Governing ’radical identities’: Radicalization processes, radical identity formation and counter-radicalization policies
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Governing ’radical identities’: Radicalization processes, radical identity formation and counter-radicalization policies

Since the Madrid and London bombings in 2004-2005, ‘radicalization’ has become the primary framework for understanding ‘home grown terrorism’ within policymaking and academia. Focus has been primarily on ‘radical Islam’, but this is apparently changing after the attacks in Oslo and on Utøya in June 2011. However, radicalization is a contested concept with multiple meanings. Common for the understanding and definitions of radicalization as it has spread since 2004-2005 is the belief that radicalization is ‘what happens before the bomb goes off’ – it is the process through which individuals increasingly subscribe to extremist views and ideologies, and accept the use of violence, including terrorism, to reach political goals.

Cast in terms of identities, radicalization involves a transformation of identities from a ‘normal’ starting point to the formation of oppositional, ‘radical’ identities.  Theories of radicalization has stressed how the seed for such identity transformation can be feelings of not belonging to majority society, experiences of discrimination, misrecognition, socio-economic strain, repression, cognitive dissonance, moral chocks etc. Often radical milieus appeal to ‘seeking’ youngsters by offering an alternative sense of belonging, black-and-white solutions and answers to complex problems, and a collective identity centered around ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ categories. In addition, radical milieus/groups appeal by positioning themselves as the avant-garde – the ones that does not just talk about change, but who actually acts upon their beliefs. Studies have shown how socialization into such milieus can bring about strong feelings of comradeship and shared destiny, which makes exit difficult.

From a policy perspective there has over the last 5-6 years been an increasing focus on preventing radicalization and extremism, and fertilizing exit from radical milieus. Common to these new policies of radicalization prevention across Europe is the tendency to see the solution to the problem of radicalization as one of shaping and disciplining identity formation among youngsters ‘at risk’ in more constructive directions. Thus, the aim of radicalization prevention policies are not just to prevent violence, but also to secure the formation of ‘good’, productive, liberal citizens. The concrete policy initiatives put to work in this area of prevention include role model campaigns, mentoring schemes, provision of alternative information/counter-narratives, making street-level-bureaucrats aware of ‘signs of radicalization’, creating ‘radicalization hotlines’, stop-and-search-zones, boosting civic education, building democratic competencies etc.

This panel invites contributions that address both issues of radicalization processes and the formation of ‘radical’ identities, be it political, religious or something else, and the attempts to prevent and govern such identities. The panel, thus, welcomes contributions that address some aspects of the following questions: What is ‘radical identities’? How and why do’ radical identities’ come about? What can be done to prevent the formation of ‘radical identities’? Is prevention desirable and will policies work according to intentions? Contributions can be both empirical and more theoretical in nature, and built upon national case-studies, comparison and conceptual analysis.


Lasse Lindekilde: A Typology of Backfire Mechanisms: How Hard and Soft forms of State Repression Can have Perverse Effects in the Field of Counterterrorism

This paper discusses how repressive responses from states in the area of counterterrorism and radicalization prevention may work contrary to intentions and produce perverse effects in terms of widening and intensifying societal tensions. Building on Evert Vedung’s policy instrument typology, the chapter develops a typology of ‘backfire mechanisms’ in regard to ‘hard’ counterterrorism policies and ‘soft’ radicalization prevention instruments. The typology conceptualizes backfire mechanisms of hard and soft forms of state counterterrorism in terms of three dimensions of target group behavior: 1) strategy processes, 2) interaction processes, and 3) identity processes. Each type of backfire mechanism is described and exemplified through the author’s own empirical research as well as insights from other studies in the field. The paper concludes by suggesting some theoretical implications of the developed typology.

Asger Petersen: Radical Antagonistic Identity and Mass Violence

This paper examines the role formation of radical antagonistic collective identity plays in outbreaks of mass violence. In order to examine the interplay between identity and mass violence, this paper employs a discursive approach to the formation of collective identity, to uncover how the relation between a collective identity Self and a constituting Other constructs mass violence as necessary. Based on a poststructuralist conception of Self-Other-relations as the condition of possibility of action, the paper constructs a theoretical model to analyze mass violence, which focuses on the antagonistic, temporal, and spatial dimensions of Self-Other-relations. Employing this model to analyze Self-Other-relations enables researchers to explore whether particular formations of radical antagonistic collective identity makes mass violence possible by constructing either fear of the Other, need for revenge against the Other, or dehumanization of the Other in present spatial and temporal terms.

In order to demonstrate the model's explanatory power, the paper analyzes relations between the Hutu and Tutsi in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and protestant-unionists and catholic-republicans in the Northern Irish conflict in 1972. The analysis finds that in Rwanda, mass violence was made possible by constructing both the Rwandan civil war and attempts to negotiate a cease-fire as a threat towards Hutu freedom and survival. Furthermore, Tutsi were constructed as age-old oppressors, incapable of change, and responsible for perpetrating atrocities and dominating the Hutu for more than 400 years. In Northern Ireland, mass violence was not made possible by the relation between collective identities, as neither population group were constructed in ways that make mass violence necessary. Instead the two groups were constructed as each others' less-than-radical Other: still different, and prone to conflict, but not in ways that lead to mass violence.

