Is it too much to ask these days for conceptual clarity on a widely used term? This is the nth news item I’ve read in the past week or so using the term ‘radicalisation’ without providing the slightest hint of what it means. What is radicalisation? What are its contours? Is it a political category? Is it a socio-political category? What is it to undergo radicalisation? Is it a surrogate for some clinical term, and if so can it be eliminated in favour of a clinical term with a psychiatric pedigree? Does it refer to a state of mind or a process? If it is a process is it an exclusively external process whereby the subject of radicalisation is radicalised by someone else? Or is it an internal process whereby the subject of radicalisation radicalises himself? As someone who does quite a bit of work in a custodial institution, I’d like to do my part but can’t wrap my head around what the damn term means or how in a practical sense I’m supposed to apply it (or to whom it applies). As a dude in his early 30s, I’d like to be able to tell whether the smile I received on Wednesday from some hijab clad Veena Malik look-alike was a sign I still got it or whether it was a subtle invitation to commit a spousal jihad attack. Without any clarity on radicalisation there’s no way to know.

P.S.: You’ll have to excuse the British spelling. When in Rome…

P.P.S.: I just realised I left out the title. My bad.

7 thoughts on ““Radicalisation”

  1. Interesting post. Here’s a first stab at an analysis of “radicalization,” one that may or may not answer your further questions.

    I take radicalization to be a feature of a person relative to a doctrine (where the doctrine prescribes action, typically socio-political action, typically though not invariably with some potential for violence). So take a person S, and a doctrine D. S is a radical if and only if S espouses a version of D that (1) claims to be the “purest,” or belongs to the set of purest, interpretations of D, (2) S is adamantly committed to D, (3) S insists on putting D’s prescriptions into practice, and (4) S’s interpretation of D requires far-reaching (typically but not invariably abrupt) changes to the status quo. As S’s interpretation of (and endorsement, and acting on) D demand broader and more intensive changes to the status quo (“radical change”), S becomes radicalized, relative to some baseline of earlier complacency with respect to the status quo.

    Put that way, “radicalization” is morally and politically neutral. There are good radicals and bad ones, depending on the content and consequences of the doctrines they espouse. I’d say that I was radicalized by my visit to Palestine this summer, and also by the recrudescence of “Islamophobia” (bigotry against Muslims) I’ve seen since roughly 2007 (and particularly since 2010). The doctrine in question is garden-variety liberalism, but I’ve been radicalized in the intensity of my commitment to it, and come to have more radical views about what it requires. So I think liberalism and radicalism are compatible with each other. So are fascism and radicalism, Islamism and radicalism, etc. I think it works the other way around, as well. There are complacent (i.e., non-radical) fascists, Islamists, etc.

    Good to hear that the Veena Maliks are smiling at you. Enjoy it while you can. It stops after 40. Trust me on that one.


    • By the way, have you ever read Ayn Rand on “anti-concepts”?

      An anti-concept is an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listener a sense of approximate understanding. (Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 23).

      Anti-concepts are a species of invalid concepts, which are just unnecessary and rationally unusable (though not necessarily designed to replace and obliterate legitimate concepts).

      I’m inclined to think that many colloquial or journalistic uses of “radicalization” are anti-concepts in Rand’s sense.

      I went back and browsed her essay, ” ‘Extremism’ or the Art of Smearing,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. It’s on the concept of “extremism” in political contexts, which is closely related to “radicalism.” The essay was a bit of a disappointment. I agree with the general thrust of her claims–with her conclusion, taken abstractly–but the argumentation is characteristically histrionic, and the examples she offers (and analyzes) are tendentious and problematic.

      Here’s the part I agree with:

      To begin with, ‘extremism’ is a term which, standing by itself, has no meaning. The concept of ‘extreme’ denotes a relation, a measurement, a degree….It is obvious that the first question one has to ask, before using that term is: a degree of what? (p. 196)

      And her point is that “degree of what” is precisely what’s left unspecified when people use the term.

      Interestingly, though, she insists that “McCarthyism” is an anti-concept whose alleged meaning is “unjust accusations, persecutions, and character assassinations of innocent victims” (p. 194), but which really just denotes “anti-communism.” She asserts this on the grounds that McCarthy “was never proved guilty” of the allegations made against him (p. 194), from which it somehow follows that “McCarthyism” was just a semantic fig-leaf for pro-communist sympathy.

      As history, the claim is worse than a joke, but even if it were true, the inference is fallacious: it’s an instance of poisoning the well. Even if the coiners of the term had gotten the history wrong, and thought that McCarthy was reckless when he wasn’t, they might still legitimately have regarded “McCarthyism” as meaning “unjust accusations” (etc).

