By Barry Hindess
My title might seem to suggest an hostility to radicalisation, that is, to the thing itself – and thus as endorsing the general thrust, if not the actual detail, of Australian public policy towards what is widely seen as the threat of radicalisation. ‘Radicalisation’ is too often presented as something that happens to young people, often turning them into potentially violent extremists. Rather, it should be seen as an ugly figment of the security imagination unfettered, as this imagination so often seems to be, by serious thought. Accordingly, my title reflects an objection to the term ‘radicalisation’ and the ideas it represents.
While it might seem that ‘radicalisation’ could happen to any of us, that whatever views we might presently hold – green, liberal, socialist or conservative, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim or atheist – could become more ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’, when these terms are used without qualification they almost invariably target Islam. This is a problem that Malcolm Turnbull’s inclusive response to the recent Parramatta shooting shares with his predecessor Tony Abbott’s more confrontational stance. In a recent interview with ABC Radio National (PM, October 5 at 18.10), Turnbull insisted on the ‘need to counter radicalisation’ before going on to say that ‘We have to work with the Muslim community in particular very collaboratively … They are our absolutely necessary partners in combating this type of extremist violence.’ Here radicalisation and extremist violence are clearly viewed as issues that arise within the Muslim community, which is why they are ‘our absolutely necessary partners in combating’ them.
However, there are familiar varieties of extremism and of radicalism that are in no sense Islamic. Those of us who watched the recent Bendigo Mosque protests, whether in the flesh or, as in my case, through the security of our television screens, will have observed a truly frightening level of hatred and aggression on the part of some of the protestors. We have yet to see our leaders take a stand against the radicalisation of such people. There are Bhuddist extremists in Myanmar who terrorise the Rohingya Muslim minority. And again, there are militant evangelical Christian extremists in parts of Africa and in North and South America who are not often seen as posing a threat to the Western way of life. There are small groups of these Christian extremists in Australia but, whatever they may do to each other, they generally leave the rest of us in peace.
Leaving religion to one side, we often see radicalism and extremism in political life. At one time, political radicalism was expected of young people – at least, among those of a certain class, a class that allowed its members the luxury of experimenting with political allegiances. The French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is reputed to have said ‘My son is 22 years old. If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then’. Clemenceau’s comments suggest both an awareness that radicalisation might happen among the young and what now seems a remarkably optimistic response: give it time and it will likely pass.
More immediate examples of political extremism are neo-liberalism and the anti-refugee practices promoted by our two major political parties. The former is a doctrine that promotes radical economic change throughout the world – the privatisation of public assets and deregulation and marketisation of anything that moves. Margaret Thatcher did not come into the world as a neo-liberal extremist but, grew into it in her years as a politician. In other words, she was radicalised. Similarly for the IPA ‘s benighted publicists. Neo-liberal extremism poses a real threat to most people in the West, and to the rest of the world too. It is alive and kicking in the Coalition and, despite Kevin Rudd’s essays in The Monthly, still has disturbing levels of support within the Labor Party.
Australia’s refugee regime is a threat, whose brutality has been well-documented, to the well-being of anyone in its clutches. It is a clear case of irreligious Western extremism, suggesting that both those who run the regime’s camps and those who established them must have been radicalised, perhaps by the thought that being seen to be tough on refugees was a prerequisite of career advancement and/or political success. It is tempting to say something similar about Western military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, ostensibly to counter the threat of terrorism at its source. The manifest failure of these interventions and their counter-productive effects have lead, with the partial exception of Afghanistan, not to serious withdrawal from the interventions themselves but rather to their intensification (or radicalisation).
Another problem is that the term is not well-defined. Both here and in North America where it seems to have originated, it is little more than a reflection of the political concerns of those who use it. It refers to a process identified by its alleged results. Leaving aside the well publicised actions of Western powers in the Middle East, whatever else results in radicalism among Muslims is denounced as radicalisation. As often happens with public policy fads, far too many academics have identified themselves as ‘radicalisation’ specialists, thereby overlooking their responsibility to promote intellectual rigour in public life.
My point is not to deny that talk of radicalisation gestures towards a real problem or problems but it is to suggest that we should examine these problems more carefully before seeking actively to address them. We know that young people and more than a few of their elders, finding themselves alienated from the societies in which they live, sometimes seek support elsewhere and it is hardly surprising that this happens within the Muslim community. The reasons for this alienation and responses to it may be many and various, sometimes including ill-informed talk of ‘radicalism’, ‘extremism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ and the intemperate actions of our governments. The politically-charged notion of radicalisation has little to offer our understanding of these issues.
School of Politics and International Relations,
Australian National University, Canberra