The Magic of ‘Radicalization’?

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After the Paris attacks came the questions: Is this violence caused by Islam or unrelated to religion? Are the perpetrators believers or madmen? Do they represent the extremists that we find in any ideology?

The responses were diverse: ‘Islam is a threat to free speech’. But many Muslims joined the protest marches in defence of the freedom of expression. ‘Not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims’. The statistics show otherwise. ‘Madmen have neither colour nor religion’. Yet the ‘professionals’ in Paris screamed ‘Allahu Akbar’.  And then appeared the magical word ‘radicalization’. From the mayor to the teacher, from the politician to the policeman, everyone now knows what the problem is and where we should look for solutions: strict measures against ‘radicalized Muslims’ and ‘deradicalization programmes’ developed by ‘radicalization experts’.

 The moderate and the radical

Do these words have any value? ‘Radicalization’ presupposes a shift from a moderate to a radical position. How do we then distinguish a radicalized from a moderate Muslim?

The answer appears to lie in their religious beliefs. Yet, here, the differences are not so significant. ‘Islam is the only true religion’. ‘The purpose of human existence is to worship Allah’. ‘The Quran is His Word and Muhammad the Last Prophet’. Accepting the truth of these beliefs is essential to being a Muslim. ‘Nobody should insult or depict the prophet’. Not only the Paris terrorist thinks so, but also the London schoolgirl and millions of protesters from Pakistan to Chechnya. Are all these people ‘radicalized’?

The absurdity of this vocabulary becomes clear when we apply it to other religions. What would it mean to be a ‘moderate’ Christian? That one has a moderate faith in God or believes only somewhat that Jesus is His Son and the Bible His Word? Either one accepts the truth of a religion or one does not; it cannot make sense to do so ‘moderately’.

To Muslims, Islam is the one true revelation of God’s will, to which all humans should submit themselves (and not just Arabs or Iranians). The demand that we should respect the Quran and the prophet indirectly imposes the truth of this religion onto all of us. Indeed, this conflicts with the freedom of expression. However, if this is the problem of radicalization, then ‘deradicalization’ entails that Muslims are not allowed to be Muslims, but should convert to some ‘moderate’ belief. That would be a major infringement of religious freedom.

Of course, only few Muslims go around killing infidels. Does radicalization revolve around the use of violence in the name of beliefs? This condemns the notion to triviality. In that case, ‘radicalization’ should also mark the difference between a man who sues a thief and one who kills him in the name of property rights. From this perspective, resistance fighters become victims of ‘radicalization’, when they fight dictators because of their faith in democracy.

Terrorism and heroism

The term ‘radicalization’ is a label that hides our ignorance about the core problem of terrorism. S.N. Balagangadhara, a professor at Ghent University, Belgium, has developed a powerful hypothesis about this phenomenon. Typical to terrorism is its transformation of crime into heroism. The terrorist commits murders but experiences his acts as expressions of an extraordinary morality.

Consider a man who cannot swim but dives into the ocean to save a child. This is not his moral duty but an act of heroism. Another man walks into a school and randomly shoots children. This is a horrible crime. Still, the terrorist gives to these acts the same status: they are the exemplary deeds of saints and heroes.

Surprisingly, terrorists share certain beliefs about crime and morality with us. When our child is killed as ‘collateral damage’, we would find this as immoral as they do. The average terrorist considers violence against his people as criminal as we would. He resents the Saudi regime that beheads his friends to punish them for political dissent. Paradoxically, we seem to belong to the same moral community.

Nevertheless, terrorists like the men in Paris hold values that conflict with those of contemporary Europe: say, the subordination of women and intolerance towards other religions. They enjoy executing a man because of his convictions. What allows them to see the beheading of a man as a crime in one case and a heroic act in another case? How can they be blind to this internal conflict?

Terrorists always connect to a specific community and consider the rest of humanity as hostile forces, deserving death and mutilation. Some identify with the Palestinian people; others with a Muslim community in Pakistan. But even there, they soon turn against these moral communities. In Pakistan, the Taliban slaughters children in the name of Islam. In Gaza, Hamas threatens to kill off its enemies within the Palestinian people.

Everywhere, terrorism converts the criminal into the praiseworthy. It can graft itself onto almost any group or belief – from nationalism to egalitarianism, from communism to Zionism, from Christianity to Islam. While terrorism exists independently of any religion or ideology, it always attaches itself to one. Criminals metamorphose into heroes by calling upon God’s will, but as easily by invoking American patriotism. By accepting that some terrorists are ‘radical Muslims’, we succumb to their self-description. Today, they merge with Islam to justify their violent crimes. Tomorrow, they might call upon ‘freedom and equality’ and describe their ‘heroic acts’ as a fight against oppression. Will we then re-baptize them as ‘radical Enlightenment thinkers’?


This hypothesis throws light onto the disproportional impact terrorism has on our societies. The terrorist seems to share our moral convictions but uses them to convert ordinary murder into extraordinary morality. He equates blowing up a school to saving a baby from a burning building. This is horrifying because it undermines any moral foundation for our societies. We need to examine the learning process that gives shape to the experience of terrorists – the mechanism that allows them to transform crime into heroism. This is the process that takes place in prisons and during training camps and trips to Syria. We could call this ‘radicalization’, but this only misleads.

The terrorist is no ‘radicalized’ Muslim. What makes him into a terrorist is that he converts his misdeeds into the feats of saints and heroes. He calls upon the values of a community only to subvert its foundations. His victory is that we continue this process as a part of ‘the war on terrorism’ – sacrificing democratic freedoms in the name of saving democracy. Perhaps that is the greatest danger facing today’s Europe.