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On Tuesday 7 March, Nadia Fadil will deliver a lecture in the lecture series “Redelijk Eigenzinnig” of the VUB. This year, the series focuses on the topic of migration. Professor Fadil, who works at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Center of the university of Leuven, is regarded as an expert in the field. In her lecture she will examine how and why the concept of radicalisation has become a real hype in political, societal and academic debates. An interview
Radicalisation is a contested notion, due to its exclusive focus on Islam. Yet, radical thinking in itself is not necessarily problematic or undesirable. For example, the early feminists fighting for female suffrage could also be considered as radical thinkers. When and under which conditions then does radicalism become a problem?
I agree that the term ‘radical’ is not necessarily a problem, and in my work I therefore do not follow the reading that states that radicalisation is a problematic process. Actually, the concept has received its negative loading only since some decennia, more precisely since the first half of the 1990s, when it came to be associated with violence. Based on my research, that focuses on how Dutch Security Services launched the term radicalisation in 2001 and how they have defined it since, the term ‘radical’ associated with ‘violence’ can be traced back to the early 90s. But it is only since the years 2000s that radicalisation has come to denote a process that can lead to violence.
The knowledge we have on radicalisation is essentially practical knowledge. There is not a lot of systematically collected information and scientific research. How do you deal with that scarcity?
Everything depends on what your indicators are, on how you operationalize issues. In my own research, I don’t use the term radicalisation, because I consider it as a normatively and ideologically loaded term that is quick to pathologize certain (religious and non-Western) forms of political activism. I think that it is especially important to understand how ‘conflict’ and ‘violence’ (and that can be about material violence like wars, social violence like inequality or symbolic violence, like racism and islamophobia) are translated in new forms of protest that are mainly peaceful, but among which a small fraction can be violent. To research this, it is therefore important to employ a holistic approach, that examines the interactions of youth with their environment (thus also educational institutions, teachers, other institutions where they stay…) and the extent in which these actors are able to tell a hopeful story that works inclusively. Because what is called ‘radicalisation’ is nothing less than the conviction that the available political instruments, narratives and utopias are no longer credible, and one searches for ‘radical’ other stories to give meaning to the world. A first step is therefore to understand why one would no longer belief in the hegemonic frameworks that are transmitted (democracy, Western values, the media offer) and to take these critiques seriously.
How can a government deal with issues like ‘radicalisation’, ‘Syria-warriors’ and so on, without stigmatizing communities, knowing that citizens expect from their government to deal with these vigorously?
The story on ‘radicalisation’ is another one that of ‘Syria-warriors’. In the first case, it is mostly about youth who are found to be in a deep state of ‘crisis’ and/or ‘mistrust’ towards transmitted hegemonic frameworks. This state of mistrust can be healthy, and it is important to take these critiques seriously, to examine their validity, and to understand how these critiques (often but not always) also imply a righteous critique on the extent in which our political system is failing. Concerning the ‘Syria-warriors’, youth who have effectively left to Syria and from which some have returned, it is important to differentiate, taking into account that can never anticipate how an individual will act (whether someone has left for Syria or not). Only a small group of leavers has returned, of those returnees a large part has left in the first wave and often they have returned disillusioned. One cannot suppose that among those first returnees there are people who have participated in violent acts; many of them went for humanitarian reasons or just for adventure.
Taking into account these factors it is important to work differentiated, even more so, to ‘use’ some of these young people in conversations with youth and schools and other institutions. Many of them today do not dare to testify on their experiences, because they fear repercussions from the police and justice (who dictated them upon their return – and as long as investigations were ongoing – not to talk with journalists. While it is exactly those youth who have first-hand information and who maybe can play a key role in deconstructing fantasies on Syria. Finally, it should be added that the ratio of departure today is negligibly low. The apex of departures was between 2013 and 2015, since then the number of departures has decreased. One can thus assume that the problem of ‘Syria-warriors’ has resolved itself. That doesn’t mean that there is no real problem with the way in which political conflicts today – and especially the asymmetrical war against terrorism – have become delocalized. It has become a polycentric war, wherein one can no longer neatly delineate the ‘battle fields’. Just like American militaries in civil and everyday contexts finish off potential ‘terrorists’ (and with them the surrounding collateral damage) we see that (a number of) these same ‘terrorists’ – because there number does remain relatively low – will act as undifferentiated by equally targeting civilians. That’s why it is important to understand how the current wars generate specific forms of violence.
The current polarisation between communities and the pressure this puts upon cohabitation, may easily lead to cynicism. Where do you see a potential for positive changes?
We live in paradoxical times. In Western-Europe, we have never had such a good standard of living as we have now, whether we are talking about security (yes!), welfare, life expectations, etcetera… But still there is the feeling that our society does very badly. Once we cross European boundaries however, we are confronted with unseen gradations of violence, from which we are safe. The fact that we live in relatively privileged circumstances, but are nevertheless confronted with cynicism and depression does not make me completely desperate, but it does show that there is a shared humanity that has increasing difficulty in dealing with this permanent cognitive dissonance. I believe that there is where the real challenge lies. The so-called ‘two-sizes-two-weights’ and the fact that we live in relative richness/privilege and security at the cost of others insecurity, is no longer tenable, and I believe that we should embrace the psycho-somatic symptoms that fall upon us. Rather than to ignore then, we have to examine them and mostly, understand how they tell us something about our failed ‘humanity’.
(Questions for this interview have been provided by Els Consuegra, Bram Spruyt, Dimo Kavadias, Elly Mansoury and Gabriel Zajur Zamora, partners in the ‘Democratic Empowerment of Brussels Education, Students and Teachers’ (DEBEST) project.)