Radical Protest

A concise history of the term “Radicalisation”: A Struggle for Democracy?

Ayhan Kaya, İstanbul Bilgi University, ERC AdG PRIME Youth Project Principal Investigator,

13 June 2021

Though the term ‘radicalisation’ is mostly associated with Islamist and white-supremacist groups nowadays, it has been in circulation for several centuries. Let us take a look at the history of the term now. Defining radicalisation has been problematic within social sciences. Radicalisation implies a direct support or enactment of radical behaviour and therefore begs the question: how does one define radical behaviour? As social sciences have grown ever more interest in understanding and explaining contextual and societal nuances cross-culturally, what appears to be radical or core truth becomes very difficult to answer.

The term ‘radical’ comes from the Latin word of radix (root), and radicalisation literally means the process of ‘going back to the roots. It refers to roots – of plants, or words, or numbers. By extension from botanical, etymological, and mathematical usages, early modern thinkers described radical when they went to foundations, fundaments, first principles, or what was essential. The mainstream definition of radicalism, such as the one given in the Oxford dictionary, sees it as “the beliefs or actions of people who advocate thorough or complete political or social reform.”[i]

The term ‘radical’ was already in use in the 18th century, and it is often linked to the Enlightenment and the French and American revolutions of that period. The term became widespread in the 19th century only when it often referred to a political agenda advocating thorough social and political reform. As such, radicalism comprised secularism, pro-democratic components, and even equalitarian demands such as egalitarian citizenship and universal suffrage. Afterwards, an association between radicalisation and left-wing violence was maintained throughout the 1960s to designate civil rights activists and rioters of the May 68 uprisings. It is only from the years 2000 and especially 2010 that the word ‘radicalisation’ started to change in its current meaning as a process leading to violent action in general, especially with regards to Islamist terrorism.

Referring to the work of Andreas Huyssen (1995) that is discussing the age of amnesia, some scholars such as Wulf Kansteiner (2002: 192-193) and David Lowenthal (2015), draw our attention to the fact that collective memory may quickly pass into oblivion without shaping the historical imagination of any individual or social group. Nowadays, for many, “the past that antedates their own lived experiences is dead and gone and therefore irrelevant. They assume the past to be a foreign country disconnected from their own country, the present” (Lowenthal, 2015: 592). Thus, in such an internet age, it becomes pertinent for many individuals to forget about the earlier facts, debates, events, and concepts which antedate their own lived experiences. To that effect, such a moment in history may lead political opponents of radicals to portray them as violent revolutionaries, a first attempt to psychologize political opposition for status-quo maintaining purposes (Sartori, 1984).

This brief historical and conceptual overview allows us to make two important observations. First and foremost, the historicity of the notion of radicalisation itself seems intertwined with concerns of denouncing threats to the status quo and political ideologies that may bring about change in any kind of form. The plasticity of this notion combined with the justificatory role it plays for the system might paradoxically inform us more about the characteristics of groups that use this notion and those of their targets. This inference leads us to the second point. Seen through these lenses, the post-9/11 use of the term ‘radicalisation’ to designate almost exclusively violent political actions stemming from Jihadist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda might indicate that, indeed, the former left-wing utopias have now lost to Islamism being perceived by individuals as the only viable counter-hegemonic utopia in the face of globalization.

Root Causes of Radicalisation

As Robert Gurr (1969) pointed out earlier, angry people rebel. Some youngsters become increasingly angry and radicalised as a result of a variety of root causes. No consensus emerged on the root causes of radicalisation. Competing narratives co-existed from their inception between socio-economic and political marginalization and grievances on the one hand and ideological motivations on the other hand. In the aftermath of 9/11, the term radicalisation became intertwined with ‘recruitment’ by extremists, who try to persuade these angry individuals to join their war (Coolsaet, 2019). Those who recruit these angry individuals may be both Islamist extremists (e.g., ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram) and white-supremacist extremists (e.g., Combat-18, and the Soldiers of Odin). In the meantime, some other terms, such as ‘self-radicalisation’, ‘flash radicalisation’ and ‘instant radicalisation’, were also added into the vocabulary of radicalisation since it appeared that one could also develop into a violent extremist through kinship and friendship networks (Coolsaet, 2019). Such a vocabulary can be extended even more.

