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Radicalization: the origins and limits of a contested concept

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‘Radicalization’ has a twisted history. At every turn, it gained a new meaning without shedding the existing one. In the beginning, ‘radicalization’ meant Muslims espousing an anti-Western, fundamentalist stance, with Iran as the epicentre of a global Muslim insurgency. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it started to be loosely used as a synonym of ‘anger’. A number of Muslims were said to become increasingly angry as a result of a wide variety of ‘root causes’. But almost simultaneously, it became intertwined with ‘recruitment’ by foreign extremists, who tried to persuade these angry individuals to join foreign war zones.

In 2004, another layer was added when ‘self- radicalization’ became the buzzword, since it appeared that one could also develop into a terrorist through kinship and friendship networks. That year, the EU officially embraced the concept. Myriad models and studies were financed to try to clarify the long, step- by-step process through which an individual radicalized into a terrorist.

But, in a new twist, by 2015–2016 it became obvious that radicalization didn’t require a long process after all.

‘Flash’ or ‘instant radicalization’ was introduced to elucidate how some literally in a moment jumped into jihadi terrorism without any previous phase of, well, radicalization. In the meantime, by 2018, the culprit behind the global Muslim insurgency had crossed the Gulf. Saudi Arabia was now seen as the villain that, through its multi- billiondollar promotion of a newly coined ‘Salafi-Wahhabism’, has perverted the minds of millions of Muslims worldwide into a rejectionist, anti-Western stance.

As this chapter will illustrate, throughout the years ‘radicalization’ has gained even more layers than those succinctly exposed in the introductory paragraph. When the scale of Europeans travelling to Syria was publicly disclosed in early 2013, many were taken by surprise, even in countries like the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, which had taken a substantial lead in the field of radicalization studies.

This article was published in “Radicalization in Belgium and the Netherlands. Critical perspectives on violence and security“, edited by Nadia Fadil, Francesco Ragazzi, Martijn de Koning, May 2019.