The Democratic Promise of “Deradicalization”

The authors of this essay are members of the “DeRadicalisation in Europe and Beyond: Detect, Resolve, Reintegrate” research project funded by the European Research Council.


Recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado resonate all too well with the French. Angst and anger provoked by extremist violence on both sides of the Atlantic are a particularly morbid but unifying experience. Yet the different forms and context of extremism in the United States and in France raise unique challenges for their democratic rule. If the murder of six Asian women in Georgia throws yet another spotlight on the under-recognition of such acts—especially when committed by white men—as domestic terrorism and hate crimes, France is currently facing the opposite problem of over-designation. In its efforts to prevent jihadist terrorism, French lawmakers increasingly conflate violent radicalization with strict religious practices and put terrorism on the same spectrum with halal meat markets and homeschooling.


Sure enough, the threats are real. The wave of extremist violence that reached its most recent peak in France in the 2015 Paris attacks has not receded, despite extraordinary counter-terrorist measures. Even the drastic restrictions imposed over the past year in the face of COVID-19 have been unsuccessful in limiting violent attacks. Since the beginning of 2020, the country has suffered nine assaults defined as “terror acts” by the government. At the same time, the French have become increasingly disillusioned with the ability of its military and police apparatuses to bring terrorism to an end. For most of the past six years, more than 90 percent of the French consistently assess the terrorist threat in the country as “very high” or “rather high.”


However real it may be, this disillusionment is not the result of a lack of public policy to fight violent extremism. France has developed one of the most sophisticated and complete policy and security arsenals for managing radicalization. It is rather the result of a suspicion of one of the principal tools used in the so-called fight against terrorism, namely “deradicalization.” When Americans advocate for more coordinated and far-reaching efforts in similar fights, the French experience is instructive for avoiding dangerous pits. To date, this approach has been met in France and elsewhere with hostility and mistrust. First, the very terms “radicalization” and “deradicalization” have been criticized by those who see them as processes of stigmatization of specific populations, especially Muslims. Statements such as “Islamist radicalism is not only about the issue of terrorism or the shift to violent action, but also involves behaviors that can be peaceful and that do not lead to violence” made in a July 2020 report by a Senate inquiry committee have raised no brows in mainstream politics. Second, deradicalization has been accused of an implicit normalization, in which status-quo norms are taken as the marker of legitimate action. In a context of galloping inequality, violent measures against migrants, persistent racism and misogyny, normalizing the status quo should hardly be the goal. Third, there is no apparent endgame. This is particularly problematic for a model in which segments of the population are targeted, police and security measures increased, and liberties restricted. When will these programs come to an end? When there are no more acts of violence? Such a distant horizon does little to assuage public concerns.


And yet, understanding processes of radicalization and developing meaningful responses is as urgent as ever. As Judith Butler observed, we must be cautious of the kind “of censorship and anti-intellectualism that took hold in the fall of 2001 when anyone who sought to understand the ‘reasons’ for the attack on the United States was regarded as someone who sought to ‘exonerate’ those who conducted that attack.” A recent contribution to the study of (de)radicalization in France—a report issued in February by the French Institute of Foreign Relations (IFRI)—addresses this change and its positive consequences. Clearly, extremist violence will not be wished away. As the IFRI report highlights, deradicalization to the contrary requires greater understanding, more effective and responsible policy and most of all new modes of community participation.


No doubt, the public and policy-makers must take the critiques of deradicalization seriously and adjust our current approaches. First, deradicalization must be understood as a process which is opposed to an ever-increasing employment of state-sanctioned force against “radicalized” populations. Instead, deradicalization programs must be understood as means to pursue a multifaceted and holistic portrayal of the causes and circumstances in which violent acts take place. Coming to terms with the perpetrators’ process of radicalization and isolating its motives, deradicalization must seek to reduce and in some cases prevent violence at the earlier stages of its planning as well as the grievances that instigate it. Most importantly, educational efforts cannot involve surveillance and stigmatization. Securitization mechanisms currently employed in French public schools, such as “watch units” responsible for reporting children suspected in radicalization to law enforcement agencies, are unacceptable and reminiscent of darker precedents of “re-education.”


But efficacy and managerial enhancements are not enough. Deradicalization has to aim for more than mere decline in politically or ideologically driven violence. Its first commitment must be the preservation of democratic institutions and traditions. Seeking to prevent radicalization at early stages risks doing so “too early” by designating as potentially dangerous any behavior that does not fit the socio-cultural mainstream and reaching too far into one’s privacy and beliefs. Incremental expansion of the definition of radicalization leads to ever-tightening surveillance and increasing limitation of personal liberties. In the short term it may look less draconian than the use of interrogations, administrative arrests or deportation but over time it normalizes vast oppression. Deradicalization policies must therefore guarantee that attempts to protect France from physical extremist threats and preserve its values of liberty, equality and fraternity stop short from growing into an existential threat to the democratic foundations that protect these very values and these very people. This potentiality is far from being trivial both in France and in the United States.


Squaring the circle of democracy and deradicalization will require that we move beyond the instrumentalization of violent acts in the service of politicians who fan the flames of fear for their own electoral gains. It also requires that the process of radicalization and deradicalization not be understood simply in terms of violent breaches of the rule of law, which must be sanctioned with state-sponsored “legitimate” violence. Instead, we need to develop programs of public involvement on local, regional and national levels to encourage public involvement in deradicalization processes. Moving beyond questions of law and security, we need to understand deradicalization as a collective process of decision-making. A citizens’ convention, along the lines organized to draft proposals on the environment in France, may provide just one example of how we may think about deradicalization in new and more productively democratic terms.


Extremist violence in all its forms is not going away. It is time that it became a means of building collective decision-making power instead of dividing it.


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