What classifies someone as radical

Radicalization Prevention Information Service

Peter Neumann

PhD, born 1974; Director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), Kings College London, 138–142 Strand, London WC2R 1HH, England / UK. [email protected]

Who is actually considered an extremist? What does radicalization mean? In what state can you describe someone as successfully deradicalized? There is no general definition. Different concepts repeatedly cause misunderstandings in the debate about extremism.

Nobody believes that people become extremists overnight, and radicalization is therefore not only about the existence of certain factors and influences, but also - and especially - about their interaction, development and course. (& copy bpb, Sebastian Kauer)

Terms such as "radicalization", "deradicalization" and "extremism" appear frequently in newspaper articles, but are mostly used without explanation or definition. For example, it is said that the career of the two brothers who were allegedly responsible for the Boston attacks in April 2013 is "typical" for the "radicalization of individual perpetrators" [1]. But what does that mean? And how does a “radicalized” differ from an “extremist”? Is it possible to de-radicalize yourself? And if so, in what state is one considered successfully deradicalized?

In this post I delineate concepts such as radicalization, extremism and deradicalization. Because important debates, controversies, unresolved questions and also misunderstandings in the field of terrorism and extremism research are often based on different definitions and understandings of these concepts.

Radicalization as a process

As with the word "terrorism", scholars disagree on the definition of "radicalization". "Radical" comes from the Latin word for root (radix) and has been used in different contexts over the centuries. In the 19th century, for example, "radicalism" was the motto of liberal reformers, while in the 20th century Marxist revolutionaries were often considered radicals. [2] In both cases it was a matter of a drastic turning away from the prevailing social conditions and the establishment of a different political system.

In the context of their time, radicals were always considered extremists. The process by which they became extremists was their radicalization. What exactly this process includes and what it ends with is controversial among scientists, but not that it is a process - i.e. a number of processes that take place over a certain period of time. In other words: Nobody believes that people will become extremists overnight, and radicalization is therefore not only about the existence of certain factors and influences, but also - and especially - about their interaction, development and course.

For the political scientist Zeyno Baran, for example, the mechanism is similar to that of an assembly line, on which various elements and influences are added step by step. [3] The social psychologist Fathali Moghadam compares the radicalization with a stairwell in which people - depending on how extreme their thinking and acting is - are at different levels. [4] Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko imagine the process as a pyramid in which the number of radicalized people decreases the more extreme their thinking and behavior is. [5] As different as the metaphors and models may be, all common theories visualize radicalization not as an event, but as a kind of progression in the course of which the thinking and / or actions of a person or group change.


It is therefore very easy to define radicalization as the process by which people or groups become extremists. It is more difficult to describe the end point of this process: what exactly is an extremist? For the political philosopher Roger Scruton, the concept is ambiguous. On the one hand, it is about political goals and ideas, which are diametrically opposed to the fundamental values ​​and beliefs of a society. [6] In a western democracy like Germany this would be any form of religious and racial supremacy as well as all ideologies that shake democratic principles, freedom and human rights.

On the other hand, according to Scruton, the term extremism can also describe the methods that political actors use to achieve their goals. Anyone who uses means that "impair or jeopardize the life, freedom and human rights of others" [7] is, according to Scruton, an extremist - regardless of what goals he or she is pursuing. Environmental protection, for example, is seen by a large majority of the population as positive and desirable. However, anyone who pursues this goal with illegal and violent means - such as attacks on factories or the kidnapping of industrial managers - is still an extremist.

The ambiguity of the term extremism gives rise to a multitude of debates and controversies. Some liberals and libertarians, for example, argue that extremist goals and ideas are in themselves "unproblematic" as long as they are pursued peacefully and by legal means. The observation of (non-violent) extremists by the state is therefore a restriction of freedom of expression and the authorities responsible for this act as a kind of "political police". [8] The counter-argument is that even "legalistic" - that is, non-violent, apparently loyal to the system - extremists could pose a serious threat to social peace and the free democratic basic order. The lesson from the rise of the National Socialists - according to the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper - is that tolerant societies have a duty to defend themselves against all kinds of extremists: "If we are not ready to defend a tolerant social order against the attacks of intolerance , then the tolerants will be destroyed and tolerance with them. "[9] From this the principle of" defensive democracy "is derived.

For scientists, the ambiguity of the term results in a need for delimitation. Many researchers therefore differentiate between "cognitive extremists" - people whose goals and values ​​drastically contradict the social consensus - and "violent extremists". [10]

Cognitive extremism

However, the term "cognitive extremism" is also anything but clear. The words "radical" and "extreme" as designations for certain ideas, goals and values ​​do not have universal validity. They assume a knowledge of what is considered "moderate" or "mainstream" in a certain society or at a certain point in time. What one society considers "radical" is part of the general consensus in another. And what is considered "extremist" today may be an immovable part of the state order tomorrow.

Political leftists often find it difficult to use terms such as extremism and radicalization. For them, radicalism is neither problematic nor negative, but - on the contrary - a necessary prerequisite for societies to develop progressively. In the United States in particular, the history books are full of examples of people and political movements who were initially branded as "extremist" by the state and society, but whose goals are now accepted and desirable. Anyone who spoke out in favor of the abolition of slavery in the first half of the 19th century was, in the opinion of the (then) majority, a "dangerous extremist"; The same was true of women who fought for their right to vote 100 years later and of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., who was observed and harassed by the FBI in the 1950s and 1960s. [11]

Proponents of the (cognitive) term extremism counter this by saying that within modern democratic societies there is a basic normative consensus - democracy, human rights, equality before the law - which can be used to avoid arbitrariness in the classification of certain ideas and goals. [12] Nevertheless, the above examples show that this (supposedly solid) set of values ​​can also be interpreted differently and that the meaning of norms changes over time. In addition, it becomes clear that in authoritarian states where there is no such value compass, terms such as "extremism" and "radicalism" can easily be used to persecute opposition members.