Curbing the Enthusiasm: Why De-radicalization Programs Get Fanaticism Wrong


It was only after the 7/7 bombings in London that “radicalization” established itself firmly in the Western lexicon of criminology and counter-terror policing to describe the process that leads teenagers down the path of violent extremism. Yet before Western taxpayers pour yet more money into countering home-grown violent extremism, it might be worth asking what the problem is that de-radicalization supposedly solves. Simply put, jihadist groups — or more precisely, the Islamic State — do not seek to “radicalize.” They want to achieve something else, and far more apocalyptic, and this fact eludes the official gaze along with much media and academic commentary.

After the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 and the palpable fear of further home-grown, mass-casualty assaults in other European capitals, it might be worth pausing to assess the political benefit of government programs devoted to de-radicalization. In this context, the New York Police Department (NYPD) was the first police department to commission a report into “Radicalization in the West” (2007). The report defined radicalization as a four-stage process involving “pre-radicalization,” “intensification,” “indoctrination,” and eventually “jihadization,” and on this basis outlined a program of intervention. After 2002, the British government’s formal strategy for countering the call to jihad among alienated second-generation Muslim youth germinated a policy called Prevent, which modified the American approach. According to Prevent, ‘“radicalisation is a social process particularly prevalent in small groups.” It is about “who you know. … Group bonding, peer pressure and indoctrination are necessary to encourage the view that violence is a legitimate response to perceived injustice.”

It may seem a matter of semantics, but unpacking “de-radicalization” reveals a misleading neologism that obscures more than it elucidates. Somewhat paradoxically, it actually nurtures a sense of “group bonding” that encourages some Muslims down the path of violence. Moreover, by treating the problem as one for community workers and therapists, official de-radicalization policies discountenance the utopian appeal of religious enthusiasms that offers meaning to otherwise meaningless lives.

What does it mean to be Jihadi Cool?

Islamist propaganda outlets release over 90,000 social media posts per day. That’s nearly 33 million posts a year. The appeal of social media is evident. There are no gatekeepers. Messages posted from one remote or hidden location are immediately transmitted to the hip pocket of anyone with a smartphone, a potential audience counted in the millions.

After 9/11 a new wave of global Salafist jihadists turned to social media. Abu Musab al-Suri developed the strategy of leaderless resistance online via his Global Call to Islamic Resistance. The Yemeni-born, but American-educated Anwar al-Awlaki re-packaged the message for Western youth and made jihad cooler than hip-hop. Awlaki was killed in Yemen in 2011, but by then he had created the Jihadi John phenomenon in the West.

Awlaki and his successors, like the former west Sydney male stripper and boxer turned zealot Feiz Mohammad, or failed Melbourne rapper Neil Prakash (aka Abu Khalid al Cambodi), use social media to brand the Islamic State product. Jihadist activists consider this aspect of their movement so important that in August they formed the Anwar al-Awlaki Brigade to promulgate the message and recruit online. The brigade’s media awareness is attuned to Western sensibilities. Segueing off a L’Oréal ad, for instance, a recent recruitment message targeting young Western women and publicizing the attractions of sharia rule runs “Covered Girl: Because you’re worth it.”

The flow of young second-generation Muslim men and women — brought up in secular, Western, multicultural societies — to the Islamic State demonstrates the success of the messaging. Western governments seem as shocked by the cultic appeal of the Islamic State as they were surprised by the rapidity and lethality with which it achieved de facto authority over vast swathes of Syria and Iraq.

In February 2015 the Obama administration convened a summit of like-minded democracies to counter violent extremism. The United States discussed ways to “prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence.” Described as a “strange and woolly affair,” President Obama only conveyed an impression of Western impotence, observing that: “We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized.”

Yet the default governmental response is invariably to introduce yet more tranches of counter-terrorism legislation and throw even more money into security agency budgets and counter-radicalization strategies. Academic entrepreneurs and NGOs have since 9/11 exploited the funding opportunities available to establish a range of early warning initiatives that seek to identify those in danger of radicalization. Yet after more than a decade of activist intervention, they have singularly failed to curb the enthusiasm for jihad.

