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Against radicalisation

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.

Barry Hindess
School of Politics and International Relations,
Australian National University, Canberra


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  1. Billius

    I enjoy reading articles like this that highlight our need to look further and stop being reactionary.

  2. Matters Not

    Je suis un radical.

  3. Kaye Lee

    Vous n’êtes pas un radical , vous êtes juste un garçon très méchant

  4. Kaye Lee


    I could not agree more. I have worked/dealt with teenagers all my life – with my family, as a teacher, working in a homeless youth refuge….I even was one once.

    Punishing actions does little to help change behaviour and nothing to understanding its cause. Listening, giving support and encouragement, having expectations, teaching them how to deal with their anger and frustration in different ways, keeping them occupied, helping them gain the skills to survive and become an active participant and contributor in society, help them share in the joy of helping others….a decent education with a job at the end would help. So would some tolerance and respect on all sides.

    And obviously we need to change our foreign policy from one of bombing to building.

  5. mars08

    How many people realise that there are young Muslims growing up in Australia who have seen their culture and social group demonised for their WHOLE lives? From the moment they became aware of the broader community, they have seen their peers vilified by tthe mexia and authority figures. Consider what that does to an insecure young person.

  6. Kaye Lee

    All young people want to feel that they belong. It takes experience and a lot of confidence and maturity before most people can be comfortable with being different.

  7. mars08

    It’s tough enough without being constantly reminded by the msm, that you ARE an OUTSIDER. .. and are held to different standards to most of your peers.

  8. Matters Not

    No. Not a ‘naughty boy’. (Days long gone). Just someone who advocates a complete political, economic and social reform as a ‘starting point’ for a ‘just’ society.

  9. Backyard Bob

    I assume Barry is in his first year, based on the literacy level. Seriously.

  10. Matters Not

    Words, words aren’t really a problem. How could ‘words’, which, at the most basic level, are just ‘squiggles’, lines on paper or on a ‘screen’ be a ‘problem’? For example, if I assert I want to изнасилование you (just as an illustration certainly not an intention). Don’t know what that ‘combination’ means? Or could it be the case that the average Russian ‘knows’ what meaning to give to that word while the average Australian certainly doesn’t. Can I suggest, as this article, demonstrates that it’s the ‘meaning’ that people give to words that is constantly in play and therefore.

    Does a writer have control over the meaning the reader gives to his/her chosen ‘words’. I suggest not. Example A.

    counter-productive effects have lead

    Really, ‘lead’ and ‘led’. And he’s from the ANU.

    How standards have declined.

  11. Michael Taylor

    Don’t blame Barry. I take responsibility for those errors. Our damn spell checker and auto correct do nasty little tricks that go unnoticed.

  12. Michael Taylor

    Backyard Bob, I would suspect that you assume wrong.

  13. Matters Not

    Actually, Michael, as you would well know, Professor Barry Hindess is an outstanding academic.

    His writings on Foucault and the like in terms of political theory are at the highest level.

    That you reproduce his articles here is worthy of congratulations. Keep up the good work.

    My ‘criticism’ is simply about me being me re ‘meaning’ and how and why the attribution of ‘meaning’ is rooted within humans and doesn’t ‘come’ from without.

    Simply, it’s (meaning) that is ‘given’ not ‘received’.

  14. Michael Taylor

    Matters Not, you mentioned one of my least favourite words: Foucault. After my honour’s thesis was completed I had hoped never to hear that name again. 🙂

  15. Matters Not

    Why? Was it the Discipline or the Prison? Or the both?

  16. Michael Taylor

    Because he was way too intellectual for my diminished capacity. What might have been simple or logical for him, was not so easy for me to grasp. For example:

    They defined a number of different Aboriginalisms and also proposed to subject Aboriginalism to a Foucaldian discourse analysis so that the value of the knowledge it produces can be critically assessed and the relationships of power in which this is embedded can be revealed (Attwood & Arnold, 1992:iii).


    This form of power is closely connected with knowledge, or with the practices of what Foucault called ‘power/knowledge’ (Hall, 1997:259). For Foucault power is productive of knowledge. Power forms knowledge and produces discourse (Attwood & Arnold, 1992:ii). Said’s discussion of Orientalism closely parallels Foucault’s power/knowledge argument: a discourse produces, through different practices of representation a form of racialised knowledge of the Other deeply implicated in the operations of power (Hall, 1997:260).

