When the federal government launched a resource for schools entitled Preventing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation in Australia, social media erupted in laughter at yet another Liberal government blunder. It gained media attention due to the ridiculous case study of ‘Karen’, a person who had ‘radicalised’ into environmentalism via the alternative music scene.

The booklet claims to educate teachers about the potential radicalisation of any Joe Bloggs in the classroom, but can’t escape the fact that its primary purpose is to prevent the radicalisation of young Muslim men – the main demographic suspected of terrorism by western governments. Anne Aly, an expert in violent extremism, criticised the kit, warning that it could lead to the targeting of Muslim students.

But what does it really mean to be ‘radical’? And what is the danger of singling out those who have ‘radicalised’?

The definition of radicalisation provided by the booklet speak volumes about a government that assumes the population is united in its understanding of how people participate politically:

When a person’s beliefs move from being relatively conventional to being radical, and they want a drastic change in society, this is known as radicalisation. As a person radicalises, they begin to develop and adopt attitudes and behaviours that seek to substantially transform the nature of society and government. These attitudes differ significantly from how most members of society view social issues and participate politically.

Not only does this suggest political and social consensus, but it pathologises the desire to make a drastic change in society. Most concerning, though, is that it points the finger at anyone who is ‘other’, furthering the isolation of those on the margins.

Yet while the Australian government is using these terms to make the general populace wary, radicalisation, from a different perspective, can be a perfectly appropriate response to the violence perpetrated by the state – in prisons and immigration detention centres, for example. Radicalisation may take place when an individual is exposed to injustice, such as racial profiling by police, or the media portrayal of a peaceful protest as violent. It can also be experienced as a kind of trauma, in which previously-held beliefs are shattered.

I remember radicalising after a peaceful protest became violent at the hands of the police in 2009. The Northern Territory intervention into remote communities was in full swing, and several hundred people were gathered at the office of Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin in Heidelberg, Melbourne. A couple of friends and I climbed the roof of the office and dropped a banner. After activist speeches, a lack of response from Macklin, and a cheeky run from the cops on rooftops, the group of protesters spontaneously started down the road to the local Centrelink.

Central-Australian Aboriginal leader and anti-Intervention campaigner Barbara Shaw walked into the Heidelberg Centrelink office to ask for assistance with her payments, to make a point about the racism of welfare quarantines.  A group of us, no more than 40, followed Barbara in. I was standing with some friends inside, waiting to see the response to Barbara’s request. I glanced to my left, to the glass door of the Centrelink office, and saw a string of cops marching swiftly towards us. I didn’t think much of their presence until I noticed they had black batons. Then they started pushing people, including a man in a wheelchair, and a woman who later presented to hospital with cracked ribs. I felt sick.

Something in me changed that day. Before the protest I knew, intellectually, that the police could act in violent, horrendous ways – out of the public eye, as well as in full view of it. I knew about racial profiling; I knew they didn’t take violence against women seriously; I knew they targeted queer people. But witnessing the violence, and seeing a policewoman outside Heidelberg Centrelink that day videotaping every single protester’s face while muttering under her breath, made me learn this lesson deeply. It drastically changed my view of the police force and of the justice system.

‘Radicalisation’ is a loaded and subjective term, most often used in the last two decades in association with extremism and terrorism. Its history as a term used by movements to inspire change runs deep.

In A Decade Lost, Rethinking Radicalisation and Extremism, Arun Kundnani writes that ‘the factors which lead someone to commit acts of terrorism are complex and cannot be reduced to holding a set of values deemed to be radical.’

When governments point the finger at those with ‘radical’ views, and bundles them up with ‘terrorists’, something deeply troubling is at play. The threat of so called ‘radicals’ and ‘radicalisation’ thus becomes justification for increased surveillance and an expansion of military and police control, at a time when it is all the more necessary to hold and embrace views which challenge the dominant power structure.

When I asked friends on the left what they thought ‘radical’ meant, answers varied. One said that a radical is someone who sets their political views apart from the status quo and acts on those views – they must act to be considered radical. Another said that it simply means ‘of the extreme’, on either side of the political centre. A third said that the word ‘radical’ on its own is fine, but coining it with ‘feminist’ became problematic, as a radical feminist identity has become increasingly aligned with trans-exclusionary politics.

‘I don’t think my views are radical,’ said an Aboriginal woman. ‘How can something as basic as acknowledgement of sovereignty of country be considered radical? Those views aren’t extreme, they’re obvious.’

Resoundingly, ‘radical’ was used positively, as a general descriptor of a politic that pierces through the superficial veneer of mainstream thought, and upturns the norm.
There is much to gain from looking at the etymology of the word. Radical stems from post-classical Latin, radix, meaning ‘root’ or ‘of or relating to a root’. It is no great leap then, to say that to have ‘radical’ views is to look at the root of the problems, and explore them.

Radical views are integral to political movements, to give direction and a deeper understanding of what is at play. When the government announces the closure of 150 Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, the root of the problem is colonialism and government control of Indigenous land. A superficial reading of the situation might result in the call to simply keep the communities open – a completely valid demand. However, asking for more might uncover deeper issues or long-term problems. If Aboriginal people demand the government acknowledge sovereignty of land and relinquish control of Aboriginal communities, and point to colonialism as the root cause of the problem, a bigger picture is painted. When we begin to see the issues from this point of view, it is easier for activists and communities to know what to demand and why. Without radicalisation, no one would challenge the status quo, and nothing would change.

If being a radical means setting yourself apart from the norm when the norm is a disgrace, and to look at the root causes of social issues, there couldn’t be anything more integral to a healthy democracy. It is time to redirect the connotations of ‘radical’ and turn our attention to the root of the problem.


Image: Arthur John Picton / Flickr

Ania Anderst

Ania has written for small publications and DIY zines. She produces radio for 3CR 855AM, co-hosting the Tuesday Breakfast Show and tweets @spoonfulofthyme.

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