how to communicate effectively.
Maybe we should try to find alternative ways in which people could advance their status in society, where participation and effort could be directed in constructive ways. What is clear is that isolationism and racism will not solve these issues, nor will short-sighted counter-measures aimed at non-preventive actions. Polarisation won’t either, nor will extremism of any sort, misogyny, homophobia, Right-wing, extreme Left, social justice warriors, self-victimisation, living in denial or outright ignoring what is going on.
We need to work on problem-solving, not hold a competitive mindset. It’s not the Olympics. If society is a bunch of relationships, then why not engage in them actively?
Do indeed continue being individualistic, but how about understanding what it means to be part of a community? Until we’ve reformed civilisation into a more pleasant structure, we could at least try to put reason before sensation.
Basically, what we experience today is a failure of all political parties, a failure in the understanding of ideologies to which they themselves subscribe. It’s a big failure to have created a platform with such a large group of vulnerable people, and now we start to see the radical effect.
Let us nicely ask the professionals who have dedicated their lives to studies in radicalisation what they could bring to the table, then work together to find ways of improving our societies. If this is done, we’ll most likely find the core issue of radicalisation and then work on suggestions for how to counter it. Are we prepared to have a conversation about inconvenient aspects of our society, in a professional, respectful and truthful voice?
Harris S., Nawaz M. (2015), Islam and the future of tolerance, Harvard University Press
I write about all things Security Studies. Often passionately.