Caught Between "Deradicalization" and "Disengagement:" Clarifying Terms in the Discourse of Terrorism

By Tobias Metzger
2013, Vol. 5 No. 11 | pg. 1/4 |

Observations from the media and from public discourse on Islamist radicalization reveal that terms such as 'Islamist extremism,' ',' and 'Islamism' are often used without a clear or common definition. The same can be said for the use of these terms in academic literature. As pointedly stated by various actors, including al-Qaeda's deceased ideologue and leader Osama bin Laden1, “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter,”2 and whereas suicide bombers are seen as the epitome of so called 'Islamist extremism', various commentators have suggested recognizing them instead as a category of fighters3. The notion of 'terrorism' has been used by both sides of the US-proclaimed “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) to create an ideological frame for understanding events.4 As a result, the divide presented by 'us against them' logic, and the entailing suspicions and indiscriminate repression of Islamists, may have in fact furthered the process of radicalization.

Consequently, views on how to approach current, former, and potential Islamist 'terrorists' diverge significantly. Horgan recently addressed the dilemma of state-led deradicalization programs stating that “in the sample of individuals … interviewed from 2006-2008, while almost all of the interviewees could be described as disengaged, not a single one of them could be said to be 'de-radicalized'”5. This leads him to demand a more abstract evaluation of different initiatives6 and “greater conceptual clarity between the two [terms],”7 'deradicalization' and 'disengagement.' It is argued that the evaluation of programs to 'deradicalize' or 'disengage' has been hindered as a result of such ambiguity. This analysis thus sets out to reconceptualizing both terms and their inherent components.

1. Deconstructing Deradicalization8

Saudi Arabia has one of the most widely recognized 'soft approaches to terrorism.' Initiatives to “[overcome] extremism” as a mind-set are thereby “part of Saudi Arabia's long-term counterterrorism strategy”9. This 'war of ideas' is fought “to instill the concepts of moderation and tolerance, and to undermine any justification for extremism and terrorism on an intellectual level”10. These initial quotes stating the goals of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism approach prompt questions about the definition of terms such as 'moderation', 'extremism' and 'terrorism.' Once common definitions are established, Saudi Arabia's “Counter-Radicalization” and “Rehabilitation Program” can be put in relation to other such programs to improve dialogue and best-practices sharing among international actors. While deradicalization, disengagement, rehabilitation and reintegration are used somewhat interchangeably by governments and commentators, this essay focuses on the main categories of deradicalization and disengagement, thereby linking other terms.

1.1. Dividing Deradicalization and Disengagement: A Starting Point

The essay follows Fink and Horgan who state that deradicalization and counter-radicalization imply cognitive aspects and challenge fundamentalist interpretations11, whereas disengagement seeks to alter behavior12. Hogan “emphasizes the need for clarity in distinguishing deradicalization (attitudinal modification) from disengagement (behavioral modification).” Davis and Cragin similarly differentiate between a “change in beliefs” and a “change in actions.”13 Especially Horgan's definition has gained wide prominence in reports and conference discussion14 and was additionally adopted by a UN working group15. This suggests that the UN may prove to be the appropriate actor to further the acceptance of common definitions, and thereby facilitate dialogue among the actors.

This clear differentiation between deradicalization, targeting the hearts and minds, and dis-engagement, renouncing violence, avoids the issue of overlapping definitions invoked by various authors and enables us to evaluate the programs more objectively. Some definitions e.g. falsely describe radicalization as “a process whereby individuals … come to view violence as a legitimate method of solving social and political conflicts”16 or “the process through which an individual changes from passiveness … to … militant” and with “intent towards … violence”17. While it is important to research the influence of radicalization on violent behavior, this essay argues that both - radicalization and acts of violence – require separate consideration in order to allow for comprehensive approaches.18

This section aims at deconstructing the defining components of the term deradicalization. Following the initial definitions of Fink and Horgan19, counter-radicalization and deradicalization are closely associated, while disengagement, discussed in section three, aims at different outcomes. In this respect, Fink provides useful criteria: “Deradicalization and disengagement can be defined as the process of individual and collective withdrawal. Disengagement refers to a behavioral change, whereas deradicalization implies a cognitive shift, i.e. a fundamental change in understanding”20.

Counter-radicalization and deradicalization share the targeting of 'hearts and minds'. However, they address different target groups. While counter-radicalization aims to “work upstream to prevent radicalization by reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience”21 thereby addressing currently non-radical individuals or communities, deradicalization refers to “programs … directed against individuals who have become radical with the aim of re-integrating them into society”22. Counter-polarization falls in the same category, and is “aimed at reducing divisions between different groups within society”23.

1.2. The Origins of 'Radical': Moderate and Fundamentalist Islam

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term 'radical' as “necessitating … fundamental social, economic or political change”24, as “extreme”25 and “favoring … fundamental or revolutionary changes”26. Furthermore, according to Carnegie 'extremist' is the superlative of 'radical'27. Extremism is often used in connection with Islamism and violence in the media, but following its origins 'extreme' merely means “not usual,” “exceptional,” “advocating severe or drastic measures” or “far from moderate”28. Furthermore, defining extremism as “the use of unconventional means in the face of exceptional circumstances”29 shows that both mind-sets and actions may be considered extreme. 'Moderate' and 'fundamentalist' appear in all of these definitions and play an important role in Islamist30 deradicalization efforts. Therefore, the following highlights academic findings on both dimensions.

