Radicalisation and Deradicalisation: definition in the context of extremism

The term radicalisation and deradicalisation often feature in debates around extremism, terrorism or violence. But what exactly do we mean by those terms and how does radicalisation occur? There is no universally agreed answer to that, and thus no universally accepted definition we can provide. What experts do agree on, however, is that radicalisation is a dynamic, individual, multi-factor process, accordingly the term radicalisation processes is often used in this context.

Efforts to reverse such processes are generally described as deradicalisation and disengagement. Deradicalisation represents one of three forms of radicalisation prevention work and is also known as tertiary or indicated prevention or disengagement. Unlike tertiary prevention, the other forms of prevention work – primary and secondary prevention – are aimed at those not yet caught up in radicalisation processes.

Deradicalisation as a dynamic process

Deradicalisation and disengagement is the process of exiting an extremist milieu or distancing oneself from extremist views. Deradicalisation support refers to a form of radicalisation prevention that is also known as exit work, tertiary prevention or indicated prevention.

As with radicalisation, deradicalisation is a dynamic process that does not happen overnight. In other words, there is no such thing as spontaneous deradicalisation, just as there’s no such thing as spontaneous radicalisation. This process takes time and requires the individual to engage critically with their surroundings and their own views over the long term. No one can be deradicalised “externally” but, equally, no one has to go through that process alone.

Organisations working in deradicalisation or tertiary prevention pursue a variety of approaches aimed at supporting individuals through the exit process to disengage. For instance, various counselling centres offer services for individuals who are caught up in extremist milieus and start having doubts. These counselling centres can also provide support to relatives and friends who are aware or concerned that an individual in their environment has been drawn into a radicalisation process or caught up in a radicalisation process. In addition to these outreach centres, there are also deradicalisation services within the penal system (i.e. in prisons).

Counselling for family and friends

Thankfully, highly trained radicalisation prevention experts are on hand to help. If you are worried that someone in your family or among your friends or acquaintances is at risk of radicalisation, the best course of action is to contact an outreach centre. These centres employ experienced professionals who have in-depth practical knowledge of radicalisation and can help to understand how to tackle it. Our member organisations can point into the right direction.

Tackling radicalisation: how to get help and support?

Radicalisation is not an irreversible process in which individuals will inevitably become extremists. One of the key tenets of our member organisations’ work is that no one who sympathises or joins up with extremist groups is “lost” or unable to change. Through their prevention work, these organisations can help and support those who wish to counter radicalisation processes, be it preventatively (through political education, for instance) or where an individual has already radicalised (deradicalization and disengagement).

Do you have questions about deradicalisation?

With our wide network of practicioners and stakeholders, at BAG RelEx, we bring together a broad range of approaches and methods. We aim to build awareness of the topics of radicalization and deradicalisation in the field of religiously motivated extremism. Furthermore, we want to highlight the relevance of the work of civic society actors and their engagement.

If you have any member questions about deradicalisation or radicalisation, please feel free to contact us via email.

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What is political radicalisation?

Political radicalisation refers to a process in which individuals or groups distance themselves from attitudes that are considered the social norm. Any assessment of what is and is not radical is thus informed by the political and social context. Just as extremism exists in opposition to whatever is considered and practised as the social norm, radicalisation processes also have to be seen in relation to these norms.

In the media and in public debates, the terms radicalisation, extremism and terrorism are often used synonymously but, in fact, they are by no means the same thing. Their differences can be roughly summed up as follows: whereas extremism refers to an existing state, radicalisation should be seen as a process. Terrorism, on the other hand, is a violent form of action used, for instance, by extremist groups in order to spread fear and terror. Radicalisation can result in an individual or individuals joining extremist groups, but a radicalisation process does not necessarily lead to extremism or violence.

Under the German constitution, radical beliefs are covered by freedom of expression and thus protected by law, whereas extremist views are not. According to Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the key difference between radical and extremist attitudes is that extremist groups seek to attack the liberal democratic order and wish to abolish constitutional democracy.

Together with our member organisations, BAG RelEx focuses on the prevention of religiously motivated extremism, one form of which is Islamist extremism. At BAG RelEx, we consciously avoid the term “religious extremism”, preferring instead to refer to religiously motivated extremism. This is because it is not the religion itself that is extremist or radical; instead, groups use religion to justify their extremist views, instrumentalising it for their specific ends.

