There is no shame in asking what ‘radicalisation’ means in a society that’s seriously confused.

by | May 24, 2019 | Racism/Xenphobia, Radicalisation | 0 comments

By Eleanor Burr

Radicalisation. What does this word mean? It is used repeatedly by the media, politicians, and members of the public. It creates an atmosphere of fear, confusion and anger in society. It is easy to assume the process of radicalisation is avoidable without strategy or government intervention, that anyone sensible would not fall victim to radicalisation. This is ignorant. To prevent further radicalisation occurring and countries turning into breeding grounds for extremism, we need to make a concentrated effort to understand radicalisation, properly understand it. From an academic aspect, not just how the media decide to portray it.

The first step to understanding radicalisation is to examine its origins and how the concept has developed and been used over time. The word ‘radical’ comes from radix, the Latin word for ‘root’ Used from the 19th century on to refer to a political agenda advocating thorough (at roots) social and political reform (Schmid, 2013). Radicals are not necessarily violent. In fact the word radical was previously associated with positive synonyms such as ‘revolutionary, progressive, reforming, reformist’. But after the 9/11 terror attacks on the twin towers, the word radical and consequently the word radicalisation became negative. The word ‘Radicalisation’ refers to a process whose outcome is not radicalism but violent extremism. ‘Radicalization (or radicalisation) is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that reject or undermine the status quo or contemporary ideas and expressions of the nation.’ (McCauley, C., Moskalenko, S. 2008. 416). It is also important to note that the concept of radical and the process of radicalisation can be understood in both absolute and relative terms, furthermore what constitutes ‘radicalism’ is not fixed. Many ‘radical’ demands of the 19th/early 20th century have become mainstream entitlements today (Schmid, 2013), such as accepting equal marriage between homosexuals. For this reason, Schmid (2013) is keen to maintain the distinction between ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’. Extremists are closed-minded and seek to create a homogeneous society based on rigid, dogmatic ideological tenets, which suppresses all opposition and subjugates minorities. Radicals are open-minded, accept diversity and believe in the power of reason rather than dogma. This distinction is crucial.

Considering this context, it is understandable why people can get confused and use radicalisation in the wrong way or are talking about extremists yet use the word radical. Whilst this might be seemingly innocent, it is not. It contributes to a hostile environment and atmosphere in the public. The media has made the association of ‘radicalism’ and ‘extremism’ exclusively with Islam. This is not true. Radicalism is not bound to only one political school of thought. It can occur on all sides of the political spectrum. Left and Right. But the media have an agenda, as the coverage of Islam extremists compared to any other type of extremist is disproportionately high. Contributing to a stereotype of an extremist, playing into people’s prejudices of Islam. For example, the coverage of Shamima Begum. The tabloid media never went into details about the process of radicalisation, they did not educate readers, they simply slated Shamima for her choices and criticised her appeal to come back to the UK. Despite Sajid David’s decision to strip Shamima’s British citizenship, arguably to ‘protect’ British citizens safety, the Daily Mail claimed, ‘Stripping jihadi bride Shamima Begum of her British citizenship could spark extremist backlash against UK’ Clearly the Daily Mail cannot decide their stance on the issue, how do we win? No matter the choice made, the ‘extremists’ are coming for the UK. Shamima’s family responded to the Home secretary’s decision ‘‘We have a duty to her, and a duty to hope that as she was groomed into what she has become, she can equally be helped back into the sister I knew, and daughter my parents bore.’ Compare Begum’s treatment to that of the Christchurch shooter, The headline on an earlier edition of the Daily Mail ran: “Angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer”. It was later changed to read “Little boy…”. The Guardian was also criticised for initially failing to describe the attack as a terrorist incident, instead referring to it in headlines as a “mass shooting”. Later stories used “terror attack” in headlines. Professor Kam Bhui CBE said: “This raises concerns about right-wing extremism and suggests that a focus on tackling Islamic fundamentalism is flawed, and we need to consider extremism more generally.” Official statistics published last week showed that 43 per cent of suspected terrorists arrested are white, compared to 32 per cent who are Asian (The Independent).

Does Begum’s family have a point? Can an individual exposed to radicalisation be helped? Is there a strategy? To answer these questions, we need to explore the process of radicalisation, and how it can occur gradually as opposed to an overnight phenomenon.

Moghaddam’s (2005) ‘staircase to terrorism’. Source:

This is one interpretation and suggestion of how Radicalism can occur within a society. If the UK government and media circulated this image it would enable further understanding and create more empathy within the UK public about radicalised individuals. Preventing confusion, ignorance and prejudice occurring in society around radicalisation and extremism.


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