Monday, 28 July 2014

The roots of radicalisation and the limits of extremism

There has been a great deal written and said about radicalisation and extremism within western (particularly Muslim) youth over recent times, to the point where one might think that there is little useful to add to the debate. However there is one angle that does not seem to me to have much considered and that is, coincidentally, relevant to this blog: the etymology and connotations of the two words most commonly used to describe the phenomenon.

The words 'radicalisation' and 'extremism' seem inextricably bound together nowadays in any discussion of the issue of homegrown terrorism, yet etymologically they are poles apart. Radicalisation is about the very centre of things whilst extremism about the farthest limits. In Latin radix/radicalis means root, whilst exter/exterior/extremus means outer, foreign or strange.

So how is it that these words have come, in recent times, to garner such a similar range of connotations? The notion of radicalisation (of discovering, rediscovering or exploring the very roots of things) seems now inevitably to imply extremism (pushing to, and beyond, the farthest limits of things), and both seem now to connote violence, intolerance and a single-minded rejection of conventional Western values.

The word 'radical' acquired some time ago the political connotations that gave rise to phrases such as radical reform, radical feminism and now radical Islam. It implies going to the very root of things in order to bring about fundamental change, because in a sense, what radicals of any persuasion want to do is to reach into the very centre of whatever ideological system most concerns them. Truly radical feminists would surely rather transform the thinking of their entire society than to split off from the mainstream into some strange, cliquey anti-male wimmin's collective.

And yet the term has come to seem often to imply the latter approach. I can't help feeling that it is the Establishment- those who are threatened by any form of fundamental change- whose influence has led to this distortion of the meaning of the word 'radical.' It suits those who benefit from a given social structure not to have its roots questioned or remade. So social pressure from the majority has come to wrench the word 'radical' in this context well away from its core meaning. Mainstream society, it seems, wants to keep radicals of any persuasion far removed from the roots of the tree in which they have made their home, and so they push them to the margins- to the extremes.

This has always been true of course, and it is difficult to decide whether the word 'radical' has actually changed in meaning over the years, or whether it is simply the case that yesterday's radicals become in hindsight today's reformers. Take three socio-political groups: the Radicals (as in 19th Century progressive Liberals); radical feminists; and radical Islamists. Most people would see these groups as going from pretty much mainstream to totally extremist, but is this because the meaning of the word has changed or because society has now become more accepting of the fundamental changes sought by the earlier groups?

In the context of "the radicalisation of Muslim youth" there is, I believe, another factor at play. It seems clear that there is an impulse in young men towards violent collective action and the pursuit of adventure, thrills and danger. In the 80s and 90s inner city riots fulfilled that need; in the 70s and 80s it was football hooliganism; and in the 50s and 60s there were the battles between mods and rockers on England's seafronts. Before that of course no such need existed because there was actual War, providing more than enough violence and danger.

Yet in none of these cases were the young men involved seen as extremists. Their actions were often extreme: at least as extreme as those of the 'radicalised' muslim youth who cause such moral panic today. Rioters, football hooligans, mods and rockers posed a much bigger threat to the safety and security of mainstream society than do hijab-wearing women or idealistic and misguided young men who head off to fight Assad's forces in Syria. Yet they were allowed their place somewhere near the heart of British society. No doubt it helped that mods and football hooligans for instance went in for the iconography of Englishness in a big way. And the near-insanity of the Tommies in the trenches, marching steadily into machine-gun fire and sacrificing their lives in pursuit of an ill-defined and virtually incomprehensible goal was officially sanctioned of course. Their motivation might have been disturbingly similar to that of today's suicide bombers but they were not extremists- far from it.

Even in the case of the inner city riots of the 80s and 90s, whilst the actions of the rioters might have been loudly deplored in the right-wing press it came fairly quickly to be understood that they represented an upswell of dissatisfaction and anger with the status quo that needed to be addressed. In the language that this post is discussing they were seen by society as a whole as disturbingly radical, but not extremist. They spoke to society about itself, embodying an unhealthiness at its roots that society recognised (eventually) it had to address.

What worries me today is that the constant linking of the words 'radical' and 'extremist' is in danger of preventing that process from happening this time round. We are in danger of believing that today's radical Muslim youth are not exploring and seeking to change the roots of the tree in which the rest of us live, but some other tree entirely, over at the extremes- beyond the outer limits of what is normal and decent and bloody British for god's sake.

And that is something we do at our peril. Because if there is a sickness at the roots it is radicals that society needs to expose it.

1 comment:

  1. This one is an absolute cracker, great conclusion.