Reflexions on Forms and Dimensions of Radicalization(s)

It is now very rare to come across, or even to write an article on such issues like dialogue, Terrorism, and Radicalization without expanding on theoretical definitions and ideological arguments which most likely make it difficult to get any clear idea about the nature, impact and perspectives of these issues. Moreover, it gives the impression of repetition, polemics and rather useless rhetoric that we find in almost every piece of literature in this field.

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Since this article is no exception, we will try to limit as much as possible the notional dimensions of the issues it will tackle and stress the practical aspects of their analysis. We will not, therefore, risk any definition of ‘dialogue’ or ‘Radicalization’ but we will focus on the challenges that these two concepts raise, both on the level of understanding and their application to reality.

The term ‘dialogue among cultures and civilizations’, regardless of its origin, has nowadays become linked with the United Nations initiative and with the announcement of 2001 as the year of Dialogue. Still, we need to remember that this year experienced another event which drastically affected the whole international community and gave new dimensions and orientations to this initiative. It is not very difficult to guess that this event was the 9/11 attacks. Does this ‘coincidence’ mean that the enthusiasm for opening up Dialogue was one of the manifestations of the new era since the end of the cold war? Or was it a hidden indication, if not an intuition, that we strongly needed to act before anything of the sort can happen? In other words, were we in an unconscious state forgetting and ignoring the tensions that could motivate such an act or were we in some preventive context trying to save the world from such a catastrophe? How was the process of Dialogue going to proceed without these attacks and how did they impact it philosophically, ideologically and maybe politically? Other questions that can be posed in this regard are manifold, but I think it is important to remember that the spirit in which ‘dialogue’ was first initiated was totally different from the context in which it was carried out.

Another factor of relevance to these questions relies on the regular linkage between dialogue and Radicalization, Extremism and Terrorism. Are these issues intrinsically linked or is it the coincidence we spoke about which is making it inevitable to dissociate them? Does this connection imply that they are two sides of the same coin?

As was the case of the term dialogue, the concept of Radicalization certainly needs the same degree of elucidation and contextualization. We will not, however, elaborate on the historical background of this term when it referred to the ‘reformers’, to revolutionary alternatives and to resistance to totalitarian authorities. The meaning of Radicalization has certainly come a long way since then, but one common semantic feature remains – the status of refuting a given system and embracing positions that may require the use of strongly, affirmed means of action. Taking the present manifestations of Radicalization, especially in the Islamic world, as it is our area of interest, we can say that it is not accurate to speak about one Radicalization. In fact, there are as many radicalizations as the so-called radicals themselves. Every process of radicalization carries with it all the individual, subjective and also objective motives, expectations and convictions of the radicalized person, even if we can speak about the phenomenon in its general and common manifestations. In this way, is it possible to speak about positive and negative attitudes of radicalization? Is there anything wrong with radicalization as long as it does not lead to violence and terrorism? Not all forms of radicalization are actually condemnable. We might take some forms of radicalization as part of the established values and principles, which for one reason or another is not ready to question or challenge. In fact, I do not believe that dialogue can be achieved without what we can call at this stage ‘truth claims’. Unless each party involved in the dialogue process believes in clear and articulate ideals or positions and is ready to defend them as his convictions, dialogue will actually loose its vigor and even its spirit and goal. The interaction of ideas and exchange of views – the basic acts of dialogue – necessitate that each party is in possession of a vision of its own, which is worth introducing and defending. Seen from this angle, truth claims do not undermine Dialogue but rather enrich it. They more than likely lead to much more compound, sophisticated and multi dimensional results. Of course, it goes without saying that the expression of these claims should be within the legitimate instruments and the suitable mechanisms of dialogue.

Another question we would like to raise here is related to whether ‘moderation’ is the right answer to Radicalization. From a purely geometrical point of view, if we put extremes (radicals) at both ends of the line, moderation, being in the middle, cannot be considered as the counterpoint of either end. From a philosophical point of view, moderation might be associated with hesitation and uncertainty. Truth claims are on the contrary active and dynamic, while moderation could be seen as passive and static. Moreover, many researchers consider that moderation can be only one step from radicalization, and question the capacity of the moderate to resist and keep the equilibrium of their position. This swing space is always the target of the competing forces, and constitutes the most vulnerable part of the chain. We can therefore see that the dichotomy Radicalization-Moderation is not valid in all cases and that the response to negative attitudes of Radicalization is much more complex than we believe.
De-radicalization is often suggested as the natural response, but we believe it is not the optimal action to undertake against radicalization. On the one hand, even if we have implicitly established a gradient for the identification of radicalization, we do not possess any criteria to define when a “radical” can be considered as de-radicalized. On the other hand, the very means and also actors of de-radicalization are often themselves the forces that once drove the individuals towards radicalization or, at the very least, they are subject to suspicion and mistrust. The answer to Radicalization should certainly be deeper and should transcend the religious and cultural dimensions of the phenomenon. For example, in my view, it is useless to repeat over and over to Muslim radicals that Islam is a religion of peace and brotherhood, which it certainly is. Unless we integrate all the extra religious factors (psychological, socio economic, political), we will not be in a position to introduce a sustainable response to Radicalization. What is needed at this stage is in fact a de-islamization of radicalization rather than de-radicalization. In other words, it is not because you are a good Muslim that you become radical and it is not because you are a true radical that you become terrorist.

Once again, we see that the dichotomy Radicalization-Terrorism does not apply in all contexts. Studies on the terrorist groups are very careful when it comes to identifying the “pre act” stage which leads individuals to commit acts of terrorism. This stage is not necessarily within the boundaries of radicalism and, empirically, not all terrorists have gone through the radical phase. Radicalization and terrorism are therefore not organically linked. Both phenomena, despite their mutual relevance, keep their own specificities, complexities and even secrets and mysteries.
The limitations of context and space certainly did not allow a comprehensive overview of all related issues, and my main attempt here was to show that the dimensions of and the relationships between the process of dialogue, the phenomenon of terrorism and the forms of radicalization are much more complex than they may appear, and that without challenging our understanding of these dimensions and relationships, we will make little progress in the pursuit of finding an efficient solution to these issues.

Ahmed Said Ould Bah is the Head of the Cabinet of the Director General of the Islamic educational, scientific and cultural Organization (ISESCO), which is based in Rabat, Morocco.