Like right-wing extremism, religiously motivated extremism is a political ideology. Such extremists wish to install a political system that permits only one specific interpretation of a particular religion. The radicalisation processes we deal with are thus also political in nature. In public debate, this type of religiously motivated extremism is unfortunately often discussed in the context of migration or integration. However, in terms of successful prevention, disengagement and deradicalisation, this is not pertinent and often wrong or abbreviated in terms of content.

Possible causes of radicalisation

There is no simple answer to the question of how people radicalised and, in some instances, end up as extremists; the process by which that radicalisation occurs differs from case to case. Although various models describing radicalisation processes exist, there is no one-size-fits-all template for such processes.

Researchers and practitioners have, however, examined this question in great depth and identified various factors that can, in combination, make radicalisation more likely. Can, though, is the operative word; after all, it’s not a given that these individual factors will inevitably lead to radicalisation. Moreover, though radicalisation processes can progress to extremism and in some cases even terrorism, neither is an inevitable consequence of radicalisation.

The different drivers of radicalisation can be divided into push and pull factors. Push factors are those that make individuals more susceptible to extremist targeting. Pull factors refer to extremist groups’ active strategies and their appeal to potential recruits, with extremists often offering solutions that address an individual’s push factors.

Examples of possible push factors:

  • personal, political or social crises
  • a sense of feeling lost or having no prospects
  • search for identity and meaning
  • psychological and psychosocial factors such as family, friendships or wider social environment
  • discrimination, marginalisation, exclusion (anti-Muslim racism can be a particular factor in Islamist radicalisation)
  • failure at school or work
  • social inequality

There is no one type of person who falls prey to radicalisation. Many of the push factors apply to a large number of adolescents and young adults or are even fundamental to adolescence itself. The factors listed above thus don not automatically lead to radicalisation, but they can make certain individuals more susceptible.

Examples of possible pull factors:

  • appeal of belonging to a select group
  • promise of clear rules and defined roles 
  • opportunity for social advancement within the group
  • prospect of adventure, heroism and the opportunity to help build an utopia
  • buy-in to victim narratives and scapegoating (friend/foe mindset)
  • targeting by charismatic individuals

The vast majority of the push and pull factors mentioned above are not specific to individual phenomena (i. e. forms of extremism). While extremist groups may seem to have very different goals, they also have some characteristics in common. The exact manifestation of those characteristics varies from one type of extremism to another. In addition, co-radicalisation can sometimes occur, with extremist phenomena stimulating each other and further boosting radicalisation tendencies.

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Where does radicalisation take place?

When engaging with radicalisation and radicalisation prevention, the question soon arises of where radicalisation processes occur. There is, of course, no simple answer here either. Just as there is not just one kind of radicalisation process, there is not just one place where radicalisation occurs. Radicalisation processes can be triggered in various settings. Similarly, they can also be challenged within various settings, opening up potential starting points for a deradicalization process of the individuals concerned.

In recent years, we have seen a growing debate around whether online radicalisation, i. e. radicalisation occurring (solely) in the digital realm, is a distinct phenomenon. Extremists are, of course, adept at using the internet for their own ends, meaning social media can be a factor in radicalisation processes. Both Islamist and right-wing extremist actors have incorporated digital media into their recruitment strategies, thus offering new ways to target potential adherents. The process of radicalisation, however, also occurs in relation to the real-world experience of the individuals concerned. Although the internet has become a more significant factor in recent years and decades, offline contacts are still relevant. In most cases, radicalisation trajectories involve a combination of online and offline radicalization, because both are part of young people’s everyday lives.

How do I recognise radicalisation?

People of all age groups can be susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups. In most cases, however, Islamist extremists target their efforts at adolescents and young adults. For those around them, it can be hard to tell whether adolescents are genuinely caught up in a radicalisation process or whether their behaviour is more about pushing boundaries and/or seeking to provoke a reaction. Consequently, there is no list of telltale signs we can give you in order to detect when someone around you is being radicalised.

In case you are concerned that someone among your friends, acquaintances or in your family is at risk of radicalisation, the best course of action is to contact a counselling centre. Among our member organisations, there are several contact points that can help you with that.

If you have further questions about deradicalisation and radicalisation, just send us an email and we will be happy to help. You can also find more information about radicalisation prevention on our website.