Beyond abstract or conceptual aspects, “counter-radicalisation” in practitioners’ use refers to a contextual action plan with relevant online and offline components deemed necessary to prevent radicalisation. Nearly every country conducts tailored counter-radicalisation programs that contain more or less similar pre-emptive or preventive steps and those may take different names such as “disengagement”, “deradicalisation” or “prevention”. This article aims to take a look from above over those different tailored programs to find answer to the question of “What is radicalisation?” Interestingly, although forming a departure point for any effort to counter this phenomenon, extant examples exhibit ambiguity on its definition. The ill-defined term does not merit to attain a commonly accepted definition by the academics and policymakers either. The study shows discourse to define this term change across different contexts, and in rare cases where there is similarity what is meant in definition changes across different societies and cultures.

“Radicalisation” from Earliest Uses Until Recently

According to Frances Henry and Carol Tator: “Discourse is the way in which language is used socially to convey broad historical meanings. It is language identified by the social conditions of its use, by who is using it and under what conditions. Language can never be ‘neutral’ because it bridges our personal and social worlds”(Henry & Tator, 2002). Against this backdrop, it would be more appropriate to approach the term in historical perspective focusing on its development and changes to what it refers to in the course of time.

We come across the word “radical”, for the very first time, at the end of 14th century in the Oxford English Dictionary. Accordingly, it is defined as “Of, belonging to, or from a root or roots; fundamental to or inherent in the natural processes of life, vital; spec. Designating the humour or moisture once thought to be present in all living organisms as a necessary condition of their vitality” (“Oxford English Dictionary,” 2013).

From this definition it is understood that the term was used in the fields of biology or chemistry to define the things necessary for living things to continue livelihood. We do not know the reason why the society or the academics accepted and used this term in these fields. However, this information holds limited importance as the meaning attached to the word may not be related with the events’ or phenomena’s essence or origins, but can be a result of social conventions (Jørgensen & Phillips, 2002).

According to the Saussure,  a pioneering structuralist linguist, the sign consisting of two sides which are form and content, and the relation between two are arbitrary (Saussure, Baskin, Meisel, & Saussy, 2011). In other words, there is no inheritance in the meaning of the sign, but there is a strong relationship between the different signs which reminds each other. Maybe this approach can explain the next meaning of radicalisation.

Between the 14th and 18th centuries, we see that radicalisation is used in many different fields such as mathematics, geometry, linguistics, astronomy, medicine and surgery. However, it is not until the end of the 18th century that we observe the term  start getting political connotations. In this epoch, it is defined as:

 “Advocating thorough or far-reaching political or social reform; representing or supporting an extreme section of a party; spec. (also with capital initial)  (a) Brit. belonging to, supporting, or associated with the extreme wing of the Liberal Party which called for a reform of the social and parliamentary system in the late 18th and early 19th cent, (b) U.S. belonging to a faction of the Republican Party seeking extreme action against the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Now more generally: revolutionary, esp. left-wing.” (“Oxford English Dictionary,” 2013).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term is seen being used to express non-violent reformist activities. (Alex, 2013) Within this context, radicalisation is a kind of transformation leading to liberal thinking which is unusual and different from the mainstream and that excludes violence.

The use of the term initially in the biology and its later introduction to different fields shows that the language network or the structure of the word has changed in the course of time. It has developped different relationships with different words or sounds. The initial connections  with “moisture or humidity” in the 14th century shows new connections with different words such as “axis”, “planet”, “tumour”, “change”, “liberal” and “left wing” in the subsequent centuries. This can be said to constitute proof that structuralist approach, which alleges a fixed structure for the language, remains short to explain the changes in the language network of the terms.

We do not know exactly how the term evolved as mentioned above. However, a superficial survey shows those who used the term “radical” in their texts are generally journalists and academics who have no relationship with legal and governmental authorities. Therefore it is conceivable that the discourse to define the radical is not a monologue or a discourse from an upper authority to the subjects. But it is a fruit of natural exchange at lower horizontal levels or nongovernmental bodies or figures, meaning  there is no centralised power system behind the process.