In the United Kingdom, the government’s Prevent strategy is widely disparaged as ineffective. Despite an annual budget of £40 million (approximately $60 million), the number of British Muslims leaving for Syria to throw in their lot with the Islamic State has risen substantially. Between June and August 2015, 796 people were referred for de-radicalization in England and Wales, double the number of referrals for intervention in the first three months of 2015. It might be the case that the strategy has stopped people from traveling a violent path. However, it is difficult to prove a negative and the effectiveness of Prevent may in itself be impossible to measure with accuracy. Clearly, though, the rising figures suggest that de-radicalization policies do not succeed in curtailing the appeal of jihad.

Elsewhere in Western Europe, Denmark’s de-radicalization program has been criticized for being soft and trusting, focusing only on the reintegration of returnees from Syria rather than challenging their ideology. Denmark has the second highest number of foreign fighters with the Islamic State after Belgium, the command-and-control center for the Islamic State’s attack on Paris.

The United States has engaged less with formal counter-radicalization policies and has a relatively low level of foreign fighter recruitment. Nevertheless, the NYPD, on the basis of their 2007 report into radicalization addressed the phenomenon “as a self-driven process” that led to clusters of violently inclined individuals, but who required “certain archetypes to evolve from just being a ‘bunch of guys’ to an operational cell.” Notably they required a “spiritual sanctioner” and operational leader. “Terrorism is the ultimate consequence of the radicalization approach,” the report found. Yet, the report offered no definition of radicalization and no obvious reference points for intervention to inhibit individuals moving from Islamist thought to jihadist action. This notwithstanding, in recent years, the U.S. Justice Department has funded de-radicalization initiatives aimed at understanding the motives of those who might be attracted to violence.

In an analogous vein, down under, the Australian federal government has allocated over AU$40 million (US$29 million) to counter violent extremism since 2013. The government devotes AU$13.4 million specifically to counter radicalization through programs like “Living Safe Together.” After Neil Prakash groomed 15-year-old Farhad Jabhar online to carry out an attack resulting in the death of police accountant Curtis Cheng in October, the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced it would devote more funding to social programs aimed at “preventing youth radicalisation.”

The latest approach will stress the need for “social cohesion.” “Early intervention and community based solutions work best,” counter-terrorism coordinator Greg Moriarty averred. Yet in the same week that state and federal governments announced new de-radicalization initiatives, Hizb-ut Tahrir, the transnational Islamist party, which only established a presence in Australia after 2001, denounced both the Australian oath of allegiance and the “forced assimilation” implied in singing the national anthem at its Sydney conference.

It comes as no great surprise then that, despite a decade of de-radicalization efforts, a recent worldwide study in the journal Behavioural Science of Terrorism and Political Aggression found that only one of 87 programs “dealing with countering violent extremism deals with those who have been radicalised. … Efforts have instead been spent on diffuse programs promoting multiculturalism rather than targeting individuals.” The authors of the study concluded that “There is little independent evaluation or evidence-based research to suggest that social cohesion or prevention initiatives have led to an actual reduction in extremism anywhere in the Western world.”

In other words, while the Islamic State and its followers offer jihadi cool messaging, public authorities respond with insipid pieties about cohesion and community bonding achieved through culturally sensitive de-radicalization programs that in the United States, Europe and Australia have proved ineffective. It might be worth asking, therefore, before engaging more academics, counsellors, community groups and bureaucratic agencies in taxpayer-funded programs, what precisely does the counter-terrorism community mean by “radicalism” and “radicalization?”

What’s in a name: radical or fanatic?

Seemingly, no government agency or counter-terrorism organization has paused to consider whether the term “radicalization” in fact describes the process that converts a young Western Muslim to the Salafist cause. Neither Western governments and academics, nor police and security agencies used the term very much before the London bombings of July 7, 2005. After 2005, it became the fashionable catch-all term to capture various aspects of the internal security, integration and foreign policy debate about Islamism. It also served, at the same time, both an analytic and public policy function.