Fundamentalist Islam

According to Kepel, Salafists are “the real fundamentalists of Islam”31, and therefore currently subject to growing concern32. This is due to the fact that they proclaim the “denouncing of excessive moderation” and challenge other Islamist groups such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for following what they consider Qutb's “personal interpretations” of .33 Salafism is at its core an especially strict interpretation of the Quran and sharia principles, as can be observed also within Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi tradition. It arouse from the observation that Islam was deviating from its original purpose into a state of jahiliyya and required a return to the ancient principles of the devout ancestors, 'salaf' in Arabic. Salafists aims to achieve this by reinterpreting the writings of the Quran and the Sunnah, and applying them to the modern world, whereas Wahhabism is more conservative, considering modernism a foreign influence that should be neglected. This second trait is included in Lewis definition:

"Muslim fundamentalists are those who believe the troubles of the Muslim world ... are the result not of insufficient modernization but excessive modernization ... i.e. imposing and importing infidel ways on Muslim peoples. The task is to remove [modernizing] rulers and expel their foreign patrons and protectors, and return to purely Islamic ways of life in accord with the principles of Islam".34

These fundamentalist views represent strict borders and may impede dialogue due to the world's division in black and white, or right and wrong.35 However, the means adopted to pursue this path differ largely, as e.g. in only small fractions of the fundamentalist movements resort to violence. Therefore, Carnegie's description in the Russian context seems to generalize too broadly and fails to recognize divides within the Salafi tradition:

“Both [traditionalists and Salafis] have the same goal of instituting Islamic order and introducing sharia law, differing only on the methods of accomplishing that goal. The Salafis are ready to resort to violence. The traditionalists believe in the possibility of peaceful evolution … within the framework of the Russian state.”36

Wiktorowicz37, who recognizes the divisions, describes three factions within the Salafi movement: Firstly, the purists who emphasize the need for non-violent purification and of the Muslim society, secondly, the politicos who engage in the political arena and thirdly, the jihadis who consider violence as a necessary means to creating a state of 'Rashidun'38. While used in the context of the North Caucasus as a derogative term for Salafism39, Wahhabism is first and foremost an Islamic sect promoted by funding from Saudi Arabia. It increased its popularity by disseminating books, tapes and other Wahhabite doctrinal texts through the Muslim World League established in 1962, as well as by funding the establishment of institutions and mosques.40 While the Saudi Arabian Kings have used its religious institutions to gain popular legitimacy and support of influential clerics, the structure of Saudi Arabia's economy with its reliance of foreign workers quickly led to the spread of fundamental ideas abroad.41 Therefore, analyzing the way in which Saudi Arabia aims to deal with fundamental thoughts within its deradicalization programs promises to be an interesting aspect of section four. It is crucial to recognize the importance of ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb or Abul A'la Mawdudi who postulate the departure from wrong-doing in politics, economics and society based on the writings of Qu'ran and Sunnah.42 

Moderate Islam

On the other side of the spectrum stand Islamic movements upholding moderate thoughts and principles inherent to “Western” ,especially regarding the participation of the Muslim community or 'umma' and consultation or 'ijtihad'. In contrast to mainstream perceptions, can thereby be considered a de-escalating force introducing moral values such as peace and tolerance. The notion of moderation is best described in the originally Islamo-liberal's Arabic term 'wasatiyya', meaning both religious moderation and political balancing of liberal and Islamist forces. The rising importance and legitimacy of this term adopted from the Quran is linked to scholars such as Salman al-'Awda, 'A'idh al-Qarni, and Safar al-Hawali.43

This deconstruction of fundamentalist and moderate Islam serves as a delineator to distinguish between different strands within Islamic movements in order to draw a more complete picture of a heterogeneous set of people often treated as a single entity. According to some authors it is this indiscriminate treatment which has led to an increase in radical thinking and the spread of violence. Especially the differences in fundamental and moderate thinking have “sparked deep divisions within the global Islamist movement”44 and helped counter-terror campaigns due to the moderate fraction's opposition to violence.

Although this essay suggest that both terms are valuable in classifying programs of deradicalization and disengagement, it is important to recognize that differentiating between 'radical' and 'moderate' is never straightforward. While supporters of radical Qutbist ideas may be using moderate rhetoric as a mere means of deception, moderate individuals may be adhering to seemingly radical religious behavior out of fear of repression, such as observed by Kepel during the 1996-2001 Taliban rule in .45

Figure 1: Deconstructing radicalism

Figure 1

Combined with the initial definitions, these findings suggest that 'deradicalization' aims at targeting fundamental, and creating moderate ideas. This is displayed in Figure 1. It is important to acknowledge this 'battle of ideas' when evaluating a program’s success. The battle of ideas is a result of aiming to indoctrinate an individual to accept a substitute ideology. In addition to being difficult to evaluate46, it is difficult to assess whether e.g. a stronger notion of is favorable to sectarianism. One's ideology is also linked to one's identity, which is seen as an important part of deradicalization efforts, since a change in attitudes may result in a rejection within previous social groups where “the level of collective identities and actions taken to defend such 'we identities'”47 are important. Sageman's48 analyses of individuals have shown that these social links play a crucial role in understanding motives for adopting radical mind-sets and for joining such groups.49 The terms 'radical' and 'fundamentalist' are hereafter used synonymously.

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