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Radicalization and the Semantics of Peter King

2011 March 16

When asked by CNN reporter Dana Bash if he was “obsessed” with Muslim radicalization, Peter King responded: “I’m very focused.”  The profile piece Bash was writing, called “Peter King—What makes him tick?” (published last week) was an opportunity for the Republican Representative from Long Island to set the record straight and defend himself from accusations by the New York Times last Tuesday that King’s “obsession” with 9/11 and Islam was a manifestation of bigotry and fear mongering.  But instead of putting out fires, King steadfastly played up his fixations.  In the interview, he describes grief as a driving force in his life, and offered the following as a statement of purpose:

If you ask me what I think about going to work every day, it’s 9/11 and preventing another 9/11.

With this impetus, King, the Chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has gone ahead with plans to hold a series of hearings entitled: “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.”  These hearings began last week.

Much has already been made of the threat these hearings pose to civil liberties, the throwback to McCarthyism they engender, and the blatant Islamaphobia that their existence institutionalizes. (For a cursory account of arguments for and against, see Thursday’s article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg).  However, King’s claim to investigate radicalization is the most problematic element of the equation.  By defiantly continuing his investigation and pitting himself and his supporters against the political mainstream, King has become a radical element in his own right.  What’s more, King actually wants to be seen as a radical, but by radicalizing the other, he is able to maintain his that his stance serves justice and protects all Americans while in truth he is merely serving his own vindictive agenda.

Mr. King’s hearings are poorly titled: this much ought to be clear.  But let us for a moment consider the meaning of radicalization that King is pursuing, and investigate the actual meaning of the term so that his true intents and purposes might be revealed.

A recent study conducted by the “Thinking, Risk, and Intelligence Group,” based in Toronto, explored the meaning of radicalism, questioning a common assumption of many anti-terrorism investigators, that “terrorism depends on the radicalization of its instigators and perpetrators.”  The author of the study, David Mandel, begins his inquiry into the meaning of radicalization with the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED) definition, which is the same definition that NATO accepts as the basis for defining English terms.  Interestingly, he finds:

[The] COED does not provide a definition of radicalization, radicalism, or even radicalize.  It does, however, list these terms as derivatives of radical.  The relevant adjectival definitions of that latter include “(1) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; … (3) advocating thorough or complete political or social reform; politically extreme.” The relevant noun definition is “(1) an advocate of radical political or social reform.”

Based on this assessment, we must look at the roots of radicalization to derive its meaning.  The first adjectival definition for radical provides an important link between those radical qualities, and qualities that are fundamental.  In its earliest usages, radical is used to describe inherent characteristics.  For example, (from John Rastell in A New Boke of Purgatorye, 1530) “The radycall naturall humour of that appell wyll increase whyle it is growynge.”  As early as 1597, modern English writers started using radical to describe the “root” of some occurrence.  In another early passage by Richard Hooker, Book V of a series called Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie: “They intimate the radicall cause out of which it groweth.”  It is important to note that in each of these first cases, radical is linked to growth.  It implies a kind of native prosperity and gives a sense of the inevitable, as well as being the origin (the starting point) from which an evolution of sorts will take place.

The meaning seems to remain consistent through to the 18th century.  Mandel again takes up the thread here and points out a new meaning: radical began to refer to “forces or processes that might act on or change those fundamental qualities.”  This example, which Henry St John, 1st Viscount of Bolingbroke, wrote in A Dissertation upon Parties, describes this phenomenon: “Such a Remedy might have wrought a radical Cure of the Evil, that threatens our Constitution.”  Curiously, parts of the old meaning seem preserved in this instance, though the connotation is undoubtedly changed.  The positive implication of radical remains, but this time, it is used modify change.  From here on, radical is no longer seen as a starting point, but instead a force of interruption, modifying a course, for better or for worse.

In the 1830’s, radical was transmogrified to “radical reform” in Brittish politics: Gen. Thomas Perronet Thompson wrote in Exercises, Political and Others, “The actual agent…will be a radical reform in what is called the commons house of parliament.”  Here it seems the link between radical and fundamental is weakened, as radical is used to describe a degree of change, and reform is the word that implies the fundamental quality of the change.  Radical as an extent word developed by way of ellipsis.  This evolution demonstrates the way in which it sheds its original meaning but becomes a modifier for words bearing that meaning.  Therefore, we can still say that, with reform elided from the sentence, radical pertains to something fundamental, but it does not mean fundamental.  In a strange inversion, it has come to mean extensive change.  With the addition of agency, radical also becomes more powerful, hinting at its next evolution, where its meaning relates to autonomy.  However, in this context it is a positive and monarchistic term.

With the rise of unions in the late 19th and early 20th century, the definition of radical becomes further removed from its “root” meaning.  Definition 3 arises: “characterized by independence of, or departure from, what is usual or traditional; progressive, unorthodox, or revolutionary (in outlook, conception, design, etc.)”  There is anti-religious, anti-establishment meaning implicated in the break from tradition which this definition describes, evident in the use of scientific words like progressive and unorthodox.  Of course, revolutionary implies the kind of violence and instability which are commonly accepted qualities of radical today.  Although this definition is positive, the connotation of radical coming out of events like the Haymarket Bombing was definitively negative.  This specific event is crucial to the current meaning of radical, and sheds light on many different aspects of the image of the word today.  Then, the events in Chicago were motivated by pro-union demonstrations, vying for worker’s rights, and battling policemen.  An important image – the silhouette of a black hand throwing a bomb – for many became the symbol of radicalism; an important idea that was fought for by revolutionaries, and what consitutes an important part of our freedoms today.

