Interpreting Radicalism

Interpreting Radicalism

We often assume we understand what terrorism and radicalism mean. Our interpretations and assumptions of these concepts are at the basis of what we criminalize and condemn. However, they are not always as clear-cut as we think.

If one is interested in studying the nature of terrorism, extremism, fundamentalism etc., one should always avoid the following question when interviewing respondents: “Have you encountered any radicals lately?” You will probably get certain answers but it is arguable whether it is what you’re looking for. The reason for this: people assume they understand what radicalism means but it depends on one’s interpretation. Because what is radicalism? Can you define or recognize it?

Political perspective

On a political level we can already recognize this interpretation dilemma with regard to terrorism. There is no universal or internationally accepted definition on terrorism. The reason for this is arbitrary and allegedly unknown, nonetheless the returning component in many definitions is ideology. To illustrate: when a group executes an attack on predominantly innocent people, but with reference to for instance the ruling elite, their attack is usually justified by a certain embraced ideology. Allied states of the victimized country are quick to condemn the attack and label it as a terrorist attack. Regarding the innocent deaths and injuries, the condemnation of an atrocity by allied states is normal and utterly justified. When it comes to terrorism, however, it is their interpretation of terrorism. Understandably, they interpret it as such because it frightens the particular political power and it may even threaten their ideal political form of government in particular. Counter attacks will follow, which will consequently be labeled as terrorist attacks too. This time by the initial attackers and their allies. And who can blame them? These counter attacks are manifestly based on an ideology too: protection of the victims’ ideal form of government for example. It becomes a slippery slope when one condemns not merely an attack but also the entire ideology behind it. One should always be aware that it is often the devilish interpretation of an ideology that motivates the attackers. The ideology itself might not be so manifestly wrong as one sometimes think.

Terminological perspective

An illustrative example can be given when focusing on for instance Jihad. Jihad is not an ideology per se, it is a means to establish a certain ideology. However, the connotation of Jihad is predominantly negative and related to violence and linked to many terrorist attacks. It is often translated as the “Holy War”, which can be true but this is rather shortsighted. It is an ongoing discussion what it literally means, but a more accepted translation is “struggle”. The “Greater Jihad” is an individual religious struggle to live as a good Muslim, meaning that one will not fall for particular temptations the world has to offer. This is in sharp contrast to the dominant interpretation with its violent elements. Hence, Jihad can be morally wrong but it is not evidently so. Again, it entirely depends on the interpretation.


Back to the introduction; these negative interpretations of Jihad continue to run in the minds of many of the respondents. Moreover, it is not unlikely that they illustrate a radicalized person based on someone’s appearance, rather than their thoughts or statements. To be clear, I don’t pretend to know what should be done to overcome the interpretation dilemmas. Quite the contrary. All the illustrative definitions and assumptions I formulated are also based on a certain interpretation of the sources I used. I just used them to make my point. But what I am certain of – and what not every respondent understands – is that not every person with a beard or a djellaba is a radical Muslim.


Anamika Singh

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Jasper de Bie

Dear Mr. Ellison,

Thank you for your comment. I completely agree with you that people can use their faith or religion for both good and evil. The later mainly means the death of innocent people, which is by no means acceptable. That is exactly why I stated that condemning these actions is “…utterly justified”. However, one should always be careful with condemning an entire religion; consequently criminalizing many people who have no evil intent at all. The UN has multiple resolutions where it describes terrorism. However, the discussion on its scope and content has not stopped, despite the universal nature of the UN.

Colin Ellison

Justification in clarity of the Muslim faith is not necessary. It is not the faith, but the leaders who are the issue in radicalization of their followers. Simply read a few of the edits by the Supreme Leader in Iran- that should wake you up. Clerics in Islam as ministers in Christianity can use their faith and leadership ability for either good or evil intent. A radicalized follower of fatwa intent on death and destruction is a terrorist and their objectives are clear and concise. You do not attempt to reason with a terrorist, there is only one solution. There is no justification for taking innocent life regardless of the religion and that makes all those who desire to follow that path a target as a terrorist. No religion or faith has the right to force others to follow its path. The United Nations has published a very good definition of terrorism-

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