      I would have added this to her definition of McCarthyism: “….in a climate of unreasoning hostility and hysteria deliberately driven by the accusations themselves.” “Islamophobia” is a similar term, and similarly abused or misconstrued, but I think it means roughly the same as “McCarthyism,” just indexed to Muslims.

      With that caveat (a big one, which applies throughout the essay), the essay is useful for thinking about “radicalism.”


  2. I don’t have a working definition of radicalisation at the moment, but I like your definition in that it (i) is politically and morally neutral and (ii) is sharp enough to apply in custodial institutions like prisons or at an elementary school. I’ll have to think about condition (1) in more detail. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

    What bothered me about the item I posted (and so many others) is it assumes from the start that radicalisation is politically and morally specific without providing a definition that would be useful in practical way. Moreover, the elusiveness of radicalisation gives maximal discretion to those who define it in any way to suit their own political ends. Take Donald Trump’s comments last week that parts of London have become so radicalised that law enforcement agents cannot operate in certain areas without fear for their lives. On its face Trump’s comments seem all too typical of him and not worthy of a response. However, a number of law enforcement agents here in London have come out in support of Trump’s comments saying quite boldly they can personally corroborate them. Of course, those now coming out of the woodwork supporting his claims can speak of “corroboration” only because radicalisation can mean anything Trump wants it to mean and give the superficial impression that London is about to erupt into a Muslim-encrypted Compton. Never mind that area he’s likely talking about (i.e. Tower Hamlets) is a rich manufacture of tightly pocketed ethnic communities, low income housing, pro-criminal behaviour (e.g. drug use and prostitution), suspicion of racialised policing methods, and the real or perceived impression of social exclusion. The vagueness of radicalisation gives him discretion to make a predicative claims about Muslim populations and militancy, regardless of the socio-economic conditions in which they live, that dovetail nicely with his comments last month that Muslims can’t be trusted and were celebratory in the thousands on 9/11.

    As for the Veena Maliks of the world, well, I’ve got 8 1/2 years to go. Keep’em coming, gals.


    • I agree–that’s very well put.

      I can see why you might balk at (1), but what I was trying to capture or emphasize was that radicalization is an inherently doctrinal or ideological phenomenon. A radical is someone who wants to get at the root of things, and claims to be able to offer inferences to the best explanation of otherwise unexplained social phenomena. Those explanations are part of an account of the world that yields specific evaluations and prescriptions that are themselves held (by the radical) to be the best on offer. And what makes them best (the radical says) is the radical’s theory. (Incidentally, I think Rand’s definition of “ideology” is particularly useful here.)

      There might be latitude here about what counts as a theory (or doctrine, or ideology), but an important implication of my definition is that an increased willingness in a certain population to resort to violence is neither necessary nor sufficient for radicalization. You can radicalize and not have an increased willingness to resort to force, or you can be increasingly willing to resort to force without engaging in radicalization in my sense.

      That implication coheres with my posts on Brennan on abortion and defensive force: an anti-abortion activist could be radicalized in my sense and yet conclude (on the basis of the things I said in part 1 of that post) that despite the increased urgency of the issue, she really must think of a better, more effective non-violent approaches to the abolition/containment of abortion. A radicalized Muslim could think the same thing (mutatis mutandis), as could a radicalized anarchist, etc. So could lots of other radicals.

      Ah, to be 32 or 33 again. A long-faded memory…. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!” Well, not really.


    • I’m not convinced by Jones’s case. I think it’s too historicist–he’s assuming that a term has to remain tied to the specific context in which it was first coined. Since “radicalism” was coined by nineteenth century English reformers, radicals have to be democratic and secular. Since “zealot” was first used to refer to religious enthusiasm, there are no secular zealots, etc. It’s a bit like Christopher Hitchens’s one-time view that “terrorism” could only function as a right-wing propaganda term because Burke first coined it in a polemical context to refer to the leaders of the French Revolution (“Wanton Acts of Usage,” in Prepared for the Worst, pp. 297-304).

      I don’t think anyone could fairly call me an uncritical Rand-booster, but I think she gets this particular issue right when she talks about the “open end” character of concepts in her epistemology book.

      A concept is not formed by observing every concrete subsumed under it, and does not specify the number of such concretes. A concept is like an arithmetical sequence of specifically defined units, going off in both directions, open at both ends and including all units of that particular kind (p. 17, my emphasis).

      What she says in the Appendix about “conceptual-level similarities” is also relevant (pp. 217-222).

      The point is that once you form the concept “radical,” the phenomenon you’ve identified is not limited to secular people, but a feature that secular people have in common with religious ones. Bentham, Mill et al may have had a specific polemical purpose in mind when they coined “radical,” but the relevant issue is: what objective feature does it name? And I think the Randian view correctly implies that the feature is trans-historical. It’s not limited to one time and place, as Jones suggests.


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