What does it mean to be “radical”?


Radical (chemistry): “A molecule that contains at least one unpaired electron… because of their odd electrons, free radicals are usually highly reactive… they [can] react with intact molecules, generating new free radicals in the process”(Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015)

Radicalism (political): “Radicalism is characterized less by its principles than by the manner of their application” (Cyclopaedia of Political Science, 1893)


If it can be said that free radicals in chemistry are good at creating more free radicals or that political radicals have a tendency to replicate and create revolutions then it is also a rule of Twitter that anything the popular neuroscientist Sam Harris says about Islam and Islamism will be liked, retweeted and defended by his legions of fans. The Law states if it is he that created it, then the Tweet will be spread, regardless of any discrepancies or oddities in the Tweet’s molecular structure.

Such was the case with Harris’ online rebuttal against the terminology used by Hilary Clinton in her response to the Orlando shooting – 691 retweets, 1,866 “favourites”.

Here Harris sought to chide Clinton for her use of pleonasms, arguing that the excessive use of the adjective “radical” made her terminology linguistically redundant. In many ways, Harris is right to focus on language. Phraseology is important in the discussion of jihadist violence. “If Hilary is only against the radical jihadists,” an onlooker might otherwise wonder. “What about the mainstream jihadists? Are they OK then?”

At this point in Trump’s over-televised run for Presidency, everyone who isn’t living under a rock should be aware that there is no such thing as a “mainstream jihadist” but the larger point Harris is trying to make is still valid – terminology is important and informed debate begins with the correct use of language.

Not being one to shirk the opportunity to nitpick however, I offered that although the term “radical jihadism” is a redundant pleonasm (much as the term “redundant pleonasm” is itself a pleonasm) the term “radical Islamism” is acceptable to use since there are many different schools of Islamist thought. This includes what we might call “mainstream” and “radical” forms of Islamism.

Harris’ response was simply:

Harris’ suggestion, of course, is that theocracy – as a system of government wherein all authority is derived from a deity – has some kind of innate quality which makes it “radical” and that because of this quality it is therefore redundant to affix the adjective “radical” to the word “Islamism” (since the central aim of most Islamists is the establishment of an Islamic theocracy).

As awful as theocracies are, one runs into problems by blanket-labeling an entire system of government as “radical” – even one as flawed as theocracy. If theocratic ideas were necessarily radical what would one then make of a country whose Pledge of Allegiance is a pledge to “one Nation, under God”? Or what would one make of the Vatican – a religious theocracy run by priests? Would one really argue that the Pope and his cabal of cardinals are nothing but “a bunch of radicals”? One could argue that I suppose but it would be a very radical argument to make indeed. And there would be a great many Catholics in the American mainstream (citizens of “one Nation, under God”) who would disagree with your position.

It is clear then that the word “radical” has an inherently relative quality and that it is better understood  simply as “that which is not mainstream”. Contiguously, the term “radicalism” refers simply to a collection of political beliefs which do not exist in the mainstream. It is merely the antonym of the humdrum middle-ground.

The distinction I was trying to make between what we might call “radical Islamism” and the less radical (but no less repugnant) forms of Islamism essentially coheres with the same distinction made previously by political philosopher Olivier Roy. Roy’s thesis was that Islamism is not one single movement but a spectrum of political beliefs which “oscillates between two poles” – a “revolutionary pole” and a “reformist pole”. The distinction should seem fairly self-evident to anyone with even a cursory understanding of the history of political Islam. Some radical Islamists (who we typically refer to as jihadists today) want to pick up a sword and accelerate Islamisation with cold steel while others in the mainstream are more relaxed (Jacob Olidort and Graeme Wood calls these relaxed types “quietist”) – seeking to focus their efforts on Islamising society “from the bottom up, bringing about, ipso facto, the advent of an Islamic State”.

The distinction between Roy’s “revolutionary” Islamists (who we can safely call the “radicals” among the Islamists) and “reformist” Islamists should be familiar to Harris because Maajid Nawaz made a very similar distinction in the book they co-authored together:

“…When I say ‘Islamism’ I mean the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam on society. When I say ‘jihadism’ I mean the use of force to spread Islamism.” (Nawaz/Harris 2016)

Thus, given what we have discussed about the different forms of Islamism we arrive at the following diagram which expresses the fact that Islamism is not unitary but oscillates between “mainstream” and “radical” poles.

