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What Do We Mean When Speaking about “Radicalization”? – Reflections on the Use of a Contested Term

Laura Stritzke

February 5, 2024

Radicalization, terrorism and extremism are central keywords that can be associated with the projects within the VORTEX network. They are also reflected in the title “Coping with Varieties of Radicalization into Terrorism and Extremism” that makes up the acronym VORTEX. However, these terms are often used interchangeably, leading to a somewhat blurred understanding. While one might expect such terms to be distinctly defined in scientific discourse and prevention practice, even experts exhibit varying interpretations and definitions. Disagreement on the definitions is not restricted to this realm, but can be observed for many other notions and concepts in the social sciences. This lack of consensus is not for want of trying, but rather a reflection of the inherent complexity of these issues. Nevertheless, discussions about such core concepts are essential as they shape and reproduce political, practical as well as empirical approaches. 

Divergences regarding appropriate attributions of terms often stem from ideological or political considerations, notably evident in discussions surrounding protest movements. Climate activists and the current farmer protests in Europe provide a contemporary example. Besides the well-known Friday protests by the Fridays For Future movement, various other climate movements and forms of protest have emerged globally, among which the Last Generation in Germany and Austria. Their actions mainly comprise peaceful blockages of roads by gluing their hands to the street to stop automobile locomotion in order to foster actions against climate change. Traffic blockades as a form of climate activism can be observed in various European countries like the Netherlands or Norway. Furthermore, this mode of protest has been employed in other spheres, as seen in the recent farmer protests in France or Germany, where processions of agricultural tractors were utilized to obstruct traffic, advocating for reforms.

Although their means of action could be considered similar, their perception as well as the success of their demands was not. In this regard, the Last Generation’s activism in Germany has been particularly unpopular to the extent that they have been suspected of being a criminal organization. Moreover, they have been referred to as ‘climate terrorists’ or ‘Climate-RAF’. The latter draws a link to the Red Army Fraction which murdered prominent political and business figures from 1970 to 1990 in Germany, thereby suggesting a violent development of the movement. Linking yet peaceful forms of protest to terrorism, radicalization or extremism is often employed to delegitimate actions and consequently depreciate (political) adversaries. At the same time, it also serves to legitimize actions comprising far-reaching countermeasures, giving rise to securitization approaches in countering radicalization.

This is due to the common negative connotation inherent to radicalization, extremism and terrorism alike. Thus, suggesting that these concepts are (implicitly) assumed to be consecutive. Meaning that radicalization is at least implicitly understood as a unidirectional process of radicalization into terrorism or violent extremism. Although the title of the doctoral network could be read in a similar manner, it points to varieties of radicalization as processes of radicalization that are distinct and dynamic in nature. On one hand, radicalization processes do not necessarily stagnate once exhibiting violent behavior but might rather continue by implementing more and more violent actions. This is a factor that warrants consideration in planning prevention programs.

On the other hand, radicalization may occur on an ideological level without ever becoming violent. In such cases, possibilities for intervention in primary prevention are often overlooked. Nevertheless, radicalization cannot be considered as inherently dangerous in these cases. Reflecting on current norms also provides potential for emancipatory transformations. A compelling example is that of the women’s movement beginning in the 18th century. In many parts of the world, women’s access to political participation was limited. It was assumed that representing political opinions was designated exclusively for men. However, these conditions eventually were challenged, making way for equal rights demands by many women’s rights movements. What was considered radical at the time, has developed into a norm of democratic societies – women’s right to vote. Thus, radicalization must bear ambivalences that contradict a definite negative connotation.

Nevertheless, underlying assumptions regarding radicalization are crucial not only in how the term is understood but also in how it is employed. Since the above-mentioned differentiations are often undermined also in research practice, some scholars have reservations engaging with the term ‘radicalization’. Concerns about contributing and lending legitimacy to societal securitization have been voiced. Therefore, raising the question of how to proceed with such a contested term that shows lack of conceptual clarity and consistency. This blog post argues for a broad conceptualization of radicalization that provides the opportunity to acknowledge its inherent ambivalences as well as manifold processes, including and recognizing violent as well as non-violent processes. This critical, context-related approach is also a common thread that connects research endeavors within VORTEX to foster a balanced approach that safeguards civil liberties while addressing genuine threats. Nevertheless, it does not come without challenges, but acknowledes the concept in its full scope, which is vital for prevention efforts, political strategies as well as research practice. 

Bibliography

Abay Gaspar, H., Daase, C., Deitelhoff, N., Junk, J., & Sold, M. (2018). Was ist Radikalisierung? – Präzisierungen eines umstrittenen Begriffs. Leibniz-Institut Hessische Stiftung Friedens- und Konfliktforschung (HSFK).

Coolsaet, R. (2019). Radicalization: The origins and limits of a contested concept. In Radicalisation in Belgium and the Netherlands: Critical perspectives on violence and security (S. 29–51). IB Tauris.

Malthaner, S. (2017). Radicalization: The Evolution of an Analytical Paradigm. European Journal of Sociology58(3), 369–401. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003975617000182

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