Moreover, existence of a variety of perspectives in the evaluation of the term “radical” reminds Bakhtin’s dialogic and intertextuality approach to the discourses (Fairclough, 1992). Accordingly, the prior and other contemporary discourses have some effects on each other. The term “radical” finds increasing number of uses in many different disciplines while in most of them the meaning related to the “root” was preserved. In other words, horizontal and vertical communications between different discourses create new ones. But the the previous ones remain in use as well. It is a result of debate and negotiation rather than an externally imposed discourse from a higher level and of course this transaction will continue  as long as opportunity for  communication continues.

“Radicalisation” Currently in Use

The term radicalisation did not have problematic connotations until 9/11 terror attacks. However, the  chain of events from 9/11 to especially 2004 Madrid and the 2005 London terror attacks, triggered academicians and policymakers to propose counter-radicalisation programs to stem the terrorist organizations’ recruiting efforts. In this regard, we see a significant rise in the discussion of radicalisation in the last 20 years.

Bartlett and Miller define the radicalisation as a “process by which the individuals are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views”. (2012) According to Donatella and Gary, the radicalisation is “a process leading towards the increased use of political violence” (2012). Anja Dalgaard Nielsen considers that “radicalisation is understood as a growing readiness to pursue and support far-reaching changes in society that conflict with, or pose a direct threat to the existing order” (2010, p. 798). David Mandel thinks that the radicalisation is a process whereby people become extremists (2009a). Another academician, Peter Neumann defines radicalisation shortly as “What goes on before the bomb goes off”. (2008, p. 4) These are some of the definitions, which show different approaches to the phenomenon, bearing similarities and differences as well.

According to Bartlett and Miller, the phenomenon encourages people to change mainstream beliefs. Then a logically following question would be “what is ‘the mainstream’ belief?”. Because there are no fixed mainstream ideas in this world. Moreover, the mainstream, even existed, would vary across different societies and periods of time.

Donatella and Gary do not mention the belief system, but they do emphasise the relationship between radicalisation and political violence. Then there is need for clarification on what is political violence? Is there any crime genre called political violence or does it have any definition in the legal system? These are just some of the questions that come to mind upon reading the definition.

Dalgaard Nielsen’s approach is different from the others. She also mentions about far-reaching changes in an existing system. However, the existing system varies in different countries. A person who insists on a liberal governmental system will be a radical person in  North Korea while this could be an ordinary demand in a western country.

David Mandel establishes a link between radicalisation and extremism. However, extremism is an ill-defined concept as well. This statement raises another question: “What is extremism?”

Peter Neuman thinks that radicalisation is a preparation process before the terrorist bombing event. So he directly puts a link between radicalisation and violence and terrorism.


Nearly all the academics see the radicalisation as a process which is not controversial. However,  there is ambiguity on the connection of radical thoughts and violent actions, and heated discussions continue to exist based on the fact that ideology and action are only sometimes connected. (Borum, 2011)

All these discussions remind the Austin and Wittgenstein approach to the language.  Wittgenstein says: “think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws – the functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects [. . .] Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly. Especially when we are doing philosophy!” (Wittgenstein, 1953).

Wittgenstein sees the language as a toolkit. The words  or discourses themselves are very abstract and difficult to understand. They acquire exact meaning with the actions or duties they have to perform. Therefore, there is a correlation between the word and action. If  link cannot be established between the discourse and the action, then that discourse becomes problematic and ill-defined to us. The reader is supposed to gain the right meaning after practicing it in the real world because descriptions are not repetitions of words abstracted from practice. In fact, descriptions are themselves practices that are used to perform a range of activities.

The problems in the radicalisation definition suit the explanation of Wittgenstein. The explanations or definitions of the radicalisation does not reflect what we observe in the real world. More precisely, there is no linear conditionality between radicalisation and violence. Therefore, the word and the action does not match. On the contrary, many radicals are observed not to have been involved in any violent action. The contrary is also valid. There are terrorists who do not possess radical thoughts.

