Talking about 'radicalization' misses the point

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Where did radicalization come from? The word, that is. Who makes the decision to drop these terms suddenly, like bombs, so that they decimate the political landscape and dominate all discussion? It also happened with "homeland." Before 9/11, it had been widely deployed only in Nazi Germany.

What's the problem with "radicalization"? I better sit down for this, it'll take awhile. But it amounts to a misleading stress on process. It's the izing emphasis that's vacuous. "The two San Bernardino shooters were radicalized at least two years ago … FBI officials had previously said that the couple had been radicalized for 'quite some time.'" Who cares when it happened -- whatever "it" is, since that's not defined -- or even why. If you could date and time-stamp it, would it matter? It's busy work that lets you avoid the crucial issue -- which I'll get to.

Why's it pointless? Because the process that leads to radical outcomes -- whatever they are -- is various and malleable. Their experience radicalizes people -- or doesn't. What radicalized Palestinians? Their lives. Try talking to someone from Gaza about what they've lived through. What radicalized the civil rights generation in the U.S. or the kids in Soweto who went into the streets ready to die, day after day, till apartheid fell? Or the people at a Trump rally? It varies with the lives lived.

Yet Muslim radicalization discourse assumes there's a single entity, like a virus, operating. As if you could isolate it in a lab, then develop an antidote to immunize the world (or the Mideast or Muslims). That's crazy thinking.

At most, you can make broad, impractical generalizations: among youth, for instance, two routes stand out. There's the social justice narrative. They've just emerged from the dependence of childhood and are keenly aware of power imbalances. And there's the search for meaning. It needn't be religious -- it can be political, artistic etc. -- but it involves sweeping answers to the puzzles of existence. Often, the two paths blend. The young are usually drawn to "radical" solutions since -- things like the complexity of life aside -- those make most sense.

The "radicalization" trajectory of many ISIS recruits follows these general patterns. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, for example, of San Bernardino, "radicalized" well before the ascendancy of ISIS. The horror part of the story comes after that "process." What's unique is ISIS as its end point. A familiar journey veers into the maw of a historically bizarre, largely unprecedented formation. ISIS probably couldn't have incubated without the aid of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states but it has metastasized in ways that befuddle informed, intrepid journalists like Patrick Cockburn. When Patrick Cockburn's befuddled, so am I. Still, the motives that took its young adherents there aren't highly distinguishable from those of other young radicals and idealists.

The real horror of this horror is that all other outlets for their impulses have been smothered, strangled and obliterated in the Mideast over generations. Alternatives like nationalism (Nasser), liberalism (Mosaddegh in Iran), secularism (the PLO) and socialism (the Ba'ath Party) were suppressed or overthrown by military tyrants (Egypt) and feudal monarchies (Saudi Arabia), often with Western complicity. Primitive religious movements were promoted as preferable. Israel aided the rise of Hamas; the U.S. backed jihadis in Afghanistan. When ISIS arrived, it stepped into a near vacuum. In many ways, this is a Pogo moment: we meet the enemy and it is (at least substantially enabled by) us.

Sane voices like Mubin Shaikh have long pleaded for the creation of other options for impassioned Muslim youth. What would that look like?

Take Chicago's Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). It's American, very street, culturally engaged, politically savvy. It finds common ground with other groups and makes principled alliances. Chicago, btw, is home to the U.S.-based Muslim movement, Nation of Islam. More Muslims than Jews live there.

I spent a great weekend with IMAN two years ago. This week its head, Rami Nashashibi, sent a post about his two young daughters pondering the headline, "Trump: No More Muslims." His response was: "We must double down; we must organize; we must directly engage the issues ... We must continue to build genuinely rooted relationships across ethnic, racial and religious lines …"

So the point isn't to calculate when or even why people "radicalized." It's to ensure options are available to them as, and then after, the process occurs.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Karl-Heinz Wedhorn/George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies/flickr

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