The anti-religious implication of radical is fully revealed in the Charles Hampden-Turner’s Radical Man (1970), “While Conservative Man is caused to behave, Radical Man imagines and reasons autonomously.”  For Mr. Hampden-Turner, radical is specifically a liberal/progressive term which he pits against the religious orthodoxy of conservativism, morality deriving from Christianity, and old conceptions of kingdom and empire.  This version of radical possesses an individualistic meaning, connoting changes dating back to the end of WWII, where radicalism was prevalent in art, literature, political discourse, and academia (Marxism, Psychoanalysis).  There is certainly a sense of revolution, but without the literal violence that was borne by earlier definitions.  Instead, an instability is implied in the generalization “Radical Man,” as this man’s behavior opposes ‘good behavior,’ and yet that is the very quality that is revered by the author.

The appeal of the autonomous imagination (that which is not sent from God) and autonomous reasoning (a break from Christian morality) seems to envisage the definition of radical that arose in the 1960’s and 1970’s in surfer lingo, but was not accepted by the OED until 1993; namely, that radical meant cool: “At or exceeding the limits of control and safety; hence, as an evaluative term: remarkable, outstanding; amazing, ‘far out’, ‘cool’”.  The context of radical in the 1970’s points to the hipness of man’s autonomy, politically an idea which originates with our founding fathers, those anti-establishment patriots, who went against the grain to found a nation and write one of the most important documents in history.  In an ontological sense, religion is that-which-it-is-cool-to-oppose in favor of man’s autonomy, a notion that dates back to the middle ages, and one possible historical explanation for the modern proliferation of atheism.  Radical as cool implies an affinity that our culture has for anti-establishment sentiment, one which has diffused to all corners of the globe with our interdependent media and marketing.  In just the opposite way, politically America has become the establishment for the rest of the world to contend with.  For this reason, Mandel believes that the affirmative use of radical may be one explanation for the popularity of the notion of “global jihad,” because it is an anti-establishment sentiment prevalent in a growing minority throughout the world.

For many Muslim youth, opposing the West, particularly the U.S., may be the epitome of acting cool. Indeed, like the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, the very nature of cool may be defined in terms of opposition to “the establishment.” When that opposition takes the form of terrorism, the extremity of the act itself may prove exhilarating to the perpetrators and, thus, “cool” in the sense conveyed by the surfers who used the term radical to refer to their positive evaluation of their surfing experience. When terrorism involves self-sacrifice, the perpetrators are not described by their in-group members as “suicide bombers” but, rather, as heroes or martyrs. Indeed, the term jihadist, adopted by many counter-terrorism practitioners and terrorism scholars to refer to radical Islamic (or Islamist) militants, has a positive connotation of holy warrior in Islam.[1]

In many ways, Mr. Mandel’s assumption here is as dangerous as the rhetoric Mr. King is using to organize his hearings.  The observation that radical connotes a positive quality based on its definition as cool is a meaningful contribution to the discussion, but to imply (falsely) that terrorism is motivated exclusively by the desire to rebuff the establishment is a very shallow statement indeed.

Now that we’ve traced the meaning of radical from the very beginning, let’s go back to Mr. King’s version of radicalization.  For King, radicalization is a negative process of ‘becoming un-American’ which has to do with alienation, disobedience, resistance, and finally violence, which arises out of dejection, and threatens to destroy the status quo.  This might be seen as an appropriate response to the presence of injustice (as we’ve seen in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia) but for Muslims in this country, this behavior is intolerable, and surely a sign of terrorism.  In fact, historically, the opposite is true.  Radical behavior, instead of making one un-America, is an indication of the true spirit of our country.  Our origins – disobedience, resistance, change – we can proudly claim are the reasons we have the rights we do today, something Mr. King is working very hard to change.  The original meaning of radical, pertaining to something fundamental, persists despite the political baggage that has weighted its meaning down for the past several hundred years.  Nowhere in the text do we find a negative version of the word radical to imply evil, immorality, or wrongdoing.  Quite the reverse, radical relates to progressive changes throughout its history, and from the beginning, can be seen as something essential and necessary for evolution.  The best American radicals fight to change how our fundamental beliefs are interpreted, to modernize them, to breathe new life into them and catalyze progressive movements.  No, this is not the word that we should be using to crucify members of our society.  If we choose to do so, we are likely crucifying ourselves.

Mr. King and his supporters are the radicalized faction, which he has so cleverly concealed with the semantics of his investigation.  It ought to be clear from his rhetoric and from his conduct, that Mr. King believes that the American Muslim population is harboring terrorists, and he will go to any pernicious lengths to vilify them.  For his supporters, the search for the radicalized other is a guise which they are using to hide their true aim of persecuting those whom they believe to be un-American, those others whom they can’t tolerate on American soil.

Just as last week’s events in Wisconsin were a blow to our union, the very existence of these hearings is evidence that insipid forces are chipping away at the bulwark of our hard-fought freedoms.  The political language they employ is abysmal, as are their aims for our country.

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