Spectrum of Political islam

Fig 1.1

The “pollination line” in Fig 1.1 is used to demarcate the point at which Islam ceases to be simply “one’s religion” and becomes a political ideology – the point at which the believer pollinates the spiritual life with “the world of the profane“. In essence, the pollination line delineates what we in the West might call “the separation of church and state”. My specific use of the  term “pollination” is intentional here, having borrowed it from a controversial hadith narrated by Anas which offers a glimpse of a secular Islamic world in which worldly affairs are separated from spiritual ones (see footnote below)***.

One will note in the mere existence of this diagram, that I have taken care in how I approach the subject of Islamism, viewing it less as a monolithic bloc (as Harris and Trump have now come to view Islam itself) but treating it as a highly complex collection of diverse social and political movements (all of them seriously flawed).

There are other reasons to be more careful when we taxonomise Islamism. How else can we distinguish between the Shia Islamism of Hizballah and the Sunni Islamism of Al-Qaeda, for example? Or how can we tell the difference between the fractious (and almost-incidental) Islamism amongst the Pashtun  and the ethno-nationalist tinged Islamism now popular amongst many of the Tuareg in Northern Mali?

Indeed, if one were to borrow from the political theorist David Nolan and rework my diagram by including another ideological vector like “primacy of the tribe vs primacy of the Caliphate”, one could plot the significant ideological differences between the various Islamist groups with significantly more accuracy on a Cartesian chart.

As with the following:

Cartesian Chart of Islamism

Fig 1.2 (Noting that Boko Haram’s ideology is nearly unplottable)

Indeed, once we realise that the issue of Islamism is far greater in scope than the white Muslim convert next door regurgitating the filth he reads on the Internet (that is, once we remove ourselves whole-bodily from the ethnocentrism of our own backyard) we will realise that Islamism, just like Islam itself, is very far from a single creed.

Ultimately, the most succinct way I could put the distinction between “the various Islamisms” was by pointing out that in some Muslim-majority countries (like Egypt) there are some Islamists who almost everyone would regard as a terrorist and others who would be democratically elected.

Naturally, by simply pointing out that Islamist views are fairly mainstream in many Muslim majority countries (which they are) I was likened to an ISIS sympathizer by the Harris fan club. According to my logic, they claimed, ISIS’ ideology shouldn’t be considered radical because within the Islamic State, ISIS’ worldview is the prevailing worldview.

Ad hominem aside, it’s actually a reasonable point to make. Hypothetically, if researchers were able to obtain unbiased psephological data from within the Islamic State or if we reduced the sample size of our “spectrum of political belief” diagram (Fig 1.1) to say, fighting aged males currently residing in the city of Raqqa, we would likely find that ISIS’ worldview is far from radical. One might even observe “the pollination line” shifting completely to the right indicating that everyone is in total agreement that Islam should be indivisible from the affairs of state (although if we use my Cartesian model, one would plot the Anbar tribes on a higher co-ordinate to the ISIS muhajireen on the “primacy of the tribe” vector).

Of course (returning to Harris’ original critique), we know that when Hilary Clinton is talking about trends in contemporary politics she is not restricting her sample size to fighting aged males in Raqqa. So the point is moot – ISIS’ worldview is indeed objectively radical in this context. In saying this, I will concede (to the glee of Sam Harris’ fan club) that if the sample size for this discussion was restricted to the US (which it may have been since Clinton was talking about Orlando) then yes, Islamism should be considered a radical ideology. This would mean that Harris is right and the term “radical Islamism” uses a redundant adjective (shame! O shame on you Hilary!). But if we can leave ethnocentrism out of our thinking for a moment and think of this “war of ideas” as a global war and the entire world (with its 50 Muslim-majority countries) as our sample size than it makes sense to make distinctions between different kinds of Islamist belief. Clinton has served as America’s top diplomat so I would hope that she was thinking big picture on this issue.

While I’m on the topic of making concessions to the Harris fan club, I’ll also concede that all Islamists (“quietist” or not) are in a sense “radical” in that an Islamist seeks to be an agent of radical change to society – transforming it completely. There is very little “moderation” in all Islamist ideation which is why many Islamists end up becoming “extremists” (the antonym of “moderation”). But to repeat the hundred and something year old quote at the top of this article: “radicalism is characterized less by its principles than by the manner of their application”.