John Horgan and Randy Borum, two scholars on radicalisation, posit: “There is no inevitable link between (extremist) political beliefs and (violent) political action, and that the two phenomena should, therefore, be studied separately. There … always be far more radicals than terrorists, but terrorists do not always hold strong political beliefs. Being a cognitive extremist, in other words, is neither sufficient nor necessary as a condition for becoming a terrorist. Many terrorists—even those who lay claim to a “cause”—are not deeply ideological and may not “radicalize” in any traditional sense … Some terrorists— perhaps even many of them—are not ideologues or deep believers in a nuanced, extremist doctrine” (P. R. Neumann, 2013).

At this point, we start to see different terms that aim to clarify radicalisation, reminding the Austin approach to the discourse analyses. For Austin, there are two kinds of discourses, conservative and performative. (Austin, Urmson, & Sbisà, 1975) Radicalisation definitions misfired because the term could not cover felicity conditions of the real situations. Because radicalisation is a process and some part of it need just descriptive definition rather than to be related directly with action.

According to Austin, there are six rules which are essential to have a performative utterance (Wetherell, Taylor, & Yates, 2001) and it is seen that radicalisation definitions do not suit some of these rules. For example, in the radicalisation process, there is no accepted conventional procedure. We do not know how a normal person becomes radical. This procedure is unclear. Not only radicals but also terrorists do not have identical or even close qualifications. For example, some of them are well educated whereas some do not possess decent educational background.

Silver and Bhatt allege a profile of terrorists in their research which cover five different groups and terror events. They assert that the terrorists with Muslim background, typically has following characteristics:

  • Male,
  • Under the age of 35,
  • Residents and citizens of Western liberal democracies,
  • Varied ethnic backgrounds but often are a second or third generation of their home country,
  • Middle-class backgrounds; not economically destitute,
  • Educated; at least high school graduates, if not university students,
  • Recent converts to Islam are particularly vulnerable,
  • Do not begin as radical or even devout Muslims,
  • Having ordinary lives and jobs,
  • Little, if any, criminal history (Silber & Bhatt, 2007).

Those characteristics come as result of a comparative case study and as such  it is hard to be generalised. Still, within the complementarity of the study there are several bothering points. First of all, the description above is very complicated and it nearly covers most of the Muslims under 35 years old. Second this type of profile belong to terrorists but not to radical persons.

As can be clearly seen in the case study above, despite clear datasets pertaining to real persons committing terrorist acts, the efforts to profile a “terrorist” yield such general results that they have nearly no explication ability. In the question of radicalisation, the situation is much more grim.

In the case of the latter, the profiles of the radical or the procedure for becoming radical is unclear. This lack of sufficient knowledge precludes use of the term “radicalisation” to explain the thoughts and the actions at the same time. Therefore, the scholars started to use different terminology such as “cognitive radicalisation” and “behavioural radicalisation”.  From the two derived radicalisation terms,  the former is related to the thoughts and the latter to actions.

These two terms can be a good example of Austin’s constative and performative discourses. Cognitive radicalisation is not a performative utterance and just a description of a situation which does not motivate the person for any action. However, how can we understand a cognitive radical form of the person? I mean if a thought or an idea does not show itself with action then how can we categorise it?

Behavioural radicalisation concept is also problematic because it is constituted to define the action which has emerged from a radical thought. However, the type of action has not been defined clearly. I mean what kind of actions can be categorized under the behavioural radicalisation is very uncertain. For example, if someone participates in a demonstration of a protest against the legal authority, can this person be called a behavioural radical? Or does singing a protest song make the person a behavioural radical?   We can ask many questions like this, but I think the answers will be very controversial and not satisfactory for most of the people.

Radicalisation in a Political Discourse

A significant rise in the counter-radicalisation projects has been observed after 9/11, 2004 Madrid and 2005 London terror attacks. European Commission Expert Group Report, which recommended further research projects on counter-radicalisation, encouraged new studies in this subject (Rogelio et al., 2008).

