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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Myths of Radicalization

Rolling Stone published a provocative piece yesterday titled "Everything You've Been Told About Radicalization is Wrong," prominently featuring Dr. John Horgan, who wrote at more length about his views in this piece. The piece and some comments I made about it led to a spirited discussion on Twitter, which was difficult for me to fully participate in from the series of airports where I was hanging my hat at the time. Rather than tackle the article directly, I wanted to post a few relevant and overlapping thoughts about myths surrounding radicalization that have been banging around in my brain pan for some time now.

Myth One: Radicalization leads to terrorism 

Some form of radicalization is almost always a pre-condition for terrorism, if you define terrorism the way I do -- as non-state public violence carried out in the name of a political or religious cause. But there are hundreds of thousands to millions of people in the world who are radicalized, and only a handful take up violence. So the road of radicalization by no means leads invariably to terrorism. There are many exits and alternate destinations, including among them the mainstreaming of one's radical political or religious cause.

Myth Two: Counterradicalization equals counterterrorism

There isn't much data to support the idea that intervening with people who are becoming radicalized is a reliable way to stop or reduce terrorism, in part because there's no way to know for certain how many radicals would become violent at any given time in the absence of counterradicalization. The sample size of the number of terrorists (excluding foreign fighters from this equation for the moment) is too small to present clear trends, and the definition and implementation of counterradicalization is too vague. Meanwhile, there is at least some risk of having the opposite effect -- if only a tiny, tiny minority of radicals become violent, there is almost nowhere for the rate of conversion to terrorism to go except up. In other words, given how few radicals become violent, there's more than a little risk that efforts to re-program people who are early in the radicalization process could create more terrorists, not fewer.

Myth Three: Radicalization is an issue best addressed by law enforcement

Because we talk about radicalization and extremism almost exclusively in the context of terrorism, we increasingly equate legal (if socially repugnant) political dissent with a pretext for investigation. This didn't start on September 11, but it has accelerated since then, particularly as it regards Muslims. People on Twitter keep asking me why Cambridge mosque-goers didn't report Tamleran Tsarnaev to the FBI for shouting about "kaffirs." Do those people call the FBI to report a white supremacist when they see a racist political bumper sticker? Cambridge Muslims dealt with Tsarnaev the same way an average white person might deal with a racist in the same context. They took him aside, and said "knock it off." It turns out many terrorists and criminals were known assholes before they were arrested. If we make "being an asshole" the center of our counterterrorism policy, we have a long haul ahead of us.

Myth Four: Radicalization is always bad

Martin Luther King Jr. was investigated as a dangerous radical in his day because he advocated racial equality against the social norms of his time. Few people today would defend the law enforcement tactics used against King. In the context of his era, King was radical, but he was also right. Radicals and radicalization can take on many forms, and much of what we consider radical today is also repugnant and regressive. But sometimes radicalism arises to address real problems that are entrenched in society. The verdict of history doesn't always track with the present view. Sometimes societies require radical change, but advocating for such change -- even loudly -- is by no means the same as advocating for violence or terrorism.

Myth Five: Because Myths One Through Four Are Myths, Radicalization Doesn't Matter 

None of the above means that radicalization and ideology are irrelevant to understanding terrorism and political violence. Radicalization is still the context in which most terrorism happens, whether it fits a programmatic progression down a particular religious path or whether it's sudden and shallow (as is often the case). There's nothing wrong with trying to understand how one feeds into the other, or trying to discern the path a particular individual took to becoming a terrorist. The problem is when we treat radicalization as a reductive explanation for violent action or a reliable indicator of violent intent.

There's a strong argument to be made that our national conversation about radicalization has expanded far beyond its mandate and its usefulness. We can and should retrench, but we shouldn't just abandon the line of inquiry. Radicalization is one component in understanding terrorism.

Radicalization is also a broader concern for society, and the conflation of radicalization with terrorism tends to make that concern harder to address rather than easier. Radicalization reflects tensions in a society or culture, at the fringes but also often emanating from the middle. When we reflexively categorize nonviolent (or "previolent") radicalization as a criminal indicator, we often foreclose political options for people whose views make us uncomfortable. We send a message to radicals that they are suitable targets for isolation, stigmatization and extreme measures such as violent confrontation and arrest. Regardless of how you feel about the radicals or their views, it's pretty hard to see how such messages decrease the risk of political violence.

There isn't a simple answer to this. Isolation and stigmatization are sometimes appropriate responses to morally repugnant views. But we should study and understand the impact of how our attitudes about radicalization affect radicals. None of this takes place in a vacuum. The ecosystem of "radicalization to violence" is complex and filled with butterflies flapping their wings.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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