Heaving ho then, while we could continue discussing whether “radical Islamism” constitutes a pleonasm, the key point is that if we can’t make simple distinctions between the ideation systems of someone like Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (a militant jihadist, whom I would label a radical Islamist) and someone like Mohammed Morsi (an Islamist whose views, according to the results of the Egyptian vote in 2012, are fairly mainstream in Egypt) then there really is no hope for our ability to understand the place of Islam in our world.

Of course, Harris’ thesis (the one that is retweeted by his legions of fans… and then repackaged in less savoury terms by Trump™) is that the world’s “Muzz-lims” should be considered followers of an intrinsically radical religion – Islam being what is – a religion founded by a puritanical Bedouin raider.

While the latter about Mohammed might be true, the reality is that in the world we live in today – a world which the founder of Islam was integral in shaping (for better or for worse) – the Islamic worldview and even the Islamist worldview is far from a “radical” one.

This is not to say that one should not speak out against Islamism (as Harris’ fan club seems to think I am suggesting). On the contrary, given all the empirical evidence which suggests that mixing religion and politics is about as good an idea as mixing sleeping pills and alcohol, I’ll be the first to speak out against Islamism if it ever becomes a mainstream belief in Canada (thankfully, an Islamist would be considered a radical in my neighbourhood). I’ll also happily speak out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, Saudi Arabia’s harsh dispensation of judicial punishment and the reign of theocracy in Iran.

But if we can agree that “Islamism” is the “enemy” (to use a term which others with military backgrounds can relate to) then our first duty in this global war of political ideas is to understand this enemy as best we can. One need not repeat the Sun Tzu edict here for emphasis.

Understanding this enemy involves conducting what military planners call a “stakeholder analysis” – mapping out all the individual actors within the conflict eco-system to grasp the role they play in producing and transforming violence. This mapping exercise might involve building a profile of each of these individual actors, and occasionally, categorising them according to where their views might lie on a spectrum of political belief (as we have done in Fig 1.2).

Understanding and making the distinction between what we might call “mainstream” Islamists (the quietist types) and “radical” Islamists (the jihadists) is important here because it enables us to adjust the parameters of our targeting apparatus within the system. This enables us to focus our efforts on the targets that matter the most. Indeed, if we remember that labor is in short supply, our aim should always be to attack targets who, once removed from the system, will have a significant effect on the enemy’s centre of gravity. A “radical” Islamist is good at creating more “radical” Islamists, just as in chemistry a radical molecule is good at creating more radical molecules. Therefore, it follows, we need to have words which enable us to categorise and identify radical Islamists where they exist.

Remembering that our ultimate aim in this war is to move that pollination line in Fig 1.1 as far over to the left as we possibly can, the greater problem – the problem of Islamist violence in our world – is greater than the debate over terminology. Ultimately however, our ability to solve the problem rests on our ability to understand the problem and if we can’t understand the basic terminology and the importance of making basic distinctions between the different forms of Islamism then we’ll never find a solution.






Hadith #2363 – narrated from Anas

“The Prophet (peace be upon him) passed by some people who were busy with pollination and said: “if they would not do this, then it would still come out right”

The date crop that resulted was of a very poor quality.

Then he passed by them and asked: “what is with your date palms?”

They said: “You had told us such-and-such…”

He said: “You know best the affairs of your worldly life.”




3 thoughts on “What does it mean to be “radical”?

  1. C August E,
    a wonderful series of essays – well written, trenchant, and open to contention.
    Well done.

    I suspect that Harris’ central argument, and one that I share, is that Islam contains a codification of inequality; statues of discrimination and horror that are at fundamental odds with what we in the West would like to call more liberal, humanist, or progressive, views. In this sense Harris would be just in his choice of rubric – “radical” – in that it (Islam) stands as peripheral, radical, to our notions of an equitable and open society.

    Again, keep writing.
    I’ll be reading.

  2. Fascinating informative article. Thank you.

    I don’t get a sense that SH considers Islam or even Islamism a monolith. Rather that Jihad, the political aspects Islam, sharia and general incompatibility with human rights, equality and secular government are fundamental precepts of Islam. Of course many find a way to reconcile their faith with secular democracy and equality. But Jihad and Islamism are not outlier concepts or interpretations.

    If you support human rights, equality and secular government, then any form of Islamism is a radical departure from this. Of course this can range from passive support to violence.

  3. Pingback: On the New Nativism | Dispatches from the Periphery

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