However, its attempted social scientific objectivity played into the notion of jihadi cool, because to be “radical” in youth argot means to be street smart. The political vocabulary matters. An adequate response needs an accurate diagnosis. George Orwell observed in 1948 that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.” “Political chaos,” he argued “is connected with the decay of language,” leading to the construction of prevailing orthodoxies that “conceal and prevent thought.”

This is precisely what has happened with the misuse of the term radicalization. “Radicalism,” in fact, has a precise etymology. It entered modern usage in the 19th century in the context of political and economic reform and social progress. It was the 19th-century secular, liberal, utilitarian reformers associated with Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (John Stuart’s father) who devised the modern understanding of radicalism. In its original meaning, radicalism stood for a program of rational, constitutional, social and economic reform. Radicalism as a political ideology dismissed religion as irrational superstition and sought radical reform along secular, capitalist and progressive democratic lines.

The one thing we know about the Islamic State and its message is that it is does not do democracy or secular modernity. Thus it is not radical, nor does it engage in radicalization. Thereby, Orwell’s prophetic words come to pass: Distorting meaning distorts understanding.

Rather than being radicalized, young Western Muslims are attracted to what a more religious age than our own recognized as enthusiasm, zealotry or fanaticism. This phenomenon has a long and troubled history in Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious faiths. Seventeenth-century Europe knew well the revived post-Reformation penchant for religious sectarianism and enthusiastic zealotry, and its deracinating social consequences. Ben Jonson satirized the phenomenon of the religious enthusiast on the Renaissance stage in plays like Bartholomew Fair (1614) where characters like Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, somewhat hypocritically, imposed their puritanical views on the wider populace.

Fanatical millenarian sects like the Ranters or the Fifth Monarchists violated social and political norms during the English Civil War (1642–49) in order to establish what they thought would be the chiliastic millennium leading to the rule of Jesus Christ in England. Ranters like Abiezer Cope claimed that to “the pure all things are pure,” including, of course, murder and rape. In the aftermath of the political chaos caused by religious sectaries, 18th-century social commentators, wits and philosophers like David Hume, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison identified the limited character of the zealot.

Writing in The Spectator in 1711, Addison noted that:

Zeal is … a great ease to a malicious man, by making him believe he does God service while he is gratifying the bent of a perverse revengeful temper. For this reason we find that most massacres and devastations which have been in the world have taken their rise from a furious pretended zeal.

Hume, meanwhile, thought fanaticism and enthusiasm had produced “the most cruel disorders in human society.” Hume, Pope and Addison would recognize in the activity of today’s jihadi zealots fanaticism, not an anachronistic radicalism.

Salafism and Zealotry

Therefore, any analysis of jihadism’s self-confirming zealotry suggests that those labelled “radicalized” are not really radicals at all. Ideological radicalism, properly understood, requires a clean break from traditional religion, of whatever form, in order to achieve a pluralist, disenchanted, secular modernity.

By contrast, a scriptural literalism based on the message of the Prophet Mohammad and the hadith of his rightly guided 7th-century successors, the Rashidun, fuels the Islamic State’s thought and practice. The Islamic State’s followers look to past models that through purificatory violence today seek to build tomorrow’s religious utopia. Like the 17th-century puritanical sectaries, they are fanatics that adapt the tenets of an ultra-traditional literalism to guide present action. Today’s jihadi is an “enthusiast,” as defined by the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary as one who is “possessed by a god” or in “receipt of divine communication.” No matter how deluded their actions appear to modern secular sensibilities, they consider themselves directly engaged in an apocalyptic and divinely ordained mission to re-create the caliphate.

Therefore, they are not radical in any meaningful sense of the word, because prior to the Enlightenment, it could be said that most of the world — and certainly Europe — often subscribed to non-negotiable religious precepts with a fanaticism similar to that which motivates present day jihadism.