The paper concludes that research on radical identity and violence should pay careful attention to whether a collective identity Self relates to others in ways that rule out peaceful action, by equivalating the identity of the Other with feared or hated objects, resulting in the fear of, need for revenge against, or dehumanization of the Other.

Sveinung Sandberg: Are self-narratives strategic or determined, unified or fragmented? Reading the Manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik

This paper is a detailed study of 2083 A European Declaration of Independence, the Manifesto of the anti-Islamist or ‘counter-jihadist’ Anders Behring Breivik, who carried out two sequential terrorist attacks in Norway in 2011. The study demonstrates how self-narratives can be interpreted as both unified and fragmented. The text represents Breivik’s attempt to present a coherent life story, but it shifts between different, sometimes competing, self-narratives. It also demonstrates how self-narratives are creative and artful agency, conditioned and partly determined by cultural and social context. Breivik relies heavily on the narratives of an anti-Islamist or ‘counter-jihadist’ social movement, mainly present on the Internet, but makes some creative adjustments. Narrative analyses in criminology tend to emphasize some of these aspects. However, this paper suggests that researchers can benefit from reflecting further upon the diversity of ways in which to analyse and understand offenders’ narratives. It further suggests that when narrative and crime are closely connected, narrative analysis gets to the core of issues such as accountability and the complex causes of crime. The causes of the terrorist attacks in Norway can be found in both Breivik’s self-narratives and the ideologies of anti-Islamism and ‘counter-jihadism’.

F. Süssenguth and K. Seßler: The Radicalization of Posttraditional Communities – Case Studies on Music Subcultures and Student Fraternities in Munich, Germany

Scenes, subcultures and to some extent fraternities are described as modernity’s answer to the loss of traditional forms of affiliation. As post-traditional modern tribes (Maffesoli) they offer their members at least temporary guidance and the promise of belonging. While sociological literature emphasises their positive contribution in the formation of their young member’s identities (e. g. Müller/Rhein/Calmbach), they are simultaneously considered a major gateway for extremist movements of all kinds to recruit members and spread their ideology. When it comes to laying out the precise way ideological content, community practices and the emergence of radicalised identities are connected, sociological literature (e. g. Hitzler; Hodgkinson) remains quite vague, though.

In our proposed contribution we want to highlight this hitherto neglected issue using presenting data generated in our current research project „Group related constructions of identity – Case studies in the capital city of Munich“ (“Gruppenbezogene Identitätskonstruktion am Beispiel der LHS München“). We cooperate with professionals and policy makers from Munich, among them the specialist department against right-wing extremism (Fachstelle gegen Rechtsextremismus) to study the intersection of music scenes/student fraternities and group-focused enmity (Heitmeyer). Our case studies investigate right-wing extremism in the Goth scene andstudent fraternities and the reception of sexist and homophobic hate-speech in hip-hop culture.

Our data shows that the uses of ideologically charged symbols (e. g. uniforms, Nordic runes) or explicit lyrics do not necessarily signify a commitment to specific ideologies. Rather we find a sphere of ambiguity generated by their use, leaving the identity of those using them under-determined and flexible. Contrary to the notion often found in literature, the use of hate-speech or extremist symbols is then not limited to an authentic affiliation to the values, norms and ideologies they commonly represent. Ironic self-observation or an explicit disaffiliation in favour of the claim to an individualistic –often: privileged – interpretation of the used symbolic repertoire are also found in our interviews. At the same time these alternative strategies allow extremists to mask their convictions behind irony or an apolitical self-presentation.

Sociologists and policy makers looking for clear-cut ideological content thus often end up tilting at windmills when working with these communities. To understand processes of general and radical identity building within them, it is necessaryto develop a sensitivity to always easily deniable forms of ideological practice found therein that have adapted to the form of highly ambiguous symbol use and self-description in scenes and subcultures.


Lasse Lindekilde, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University.



Petersen, Asger: Radical Antagonistic Identity and Mass Violence

Sandberg, Sveinung: Are self-narratives strategic or determined, unified or fragmented? Reading the Manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik

Chair: Lasse Lindekilde

Panel 2

Lindekilde, Lasse: A Typology of Backfire Mechanisms: How Hard and Soft forms of State Repression Can have Perverse Effects in the Field of Counterterrorism

Süssenguth, Florian & Karsten Seßler: The Radicalization of Posttraditional Communities – Case Studies on Music Subcultures and Student Fraternities in Munich, Germany

Chair: Lasse Lindekilde

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Revised 2012.01.15