To name few of those projects, the Safire Project is aimed to provide a better understanding of the rationale and the drivers underlying radicalisation processes (TNO, 2015). The Impact Europe Project focused on “counter violent radicalisation (Impact Europa Consortium, 2015).  The Prime Project aimed to improve our understanding of lone actor extremist events (PRIME Consortium, 2015). The Religare Project explored how to cope with the increasing religious diversity in a democratic context (Foblets & Alidadi, 2013). The Eurislam Project tried to provide a systematic analysis of the cultural integration of immigrants in general and Muslims in particular (Universitet van Amsterdam, 2014). The Religiovest Project tried to show the public debate on religion (Europan University Institute, 2016). The Myplace Project tried to understand the young people’s attitude and participation in political organisations and social movements in Europe (University of Manchester, 2010). All these projects, which have been funded by Europian Commision, aimed to understand what really radicalisation is and tried to find a solution to prevent it. However, in this last 20 years, the term became more complicated and highly political.

For a better understanding of its political aspect, the governments’ or policymakers’ approach to radicalisation can be a good start. The British government defined the radicalisation as ‘the process by which people come to support terrorism and violent extremism and, in some cases, then to participate in terrorist groups. (Government, 2009). With this statement, the British government emphasises the connection between radicals, violence and terrorism.

Justice and public security ministry of Norway published government action plan against radicalisation and violent extremism. The plan reads: “Radicalisation is understood here to be a process whereby a person increasingly accepts the use of violence to achieve political, ideological or religious goals (NMJPS, 2014). With this explanation, we see that Norway has established a connection between radicalisation and violence.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark states: “Radicalisation is the phenomenon of people embracing opinions, views and ideas that could lead to acts of terrorism” (Mandel, 2009b). The link between defined radicalisation and terrorism is clear.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Department stated: ‘While radical thinking is by no means problematic in itself, it becomes a threat to national security when Canadian citizens or residents espouse or engage in violence or direct action as a means of promoting political, ideological or religious extremism (RCMP-GRC, 2016). Here it is  seen that Royal Canadian Police views radicalisation as a cognitive phenomenon, instead of setting a link between thoughts and behaviours.

All these definitions, determined by security priorities, set a link between radicalisation and violence. What makes these definitions or discourses different from the others is the fact that they have been put together  by the legitimate authority that controls, coordinates and uses the power of the state. This power, acknowledge and discourse triangle reminds the Foucault’s ideas about discourses.

Foucault sees the discourses “as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.(Foucault, 1969), He thinks that discourse must be accepted as a social fact because it organizes the knowledge which can structure the society. Here we see the design ability of the discourse. However, the acceptance of the discourse is very important. Otherwise, it will not have a chance to affect the society. At this very point, the power behind the discourse comes into prominence. According to Foucault this power creates the discourse and justify it.

Foucault’s approach to the discourses describes the reason why radicalisation definitions are highly political. The radicalisation definitions belong to the governmental offices or institutions. It is possible to see similar parallels between definitions in all counter-radicalisation programs in the last twenty years. Therefore we can say that the legal power encourages the society to talk on radicalisation with its determined definition, in their everyday life. Thus society has a chance to see, observe and repeat the terminology which contributes to the legalization of the definition.

However, it is seen that the society has not accepted the definition of the radicalisation and the discussion on it is still ongoing because the definition is disconnected from its historical development. It is a brand new definition. However, the rationality underlying its production does not suit the rules or categories which was created by the society (or the power) in the course of time. Because of that reason, there are many interpretations of it.

Media is the other power centre in the society. There is an irrefutable reality that the media has a strong effect on policymakers and the society. It has the role to inform the society about the truth behind events at home or abroad. However, the way of reporting and representing the news is very important because media has a chance to create a perception which might be based on reality or a specific agenda.

The governmental institutions’ discourses can be perceived as an obligation for the society, and actually, this is a right sense because governments use all kinds of the state power to make society adopt the discourses. For example, after defining a new definition of radicalisation, it prepares an action plan to combat against radicalisation, and it can support this action plan with some new laws which are approved by the legal systems. This justification process suits the rules or categories to create a new discourse by legal power. However, it is not a natural process for the society.