    See why I grew to dislike him.

  17. Matters Not

    Yep, what ‘meanings’ to give to the ‘words’ he wrote. And at a higher level, to the ‘concepts’ he developed.

    Perhaps he should not have frequented ‘bath houses’? (So many French philosophers seem to have this ‘death’ wish. As opposed to those of us who know we will live forever.)

    But he certainly was a greater contributor to the ‘history’ of our intellectual development.

  18. Michael Taylor

    Except for mine. 🙁

  19. Matters Not

    Surely, the ‘journey’ stimulated something?

    And clearly it did. You now know what you don’t ‘like’?

    In the intellectual sense, at least?

  20. paul walter

    Sorry. Was going to comment re Hall’s racialised knowledges quote which seems as over determined a proposition as I can recall, most all from a respected academic. Computer wouldn’t allow to me make the changes I needed to make.

  21. king1394

    Radicalisation seems to be another word for politicalisation. People need to become politicised before they will start to recognise that they must be actors in our broader society. Many people experience a personally politicising event that stimulates this desire to action. For many older people this was the dismissal of the Whitlam government. For many younger people it may well be the experience of unemployment and the particularly punitive approach to the unemployed. For many others it is the horror of war or the treatment they experience as a member of a minority group.
    While our society via the media in particular works hard to create non-radicalised, non-politicised population which is happy to ignore politics, and live in their own consumerist bubble, there is always the ‘danger’ that individuals will develop a social conscience, and/or an anger about a given issue. I think that the experience of being treated unfairly as currently people of the Islamic faith are, is itself the radicalising / politicising experience. To have a generally non-radicalised population, it is necessary to have a fair and equitable society

  22. bobrafto

    Radicalization (or radicalisation) is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that (1) reject or undermine the status quo

    Could ‘Radicalisation” be applied to Multinationals in regard to wholesale tax evasion?

    Just a thought.

    Backyard Bob
    October 23, 2015 at 10:58 pm
    I assume Barry is in his first year, based on the literacy level. Seriously.

    Can you expand on your comment as I fail to see any problem with the literacy.

  23. Kyran

    Perhaps the notion of inclusion would be worth a thought.
    For a long while now, we have had an exclusive society, best expressed by the mono-culuralist little johnnie – we shall decide who comes here and by what means. There are ‘them’ and there are ‘us’.
    An inclusive society would respect and celebrate multi cultural diversity, usually for its own benefit.
    Goodness, we could even aspire to ancient notions. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
    By isolation and exclusion, I fail to see any outcome other than extremism.
    Thank you Mr Hindess. Take care

  24. donwreford

    A radical and subversive group often overlooked by most of western society as a result of blind faith that becomes all part of our indoctrination of being within our society, I mean strangely enough our “education system” I will give a couple of examples my family has its roots in the lower classes, my sister had her daughter educated at Cambridge, her name Joanne now has nothing to do with her biological family? as I presume the guilt of coming from this family would reflect upon her image, moving on I had a relationship and a child with a artist who had been educated at The Royal College of Art, London, whereas my art education was only the mere Hornsey College of Art, London, I cannot tell you how up she was and is, although now she has had the honoured status of being for some decades a lolly pop crossing lady? one alluding comment is Margaret Thatcher although from shop keeper stock can be described as fairly well educated over time but nevertheless a sub human being in terms of humanity? many examples of what I mean such as Pol Pot educated in university in Paris, we only have to look at the 4 or was it 5 traitors of Britain in the spy ring as Russian informers in the 1950s, educated at Cambridge, if we look at Australian well educated individuals in Parliament such as Tony Abbott? to see what I mean by becoming radicals, the well balanced individual today is out of fashion, the planet today is run by the elite and this elite permeates all levels of our society to systematic destruction and a commitment and allegiance to inherent violence.

  25. Chris Blaikie

    It’s good to see there are some ‘decent’ opinions coming out of the ANU. When I see that name I expect the line being put forward to be neo-conservative or ‘narrow’. : P
    Good on you Barry Hindess.

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