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The Language of Moral Panic: “Radicalization” vs. “Extremism”

The extraordinary brutality and reactionary nihilism of fundamentalist groups like Islamic State is beyond doubt. In the face of the heinous acts of such groups, mainstream counter terrorist beyond doubt. In the face of the heinous acts of such groups, mainstream counter terrorist narratives arising from the Terror Scare present deradicalisation as an imperative part of addressing the problem. Are radicalism and extremism however the same thing?

Mainstream counter-terrorist responses treat them as though they are. This approach is profoundly problematic for actually dealing with violent extremism insofar as it conflates radical opposition to things as they are with the extremist responses chosen as a result. The two are and remain two separate things and no good reason exists to assume otherwise.

In reality the only good reason for doing so is to further the goals of the Terror Scare, the moral panic over terrorism, which renders the institutions and ideologies represented by the status quo as cause and cure of the same problem.

By tarnishing radical opposition to things as they are with the extremist responses chosen, the moral entrepreneurs of Terror Scare narratives can continue to do so by adopting an attitude of militant ignorance towards facts associated with the phenomenon of terrorism and violent extremism for which they are the cause (as well as the cure).

One such fact is the basic reason why Islamic State exists in the first place, which is because of long-term intervention by the United States and its Western allies in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries for most of the last century. Al Qaeda grew out of CIA funding and training of the Mujahadeen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Islamic State is the resurgent version of Al Qaeda in Iraq. You don’t want violent extremism? Don’t fund it.

Another such fact is that Islamic State are arch-conservatives; they are no more politically radical than the GOP (to the extent that the GOP is not radically reactionary at least). To conflate the cultish banditry of Islamic State with radical rebellion against the status quo is to purposely misrepresent its nature and goals for purposes that have nothing to do with preventing violent extremism.

The differences between the two couldn’t be clearer. For the archconservatives of Islamic State, the status quo is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t go far enough in undermining individual autonomy in the name of rendering its victims slaves to a fascist theocracy.

To radicals on the other hand, the status quo is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t go far enough in promoting such autonomy so that we might enjoy control over the conditions of our own work and lives. Not only could the two outlooks not be more different; they are literally at opposite poles of the political compass (see politicalcompass.org).

We should hardly need to insult anyone’s intelligence by spelling out what the political establishment might have to gain by associating radical rebellion with violent extremism.

And yet they do. Obama’s ‘Strategic Implementation Plan For Empowering Local Partners To Prevent Violent Extremism In The United States’ of December 2011 speaks nowhere of addressing the reasons why people might be upset with, say, the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, or the brutal treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Instead, their focus is on

1) enhancing engagement with and support to local communities that may be targeted by violent extremists; (2) building government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism; and (3) countering violent extremist propaganda while promoting our ideals.[1]

The National Center on Counterterrorism elaborates on these goals, noting of the third in particular that ‘We must actively and aggressively counter the range of ideologies violent extremists employ to radicalize and recruit individuals by challenging justifications for violence and by actively promoting the unifying and inclusive vision of our American ideals.’[2]

The concern here is not to be with trying to understand what drives people into the arms of violent extremists and what their grievances are, but with reasserting American ideals — whatever those who conflate radicalism and extremism happen to decide they are. Should there be any wonder that the non-state form of terrorism that Terror Scare narratives treat as the only version in existence continues?

Others to their credit make somewhat more of an attempt to address root causes. Shiraz Maher, Senior Research Fellow at International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, acknowledges at least that ‘when Mohammad Sidique Khan led the 7/7 London terrorist attacks almost a decade ago, he said his actions were in retaliation for “the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people.’[3]

Maher’s analysis of radicalization is fascinating if for no other reason than because he points out the apparent paradox stemming from the fact that ‘Khan was killing his own people, the ordinary citizen-stranger commuting to work, when he detonated his bomb on the London underground.’ Mahar bristles in response against Khan’s claim that ‘he identified with the citizens of Iraq — a country he had not even travelled to and whose language he could not speak?’

For Maher the problem is one of identification, the fact that Mohammad Sidique Khan identified with the victims of an act of illegal and immoral military aggression — as did millions of other people in the West who protested the invasion of Iraq.

If Khan’s identification with the victims of Western aggression was a problem, then presumably that of millions of protesters, none of whom had been to Iraq or could speak Arabic either, must be as well. Naturally Mahar doesn’t follow through with his logic to that conclusion, but that is where it must inevitably end for approaches to counter-terrorism built on the dominant narratives of the Terror Scare.

Without distinguishing between grievances and the nature of the responses chosen to address them, such approaches, those that render the West cause and cure of the same problem, must inevitably become an excuse for blame shifting and a continuing refusal to address vital social problems.

This is particularly true to the extent that they set a precedent via those who make destructive choices in their responses to those who make constructive ones. To continue the myth that grievances against the status quo ultimately result in violent extremism is to whittle away at what remains of individual freedoms in the name of defending them, which at the end of the day is exactly what violent extremists are after irrespective of whether they’re in Iraq or Washington.

Notes.

[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/sip-final.pdf

[2] http://www.nctc.gov/site/technical/radicalization.html

[3] http://icsr.info/2015/06/icsr-insight-roots-radicalisation-identity-stupid/

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Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne. He is studying moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating. Twitter: @itesau  

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