Both medieval Christendom and, in its aftermath, the early modern confessional state saw battle as an instrument of divine will, a providential means to deliver God’s judgment. Even after the Enlightenment and with the decline of religious enthusiasm in Europe, the rise of political religions that replaced divine ordinance with ideologically determined nations, races or proletariats remained enamoured with purifying violence. These ideas reached their apocalyptic apogee in Nazi Germany in World War II.

Radicalism and Modernity

By contrast, the progressive emergence of cosmopolitan, representative, liberal-democratic modes of rule in the 19th century constituted the “radical” structural break with the past. As a consequence, modern democratic pluralism in the West embraced secularism and, with it, as Max Weber observed, a condition of disenchantment. Soteriological order receded before a world increasingly governed by scientific reasoning. This secular-rationalist worldview achieved spectacular and revolutionary change, but also narrowed the horizon of the good life, rendering citizenship modular and promising fulfilment through consumption and the joys of shopping for physical and material rewards.

But it also had a downside. From the late 19th century, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers as different as Freud, Durkheim and Nietzsche recognized in modernity not only democratic opportunities for self-discovery and the revision of life choices, but also the anomie, anxiety and alienation associated with a complex mass society. By the late 20th century writers as various as Herbert Marcuse, Tom Wolfe and Christopher Lasch identified a modern culture of narcissism and anxiety where altruism disappears in an increasingly atomized, relativistic and techno-managerialist world.

Thus, secular modernity offers a radical form of life against which the jihadists rage, considering it a “hideously schizophrenic” condition, as Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb argued in the 1950s. Indeed, from the fanatic’s perspective, the kufr world order is weak, fragmented and ready for the taking because it lacks the capacity to submit to a politically religious truth. Our refusal to recognize this point exposes the scale of the problem facing Western governments. It also creates the stage upon which the modern zealot can disport his oppression, proselytize and strategize.

The global Salafist jihad’s appeal resides, then, in its ability to re-enchant the world with a Manichean worldview and a millenarian vision. Its style is not so dissimilar to the manner in which the 17th-century sectaries promised a new heaven and a new earth, or the Nazis offered a racially pure future as a means of overcoming the failings of Depression-era Germany. Contemporary Salafist fanatics transform the fears and anxieties of disaffected sections of the diasporic Muslim youth in the West, into a non-negotiable enthusiasm via the use of social media.

What is to be done?

To curb jihadi enthusiasm, Western societies need to recuperate their foundational understanding of what political activity entails and the basis of a tolerant and pluralist pursuit of the good life. This will not be straightforward as there are no quick fixes to the problems of urban disenchantment.

However, it is possible to make a start by abandoning the language of radicalization that perversely misreads the problem. De-radicalization reflects and reinforces a progressive secular rationalism that dismisses religious worldviews, rather than as coherent within their own politico-theological terms of reference. It persists in perceiving disaffected Muslims inclined to travel to Syria or diss the national anthem as “clowns” and “numbskulls,” rather than zealots that in some cases are willing to die and behead for the realization of the total vision.

The result is that public policy in the West ignores fanatic agency and responds instead in self-consciously depoliticized ways. In effect, this criminological therapeutic model treats the converted zealot not as a danger to the wider society but as a victim pumped full of ideological steroids by unscrupulous online recruiters who, like predatory pedophiles, groom their otherwise innocent prey. The approach becomes even more suspect when extended to the case of the young women who happily trip off to Islamic State-controlled territories to offer themselves as jihadi brides. De-radicalization paints these young women as the deluded subjects of brainwashing. The simple but harsh truth is that like the men they embrace, they too have found meaning in an enthusiasm, which the wider society finds rebarbative, but which inspires action.

Neither “radicals” nor victims, they are largely immune to community sensitive de-radicalization programs promoted by Western governments because there is not much that is particularly radical in jihadist self-understanding. Arguably, it is we in the West who are deluded and we should make a start by “de-radicalizing” our own thinking.


David Martin Jones is an Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia. M.L.R. Smith holds the Chair of Strategic Theory in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. They are authors of Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014).