Reclaiming the Language on Radicalism and Extremism

Ali Altiok • 7 May 2017
countering and preventing violent extremism youth peace security

In recent years, violent extremism has probably become the biggest buzzword in peace and security discussions. Every single day, new studies, reports or guidelines are published and events are organized all over the world to talk about violent extremism. In this blogpost, I will share my personal opinion on the negative impact of violent extremism policies and programs on youth4peace movement.  

Violent extremism policies unquestionably have a huge impact on youth peacebuilding issues, because young men are deemed as the usual suspects who participate in violent extremism. However, young people are also positive actors thanks to their creative efforts in preventing violent extremism and their ability to reach out to their own peers who are at risk. There is a long list of reasons to highlight the crucial contribution of young people in preventing violent extremism. Nevertheless, what exactly is the subject matter of the discussions on violent extremism is almost never clear to me.

The meaning of violent extremism is not explicit and understandable in my native language, which is Turkish, in the language I think. Violent extremism is usually translated in Turkish as ‘aşırılıkçı şiddeti’. It is a strange term. One can hardly hear or read the term ‘aşırılıkçı şiddeti’ is almost never used in media channels, public debates, reports and news in Turkish. This is also the case for the bomb explosions or armed attacks that are conducted by ISIS in recent years in my homeland. If violent extremism is not even being used in relation to violent attacks conducted by ISIS in the context of Turkey, what is the use of the term ‘aşırılıkçı şiddeti’? It would not be wrong to say that ‘Aşırılıkçı şiddeti’ is only being used in order to translate the international organizations’ document, reports or news written in English into Turkish. This doesn’t seem to make sense.

What is clear in my mind is that violent extremism is part of a vocabulary of loaded and unclear terminology. To counter or prevent violent extremism, governments and institutions employ some other words that are equally vague and obscure such as terrorism, radicalization, marginalization or even Islamism. Institutions and decision-makers combine all of these mistakable words to define and re-define the problem they aim to tackle.

For example, the European Union employs the term ‘violent radicalization’ in order to navigate varying interest of its Member States. On the other hand, there is an important distinction between radicalism and extremism from Germany’s perspective, because “unlike extremists, radical groups want to ‘get at the root’ (radix = Latin for root) of social problems and conflicts without harming the democratic order or rule of law”. Nevertheless, chancellor of Germany often uses the word ‘islamist terrorism’. Strange. Turkish President sticks to the word terrorism, so that all type of non-state armed groups would boil down into one category. When Merkel and Erdogan get together, we publicly watch the conflict over the use of concepts. On the other side of Atlantic, the American President Trump unsurprisingly switches the language from ‘violent extremism’ to ‘radical Islamic extremism’.

Somehow, the terms have been replacing each other depending on the political agenda that is being pursued. At the end, we all know that it is the love for hard security approaches that makes us employ these vague terms to talk about violence. The terms change over time, but prioritization of hard security policies over soft-security approaches don’t change. Imposed terminology continuously forces peacebuilding and peacebuilders to be selective about the type of violence it should deal with.

Moreover, countering and preventing violent extremism projects are more and more promoting themselves as if they are community driven and under the control of local governments. However, in reality these projects rather localize well manipulated terms and concepts belong to the militaristic hard-security approaches. As a result of all these mess, we all see that peacebuilding projects bring children and youth to play football to counter and prevent violent extremism. It is not hard to imagine children and youth are coming together to play football rather than countering and preventing violent extremism.

There is too much attention on the violent extremism debate. We don’t even know and agree what exactly is the subject matter of the debate on violent extremism in national and local contexts. However, community level peacebuilding, especially youth peacebuilding, is today driven by the policy discussions on ‘violent extremism’. Young peacebuilders insert the term ‘extremism’ in youth peacebuilding project proposals to raise funds for their peacebuilding projects or to find a shared language with decision makers to advocate for increased youth participation in peacebuilding. Instead of focusing on preventing violence and building peace, young peacebuilders are directed to focus on extremism and radicalism. Paying too much attention to the discussion on violent extremism misleads young peacebuilders.

I am not trying to say, young people should not work for the prevention of violent extremism. What I claim is that young peacebuilders should not let this ambiguous discussion on extremism dominate and shape their important work. Young peacebuilders should keep their focus on prevention of violence, which is not necessarily associated with ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalism’.

Young peacebuilders already works for the prevention of all types and forms of violence. Gender based and sexual violence, homicide, bullying, gang violence, discrimination and exclusion based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity and identity, environmental violence and social exclusion are not less important problems for young people’s lives.

Lastly, we may need to reclaim the language on radicalism and extremism. At the end of the day, aren’t we also radicals and extremists, since we transform the underlying causes of violence by following the principles of non-violence?

AliAli Altiok is a Youth Peacebuilder and Researcher from Turkey.

Ali is currently working as a Research Consultant at the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office, supporting the Secretariat for the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security.

Follow Ali on Twitter @atomicsentences

Title photo credit: Stuart Price