Communication Currents

What Do We Mean by “Radicalization”?

April 1, 2015
Critical and Cultural Studies

What do media outlets mean when they say terrorists or potential terrorists became radicalized? What is at stake when congressional members describe the dangers of radicalization or the president speaks of the need for counter-radicalization strategies? How does the language of radicalization affect policy debates over issues like security, surveillance, religious freedom, political expression, and the rights of citizenship? What benefits does this language provide, and what harm does it cause?

Questions like these matter because, over the past decade, the language of radicalization has become a dominant feature in academic, political, media, and law enforcement discussions of national security and what has come to be commonly referred to as “homegrown Islamic terrorism.” Therefore, in a recent article for the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, I explored the language of radicalization by studying a series of congressional hearings conducted by the House Committee on Homeland Security between March 2011 and June 2012. More specifically, I used an ancient rhetorical figure—polyptoton—as a means to better understand the complexities of this language and how it functions in context.

Polyptoton focuses our attention on how the meaning of a word is enhanced or changed as it is used in different parts of speech. Greek and Latin authors often used multiple parts of speech in the same text—in a passage from his Topics, for example, Aristotle refers to “justice,” “just,” and “justly”—to enhance the beauty of a phrase or to magnify the effect of a concept. But polyptoton also can be used to advance or alter the meaning of an argument. I contend that by considering interactions between three parts of speech: “radical,” “radicalized,” and “radicalization” as they appear in these congressional hearings, we can better understand how this language has evolved and how it influences our debates over terrorism and security.

In these hearings, the word “radical” is rarely used to describe individuals, and when it does appear, it is consistently associated with choice. Radicals may be bad people; they may be dangerous fanatics; but they choose to act. Radicals are identified as leaders and instigators, but those identified as homegrown terrorists are rarely described as radical. Instead, they are consistently presented as individuals who have been radicalized.

The word “radicalized” indicates a kind of passivity. Those who are being radicalized are often presented as victims. It is something that happens to them, even when they choose it. Throughout these hearings, it is implied that radicalized individuals are not guiding or directing their own changes in political belief or religious affiliation. The driving forces are external: “al-Qaeda,” “al-Shabaab,” and so forth. Unlike the radical who chooses, those who are being radicalized are presented as somehow alienated from their choices and thus, among other consequences, they have no right to defend those choices or speak on their own behalf.

Throughout these hearings, the radicalized are presented as having been tricked, swayed, or seduced into adopting a radical perspective. Radicals might choose to sacrifice themselves for a cause, but the radicalized are treated as individuals whose “selves” have been lost or stolen. The radicalized are not radicals; they are objects of pity and fear who have been dragged away from their homeland into foreign beliefs and alien values. The language shifts the focus of attention from the personal or political motivations of radical actors to the methods and processes of conversion or seduction through radicalization.

The word “radicalization” is never clearly defined in these hearings, but it functions practically in two ways. First, the word implies the violation of essentially passive individuals by outside forces. Those who are radicalized are also victims of radicalization. Second, it suggests an ordered, planned, and structured assault on those individuals. In this sense, radicalization both names a process and creates (or appears to create) the process it names. Radicalization appears to offer a language through which media organizations and legislators can discuss why and how seemingly ordinary people decide to commit acts of mass violence. Yet this language often conceals more than it clarifies. It’s easy to say of a terrorist or would-be terrorist that he or she became radicalized or succumbed to radicalization, but such simplification limits our understanding of the multiple factors influencing those who move from speech and protest to violence. Those described as having been radicalized are consistently treated as paradoxical and dangerously liminal. Despite possessing national citizenship, they lack national identity. Despite acting, they are passive. Despite being legal adults, they are childlike. Despite making choices, they do not choose.

There are, of course, good reasons for wanting to prevent acts of violence before they take place, and the language of radicalization is invoked as part of a broad and complex effort at prevention. In practice, however, this language blurs the lines between protected and unprotected thought, speech, actions, and institutions. American citizens are assured democratic and constitutional rights are not at risk even as the associations, ideologies, practices, and beliefs of their fellow citizens are laid bare for state scrutiny. And the only thing that seems to protect “us” from fear of the same scrutiny is a desperate belief that there is—that there must be—an easily discernable pattern by which we can identify and stop homegrown terrorists before they strike.

My point in this essay is not to focus too much attention on a particular word, but to encourage all of us to take seriously that our words matter. The language of radicalization is certainly not the only influence on the rhetoric of national security. Nor if it were somehow eliminated would we likely see dramatic changes in national policies. It is, however, a prominent feature in a complex network of public controversies with significant implications for millions of American citizens. Through rhetorical analysis, we can arrive at a more nuanced critique of this language, which will in turn offer new resources for engaging with and effectively responding to these controversies in the future.

About the author (s)

Jonathan J. Edwards

University of South Carolina