Who Are You Calling Radical?

Radical acts don't happen in a vacuum, argues Helen Razer. In the Western world, it's time to reassess the language, and the thinking, around 'radicalisation'.

On Monday 22 May, 2017, a horror unfolded in Manchester. Patrons at a pop concert, most of them young, felt the force as an improvised device exploded. Two-hundred-and-fifty were injured. Twenty-three, including the bomber, died. Among those torn apart by a storm of nuts and bolts was an eight-year-old girl.

The following Friday, a small marvel unfolded. Lives had been taken that week, but what was restored in the West was the hope that the thing we know as ‘radicalisation’ would one day take no more.

When the leader of UK Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, made his pre-election foreign policy address, he looked at the tragedy head on. He did not pardon the unpardonable act of the bomber, the child of Libyan parents. He did not diminish the sense of great grief felt by a nation. He did, however, dare to talk about the radicalisation that has taken place in the Western mind, not only the Islamist’s.

When a device explodes in a Western city, the response not only by conservative politicians but popular progressive figures tends to a variation on ‘these radicals hate our way of life’. Usually followed, per this Facebook post from the singer Billy Bragg, by the declaration that we must not be intimidated. Or, as Bragg had it following the November 2015 Paris attacks, that we must ‘go on enjoying ourselves in defiance of their provocations.’

Okay, Bill. Sure. Enjoying ourselves is a universal human wish. But radicalisation has become a common human affliction. And if we in the West are able to decry, say, murder in Paris as a case of ‘violent extremism’ but still overlook the 26,171 strikes ordered by Barack Obama in the last year of his presidency as – what? – not violence but the means for us to ‘go on enjoying ourselves’, then we have become, I propose, radicalised.

Corbyn, a figure who has become unusually popular in an unusually short period, allowed many of us in May to see our own radicalisation for the first time.

In the West, we do some radical things. These produce some radical results.

Corbyn said that the UK must, ‘change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.’ People actually listened. Some of them even agreed.

Here in Australia and across the West, we have spoken often of ‘radicalisation’, imploring, and generously funding, those who we think might have the power to stop it. What we speak of so little is the source of ‘radical’ and horrific acts. We talk about the end of radicalisation, while choosing to ignore its brutal starting point.

It has been, for some years, considered hostile to entertain Statecraft 101 in public. You cannot agree in polite company that one bomb might produce another. Horrific acts that take place in the West are ‘radical’. Obama’s bombs, although far more numerous and deadly, were detonated in empathy.

Corbyn, of course, is hardly the first to grasp what happens when the West, or any power, leaves a region crushed or poorly governed. If a nation-state, such as Libya, is left in ruins, barbarism is the inevitable result. Secretary Clinton, the architect of the US intervention in Libya, must have known this, even if she will never utter it publicly. Before he became UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, even the Conservative politician Boris Johnson had begun to hint at it.

There is a link between UK military intervention and acts of terrorism on British soil. Corbyn said this about Manchester; Johnson had said this about Iraq. In 2005, after the ‘7/7’ attacks in London, Johnson wrote that UK involvement in the Iraq War had ‘unquestionably sharpened the resentments felt by [fundamentalists] in this country and given them a new pretext’.

Still, we hear both popstars and members of the policy class saying those things about radicalisation that have become so standard in the West. You know the stuff: These people are extreme. These people are other. These people are entirely responsible for their own barbarism, and we must do them the courtesy of seeing them as independent actors, motivated only by an extreme understanding of Islam.

To point to Islam as a source of violence remains a common gesture even among more liberal people, such as John Safran who will soon talk at the Wheeler Centre about his new book. Here, Safran suggests many of us ‘just don’t get religion’ and that we underestimate just how loopy a faith can make a person.

We call what ‘they’ have ‘ideology’. We have been unable to see our own brutal liberal interventionism as ‘ideology’ for many decades.

Following the Corbyn speech, some of us can now begin to see cracks in this logic of ‘radicalisation’ as something that just happens to some people in some cultures. Yes, certainly, individuals can be moved to do peculiar things to cohere in their faith, identity or region. In Jainism, for example – that faith upheld by noted anti-radical Sam Harris as one of inevitable peace – there is a practice called Sallekhana which we Westerners might think of as suicide.

And in the West, we do some pretty weird things, too. In the West, we do some radical things. These produce some radical results. Corbyn made this point about the attack in Manchester. Johnson made it, too, albeit meekly.

We are beginning to see, I believe, our own thinking as profoundly radicalised.

For decades, many of us have accepted the liberal or ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the affairs of non-Western nations as just, as neutral. ‘Over there’ they are radical, which is to be brainwashed into accepting horror as common sense. We call what ‘they’ have ‘ideology’. We have been unable to see our own brutal liberal interventionism as ‘ideology’ for many decades.

What we had come to know as liberal, as centrist or even as compassionate warfare is revealing itself as obscene. Of course, there will be those reluctant to admit it; de-radicalisation, as we know, is not an easy process. Some of us will hold fast to the idea that these old ideas are founded in good. 

More of us, I think, will slowly come to terms with the fact of our brainwashing. And if, one day, this is largely accepted, all those engaged in a long war waged in blind fundamentalism will feel the scales fall from their eyes.

Portrait of Helen Razer

Helen Razer was a broadcaster and is now a writer. She has written on social and political matters for the Age and the Australian. She now contributes news and cultural analysis to Crikey, the Saturday Paper, the Daily ReviewSBS Online and Atlantic digital publication, Quartz.

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