Dominant neo-liberal regimes of representation are more likely to make everyone, including policymakers, media experts, and scholars interchangeably use the term ‘radicalism’ together with ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘fundamentalism’.  A thorough analysis of all these terms can easily convince the reader that they are all different from each other. Radicalism is certainly different from the others as it conveys a process by which radicalising individuals try to demonstrate their opposition and critic to the detrimental effects of the status quo. This is why the root causes of radicalisation should be assessed better before it is simply labelled as destructive like extremism and terrorism.

Craig Calhoun’s retrospective analysis of the term “radicalisation” in relation to social movements can be instrumental for us to understand the root causes of radicalisation in the present and to differentiate it from “extremism” and “terrorism”. Focusing on the early 19th-century social movements, Craig Calhoun (2011) makes a three-fold classification of radicalism: philosophical radicalism, tactical radicalism, and reactionary radicalism. Philosophical radicalism of theorists was concerned with penetrating to the roots of society with rational analyses and programs to understand the structural transformation of the public sphere. Tactical radicalism of activists was mainly related to their search for immediate change that required the use of violence and other extreme measures to achieve it. Reactionary radicalism of those suffering from the adverse effects of modernization was more about their quest for saving what they valued in communities and cultural traditions from eradication by the growth of capitalism. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Following this line of thinking, the Reformation leaders were radicals as they claimed to take back what was essential to Christianity from the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church. In philosophy, René Descartes was radical in his attempt to analyse knowledge by thinking through its elementary conditions anew. In everyday life, there were also radical individuals who challenged the hierarchical order by judging basic matters for herself/himself, guided by her/his divine inner light, senses and reason (Calhoun, 2011).

Radicalism cannot be understood as a stable ideological position. Ideas that are radical at some point could be liberal or even conservative for another. Liberals and democrats of the 19th century were then the radicals. It is no longer possible to call them as such. The 1968 generation was also radical in the sense that they challenged the patriarchal and authoritarian socio-political order. The radicals of the 1968 generation were different from the radicals of the 19th century. Similarly, the radicals of the present are also very different from the former ones. Departing from the theory of social movements, one could claim that the defence of tradition by nationalist, nativist, populist or religious groups has become a radical stance today. This sort of populism and conservatism “has been important to struggles for democracy, for inclusion in the conditions under which workers and small proprietors live” (Calhoun, 2011: 250).

Concluding remarks: Lend them Your Ears!

The defence of religion, tradition, culture and past by religious, nationalist, nativist, or populist individuals has become a radical stance today. This radical stance can be interpreted as a reactionary form of resistance against the perils of modernisation and globalisation experienced by both self-identified Muslim youths and native youths who are labelled as far-right extremists in Europe. Both Islamist revival and right-wing populism can be regarded as outcries of those who feel pressurised by the perils of modernisation and globalisation. Then, one could also assess these protests as struggles for democracy rather than threats to democracy.

It seems that radicalisation provides such socio-economically, politically, spatially, and nostalgically deprived youths with an opportunity to build an imagined home away from the one that has become indifferent, alienating, and even humiliating. Radicalisation then becomes a regime of justification and an alternative form of politics generated by some Muslim youth and native youth to protect themselves from day-to-day discrimination, humiliation, and neglect. They believe that speaking from the margins might be a more efficient strategy to be heard by those in the centre who have lost the ability to listen to the peripheral ones. As Robert Young (2004: 5) pointed out, it is not that ‘they’ do not know how to speak (politics), “but rather that the dominant would not listen.”


[i] Oxford Dictionary, available at https://www.lexico.com/definition/radicalism [last accessed 15 November 2020].



Calhoun, C. (2011). The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early 19th Century Social Movements. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Coolsaet, R. (2019). “Radicalization: The Origins and Limits of a Contested Concept,” in Nadia Fadil, Martin de Koning and Francesco Ragazzi (eds.), Radicalization in Belgium and the Netherlands: Critical Perspectives on Violence and Security. London: I.B.Tauris: 29-51

Gurr, T. R. (1969). Why Men Rebel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Huyssen, A. (1995). Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. London: Routledge.

Kansteiner, W. (2002). “Finding meaning in memory: a methodological critique of collective memory studies,” History and Theory 41: 179-197.

Sartori, G. (1984). “Guidelines for concept analysis”, Social science concepts: A systematic analysis: 15-85.

Young, R. J.C. (2004). White Mythologies. New York: Routledge.



Published: June 13, 2021, 4:19 p.m.
Edited: April 15, 2022, 3:10 a.m.