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Has the British Government Understood Radicalization?

The seventh of July 2013 was the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attack in London.

The seventh of July 2013 was the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attack in London. The attacks led the British government to launch initiatives to identify why and how one becomes radicalized and develop measures to counter the terrorism threat. The initiatives involved funding of think tanks, coopting Muslim organizations, as well as terrorism legislation. However, the efforts of the government and its partners haven’t had much effect on individuals becoming radicalized, as the murder of Lee Rigby and the rise of far-right extremist group the English Defense League (EDL) over the past few years indicate.

In this short article, I will use the Woolwich attack to address the issue of how one becomes “radicalized,” or to put in it more concrete terms: A process by which one becomes involved with Islamist groups. Additionally, I contend that the British government needs to redirect its focus on a politics of inclusion rather than exclusion based on a more nuanced understanding of the demographically and socio-politically, as well as culturally changing concerns of its population.

Since the brutal killing of British solider Lee Rigby on a busy street in Woolwich, southeast London, there has been widespread condemnation from all corners of British society, including Muslim organizations. According to The Independent’s article of 25th May entitled, “EDL marches on Newcastle as attacks on Muslims increase tenfold in the wake of Woolwich machete attack which killed Drummer Lee Rigby,” Islamophobic hate crimes are occurring at more than 10 times their usual rate since the attack. The killing has prompted the public to ask questions regarding the motivations behind the attack, how the two suspects, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, acquired their extremist ideas and why they acted on them by engaging in violence. These questions are not new; they were asked after the 7/7 bombing and the 2006 Transatlantic Plot.

The question of immediate motivation is simple to answer, as in a video of the incident, one of the suspects explicitly identifies as Muslim and can be heard telling Ingrid Loyau-Kennett that Rigby’s killing was because of British foreign policy. However, the more troublesome question, which has perplexed academics and policy makers for over 10 years, is how does one become “radicalized?” The term is often used to mean both holding extreme ideas and acting on them, but this is problematic because not everyone who espouses such ideas ends up engaging in violence. Moreover, it is deployed in various arenas for different purposes. For example Sedgwick (2010) notes that radicalization has various meanings and uses in arenas of security, integration and foreign policy. Arguing on similar lines, Gethen-Mazer and Lambert (2010: 890) note, in the context of the UK, that:

The media and policy-makers have sought out research that supports an uncomplicated “conventional wisdom” about radicalization to deliver easily understandable sound bites and finite answers that justify their ideas about how radicalization happens – and to facilitate straightforward policy responses that are meant to address definitively any threat posed by “home-grown” terrorist threats in the post-7/7 environment.

A better way to answer the question would be to ask, separately, as terrorism expert Marc Sageman (2010) argues, what is the process by which one acquires extreme ideas, and what is the process through which one is led to engage in violence?

Often it has been argued that individuals acquire extreme ideas and engage in violence because of a literalist interpretation of Islam in the vein promoted by extremist preachers. According to Sageman (2010) these “radicalized” individuals are already part of the protest community, which encompasses a variety of groups, including Islamists, and a plasticity of ideas that often cross groups. Consequently, the move from being part of the protest community to becoming involved with an Islamist group is not a huge leap. In my interviews with individuals affiliated with Islamist groups in the UK, I found that Islam is a veneer rather than the kernel behind their acquisition of extreme ideas and involvement in Islamist groups.

The interviewees were motivated by both moral-outrage and the cumulative impact of emotions generated by hearing about and watching videos that detailed violence and abuse being inflicted upon their coreligionists, especially women and children. The emotional impact in some individuals is such that it takes the form of vicarious humiliation. Farhad Khosrokhavar (2005), an expert on terrorism, argues that feelings of humiliation are often experienced by proxy and internalized by diaspora Muslims in Europe. The experience of humiliation in some cases prompts interest in a politics that provides a sense of pride, restores personal and community dignity, affirms their masculinity, as well as gives them emotional gratification. In a very small number of cases, the humiliation also acts as a powerful catalyst – not only to acquire extreme ideas or become involved in Islamist groups, but also to engage in violence.

Central to the appeal of any extremist group and the compulsion for one to act on their behalf is a narrative that manipulates and makes full use of the same kinds of emotions that bind families, groups, communities and nations together. This is clearly illustrated by the success of Islamists and right-wing groups based in the UK. They have successfully been able to impart vicarious humiliation and identification with the pain of those members of their communities that are suffering/suffered upon others. This has created the emotional conditions within some individuals such that, they have been compelled to join and in a few cases act independently or on behalf of groups in violent ways.

If the British government and for this matter other Western governments want to prevent individuals from acquiring and acting upon extreme ideas, then they will have to construct a narrative that accounts for the concerns raised by – and is emotionally more powerful and appealing than – that provided by extremist groups. If this does not occur, then no amount of banning or silencing of extremist preachers of any kind will prevent individuals from acquiring and acting on extreme ideas. The battle with extremism is not of ideas but one of emotions.


Coolsaet R., 2001. Jihadi Terrorism and the Radicalization Challenge. Ashgate.

Githens-Mazer, J and Lambert, R., 2010. Why conventional wisdom on radicalization fails: the persistence of a failed discourse. International Affairs 86: 4. 889–901.

Khosrokhavar, F., 2005. Suicide Bombers Allah’s New Martyrs. London: Pluto Press.

Sedgewick, M,. 2010. The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion. Terrorism and Political Violence, 22: 4, 479 — 494.

Wright, O et al,. 2013. EDL marches on Newcastle as attacks on Muslims increase tenfold in the wake of Woolwich machete attack which killed Drummer Lee Rigby. The Independent 25 May. Available from:

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