The Tangled Meanings–and Misuses–of ‘Radicalization’

Everybody wants to know whether and how the Tsarnaev's religious views radicalized them. But is that even the right question? And what are its implications?

By Seth Freed Wessler Apr 25, 2013

Immediately after the bombing in Boston last week, even before we knew the identities of the suspects, the press began to tie the violence to Islam. The networks flooded themselves with experts on terrorism who all wanted to talk about what they call "radicalization."

Some evidence has emerged that the Tsarnaev brothers spent time watching videos with Islamic content, and according to USA Today, in an article strewn with intimation of guilt by association, they attended a mosque visited by other Muslims accused of supporting violence. Throughout the news media, the implicit claim has been that their move to an extreme act was tied to their religion. For the younger Tsarnaev in particular, the burning question has been, how could such a "normal" guy turn so radical? How have his religious views caused this change? 

These are the same questions that fuel the New York Police Department’s mass spying program in Muslim communities. The program’s operating premise is that more Muslim someone becomes, the more likely they are to act violently. The authorities have to watch all young Muslim men, mindful to detect that radicalization moment.

But at the core of the questions about radicalization is the assumption that extreme religious, ideological or political beliefs are causal in acts of mass violence carried out by people like the Tsarnaevs. Aziz Huq, a professor of law at the University of Chicago who has written about the idea of radicalization and how it is used in political culture, has wrestled with that assumption. Huq calls the conversation about radicalization "tangled." 

"Too often in the debate," says Huq, "the ideas of radicalization as changing your mind and as moving to violent activism are conflated and sometimes intentionally confused." I asked him to help us untangle the debate.

So what’s wrong with the idea that there’s a relationship between changing views and violence? 

First of all, if we look at the pool of cases that are available, of acts of violence that are associated with religious identity in the post 9-11 era, it’s not clear that what you are seeing is a pool of people drawn from the most religious extreme part of the spectrum. Second, and more important, the idea that it’s the change in religious views that drives people to political violence, there’s just little or no empirical support for that. There are somewhere between two and five million Muslims in the U.S. To say that a faith that influences millions of people [can drive them to political violence], on the evidence that several of those people commit acts of violence is–from a social science perspective–either a very weak claim or intentionally farcical.

There is plainly a religious rhetoric promulgated by Al Qaeda that frames and justifies violence in religious terms. And in some cases of post 9-11 violence, those committing violence sometimes pick up that rhetoric. But finding evidence of the religious language at work is not the same as knowing that there was a causal effect on the decision to use violence.

That’s exactly what seems to be happening in much of the press coverage. That is, reporters are looking for indications of attachment to or involvement with Islam and then treating that attachment as evidence of causation. 

[Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s] Twitter account suggests that he is just as religious as he is immersed in non-religious consumer culture, as any comparative kid his age. It’s not clear what violence has to do in this case with religion. You have here someone who decides to commit an act of violence and the religious texts are attached.

Had this person been acculturated into the belief system of the [white] militia movement in the Midwest, and committed an act of violence, or had they been born in one of the African American neighborhoods in Chicago where I live, where there are on some weekends five to 10 murders, the conversation would look very different. The fact that he committed those murders would be treated as totally unexceptional in the Chicago context. We would not have this conversation: why is he doing it, what is the role of religion? These would not be part of it at all.

Well it seems to me that what all of the cases you cite have in common is that they are all young men who are somehow alienated, pushed out. Is it possible that we’re missing that much less grandiose point in the search for the brothers’ path to radicalization?

What we see here is a refusal to even begin to ask the same kinds of questions that we asked in other contexts, like the Newtown massacre, about psychological causes, social causes, about the role that availability of guns plays. It’s very clear that the brothers had access to tremendous amounts to firepower. [Note: There are now conflicting official reports on how many firearms the brothers actually had.] There is almost no discussion of whether regulation of weapons is an appropriate response.

Instead, somehow the political energy is channeled into immigration. That’s because it’s the salient regulatory tool in this situation–salient in terms of the available narrative. Talking about immigration is a way of satisfying an emotional impulse to explain or blame it on some other alien force.