The Real Meaning of “Self-Radicalization"


The terror attacks in Paris and California near the end of 2015 spawned not only more fear, but also speculations about how these individuals came to make such tragic decisions. Government officials have asked whether either of them had associations with suspect individuals, or traveled to Arab countries where they may have had contact with ISIL, Al Qaeda, or other terrorist groups.
What we have increasingly heard in such post-terror investigations is consistent use of the term “radicalization,” as an explanation for how people almost mysteriously transform into terrorists without any prior history of violence. However “radicalization” as currently used is also a term that could be suitable for those who publicly and non-violently contest government abuse and corruption. The usual violent, coercive, and anti-Muslim approach to creating “security,” in The U.S. has, in the minds of many people, created less security, not more, and waged war against an ever-illusory and expanding enemy. The “radicalizers” and the “radicalized” start to resemble nothing more than activists, advocates, educators, organizers, and the disgruntled, all whom challenge militaristic governments.
In response to terrorism and “radicalization” western governments foster chronic public fear among people who express anti-government or anti-US sentiments because of grief, loss, deprivation, long-term unemployment, and an otherwise bleak future. Blaming religious fanatics for this fate is effective propaganda. Even the Christian religious fanatic in the US is suspect and often feared by the mainstream. Blaming religious fanaticism for global disruption is at best over simplistic and at worst a lie, but in either case it is an appealing argument to most. It plays into all of our religious phobias.
“Radicalization” proposes that Westerners who have had little or no previous exposure to Islam are suddenly persuaded to join fundamentalist Islam. However, mainstream U.S. society ridicules both fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity for their extremist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and intolerant language. How then are we to believe that very many citizens of the U.S. would find Jihadist Islam attractive? One could argue that the radicalized come from among mostly fundamentalist Christians or even White supremacist. But everyone knows that the most outspoken, anti-islamic voice is that of the Christian Fundamentalist types. Nonetheless, corporate media tell us that people are being or will be “radicalized” in alarming numbers into fundamentalist Muslim terrorists if we don’t remain diligent (with diligence meaning US citizens remaining passive to US Homeland Security excesses and civil rights abuses). Where our attention needs to be directed is toward all of the serious foreign and domestic catastrophes that now motivate dissenters from a broad spectrum of disaffected persons.Let’s recount them:

Equally important to remember are the serious foreign and domestic failures that now motivate dissenters and protestors long before any of them passionately convert to fundamentalist Islam through a “self-radicalizing” process. Let’s recount them:

  1. The US deceiving the world about weapons of mass destruction. And obscured the fact that those responsible for the 9/11 attack were not from Iraq or Afghanistan. Almost all were from Saudi Arabia.
  2. The world protested the US invasion of Iraq in an unprecedented worldwide protest of tens of millions of people throughout Europe and the Middle East. It received little media coverage in the US, keeping a frightened US citizenry ignorant and cooperative.
  3. US bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan has killed hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom were unarmed civilians and children. Subsequently the US government conceded to a vicious torture campaign, targeting Muslims.
  4. As a result of the war in part, the US financial meltdown in 2008 devastated ten’s of millions of people in the US and abroad. Many remain far behind.
  5. Commonplace mass shootings in the US that cannot be construed as attacks against the state, while accusations of police abuse, brutality, militarism, and political corruption are widely held to be true.
  6. The incarcerated of more of its own people than any nation in the world, by far, with people of color being disproportionately sentenced.

Rather than authentically addressing these political deficits, the idea of “self-radicalization,” is peddled as a dangerous ideology that causes otherwise good people to kill innocents. “Self-radicalization,” appears to be tossed around by media when no apparent connection between an accused dissenter and a known Islamic terrorist group exists (resistors must still be villainized). “Self-radicalization,” invokes an incredulous “spontaneous generation,” where non-lethal dissatisfaction is said to morph from rational dissent into terrorism through exposure to Islamic radicalism. The scenario lacks credibility.
The reality is that opposition to the status quo does not require violent radical religion. People who are discriminated against, harassed, intimidated, disrespected, refused employment, impoverished, inadequately housed, occupied, bombed or wrongly imprisoned, can become angry and eventually resistant. This happens long before one feels the need to become an Islamic Jihadist or fundamentalist Christian. “Self-radicalization” propaganda is a license to intimidate and manipulate a dissatisfied citizenry in the name of “security,”and misdirects their attention away from the valid protesting of the economically and politically marginalized.
The threat is relatively small that persons who live in the US, who have little direct exposure to Muslims, and disavow the fundamentalist worldview in general, will become fundamentalist Jihadist Muslims. Unfortunately, the acceptance of the idea of “self-radicalization” as a pre-cursor to terrorism permits government over reach, abuses of power, and the spawning of real extremists. Numerous demographics are among the disillusioned, each community or social strata having valid grievances. These grievances did not evolve through Islamic influence. The supposed success of “radicalization” in the West brought about by Islamic terrorist groups is an implausible threat to national security. The radicalization of the West, to the extent that it exists, has been born by US government arrogance and abuses at home and abroad. Dissatisfaction and rational dissent begs for democratic engagement not hyper-surveillance.
[*I consent that there is a real kind of radicalization that happens with youth who are more easily seduced into the conflict and agenda of others. But the current international revolt cannot and will not succeed on the backs of child soldiers. The child soldier is disturbing, but a sign of weak and desperate adults].
There is good reason to reject the current “radicalized” language within the rhetoric of terrorism. It might be countered with a careful consideration of why so many people regardless of ethnicity or religious persuasion are willing to die or risk their lives and livelihood to voice their complaints to Western governments? The sooner we take seriously the multifaceted spectrum of grievances the better we are protect ourselves from real domestic and global terrorists, fundamentalist resurgences, patriarchal reactionaries, and a government ready to make enemies of its own citizens. To be sure, we cannot kill all of ISIL. The force behind it is not merely troops, weapons, and money. The once identifiable enemies of the state have become an expanding ideology of resistance with a common enemy. Perhaps what we are really witnessing is a “radicalized government” attempting to manufacture a singular enemy from the divided multitudes, if it means the preservation of the status quo.

Rev. Michael Burch is a professor, clergy and organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. The opinions expressed in this essay are intended to represent only Michael Burch’s views and not that of the institutions which he serves (

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