From this perspective, media can be said to be one move ahead of governmental authority because it does not force anyone to adopt its discourses. However, the discourse which is produced by the media can easily penetrate the everyday life of the society through newspapers, tv programs and the internet. Therefore the media’s approach to radicalisation is very important for the society and the governments.

There are critiques to the radicalisation discourse of the media. In line with Foucault’s argumentation, the discourses can construct real and perceived surroundings. In this sense radicalisation discourse maintained by media has created a fear atmosphere in the society towards the Muslim minority in the Europe (Meleagrou-Hitchens & Kaderbhai, 2017). The term radical began to be perceived nearly in the same meaning as “Muslim terrorist”.

This security approach of the media to the term has encouraged the governmental institutions to prepare more strict radicalisation definition. However, the problem is that there is another accepted discourse, which is “terrorism”. The more media and governmental institutions amplified the content of the definition for radicalisation, the more two terms started to be used interchangeably. This further created spiralling of problems adding to the identity crisis of Muslim minorities in Europe and their estrangement to the host societies.  

The Discourse of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)  

ISIL is a terrorist organization recognized by nearly all countries as well as UN and EU.  It adopts the Salafi jihadist ideology as its likes and its announced objectives can  be summarised as follows:

  • Establish a Caliphate in Iraq and the Levant,
  • Control and Govern the Caliphate,
  • Expand Islam and Sharia Law Worldwide,
  • Recreate the Power and Glory of Islam (Abbas, Richard John, Siebert, & Winterfeldt, 2014).

So, the discourse by ISIL is leveled mainly to justify and promote its actions based on decontextualized religious texts and thus acquire legitimacy. Among those texts, Koran, the holy book for Muslims, has a special place as  it is believed that the source or the author of the book is a no one else then the God. In the case of Koran, a commandment or a sentence is extremely important as it constitutes the boundaries the adherents have to follow.

In the structuralist, poststructuralist or postmodern approach to the discourse, the author or the owner of the discourse lose its importance, because the interaction between discourse and the reader can create the reality. Therefore the reader or the subject is the main essence for the discourse. However, when the author of the discourse is God, then everyone, of course those Muslims, tries to understand the real meaning behind the text or discourses.

Another important aspect is interpretations. According to the theory named after itself, interpretation is the way to fill the gap between what the speaker says and what the others understand from that discourse (McFadden & Ricoeur, 1978). Ricoeur thinks that understanding and explaining is the two complementary things which can happen in interpretation.

ISIL’s interpretation of Koran is different from the mainstream Sunnite belief. ISIL isolates the sentences in Koran from its historical context, or reasons of descent and then makes a judgement or an interpretation by considering only the meaning of the words. Afterwards, ISIL wants from every Muslims to obey their interpretations because this terrorist organization calls itself  “Islamic State” and calls its leader a “Caliph”.

“Islamic State” is the figured world which is created by the ISIL. “ A figured world is a picture of a simplified world that captures what is taken to be typical or normal” (Gee, 2014). Of course the “typical and normal” have different meanings in different societies. ISIL had the power to construct the environment according to its discourses in Iraq and Syria because they were effective in the battlefield and were able to impose control on several cities to include Mosul. ISIL used the state power against the residents where they were in rule and used the religion as a mobilizing factor to get access to others beyond its borders.  These two strengths provided ISIL to create a figured world as “Islamic State”.

The discourse maintained can be said to be very successful because according to the UN Security Council, “terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and associated groups have attracted over 30,000 foreign fighters from over 100 Member States” (UN, 2015).


Based on ISIL example we can say that all radical/extremist/terrorist organizations have their own discourses which affect the targeted societies. They attract sympathy in the society which they want to penetrate through these discourses. The planner and the performers of the counter-radicalisation programs must analyse the discourses of radical organizations very clearly, and then prepare a counter-radicalisation program. Otherwise, the expected outcomes from these programs would be a disappointment for everyone.

* Ömer Faruk Sazak is a PhD candidate at the University of Stavanger.


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