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Terrorism, climate change and the politics of ‘radicalization’

Date:11 December 2015
Author:Religion Factor

Radicalization’ is becoming an increasingly common word in contemporary politics and public discourse. Yet it crops up in seemingly unrelated contexts, most recently in Paris, in relation to both terrorism and climate change. This raises a number of questions about what or who radicalization actually refers to. Erin Wilson reflects on these ambivalent dimensions of ‘radicalization’ in today’s post.

Today marks the close of COP21, the 21st annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris. There has been an immense amount of speculation and pressure surrounding this meeting, for a variety of reasons. In many respects, Paris is it. Paris is widely seen as the last chance to negotiate agreement on a binding international treaty that will replace the Kyoto protocol, setting emissions reduction targets in an attempt to keep the planet’s temperature from warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold that scientists agree is necessary in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. Hope of preventing warming disappeared some time ago, with global temperatures this year already recording a one degree rise.[i] Indications so far are positive that a binding agreement will be reached.

The last time there was this much pressure and expectation on a COP was COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Dubbed ‘Hopenhagen’ in the lead up, the conference was widely deemed a failure, with politicians, scientists and activists alike frustrated and disappointed by the process and the outcomes.[ii] In many ways, the Paris meeting is taking place under the weight of the disappointed expectations of Copenhagen.

Added to all of this is the fact that the meeting is taking place barely two weeks after the ISIS attacks that left 130 people dead in the French capital. Security, which is always tight at such events, will be even higher and nerves and tempers will be even more on edge.

Thus, Paris has become a focal point for two seemingly unrelated challenges facing the world – climate change and terrorism. And yet, oddly enough, in the last few months the two challenges have become linked through the use of a single word – radicalization.

The Paris attacks carried out by terrorists claiming affiliation with ISIS sit within a broader discourse of concern about radicalization and extremism in Europe, the UK, North America and Australasia. This concern with radicalization is largely focused on rising numbers of disaffected, marginalized and isolated youth travelling to Syria to fight with ISIS. While often tied to immigration and consequently bound up with the politics surrounding how to respond to the refugee crisis in Europe, as well as in Australia and the United States, there is increasing recognition that so-called ‘home-grown’ radicals and extremists are also a problem that needs to be addressed. Governments are pouring resources into developing programs and strategies to counter radicalization and extremism in their societies. In these contexts, and I would suggest within broader popular discourse, the terms ‘radicalization’ and ‘extremist’ are implicitly preceded by the adjective ‘Muslim’. When we hear ‘radical’, we are encouraged to automatically think ‘Muslim terrorist’.

Consequently, I was slightly surprised to see the word ‘radicalization’ pop up in an interview with Connie Hedegaard, the former EU climate commissioner, in the lead up to COP 21 in Paris. As the chair of COP15 in Copenhagen, Hedegaard is well aware of the pressures that are surrounding the meeting in Paris. While in Hedegaard’s view the conference doesn’t have to produce the final version of the treaty, there has to be observable progress towards such a treaty with agreement on clear targets, otherwise the momentum will disappear from climate change efforts.

She followed this up by saying:

I think Paris will probably deliver, but if it doesn’t, I fear that we will see a radicalisation. I see some citizens, young people, are getting impatient. Unless the world community comes up in Paris with a credible narrative about how we are changing track now, also with our economy and our finances, you will see sort of the old debate from the 1970s: anti-growth, anti-capitalism.

What some of us have being trying to do is to say, no, we should work with business, we should work with our societies as they are and try to get this transition done. Because if we don’t we will have an anti-growth dichotomy and then people will stand there screaming in each of their corners and not much will happen. So there is really a lot at stake in Paris.[iii]

There’s that word again: ‘radicalization’. But here, we’re not supposed to read the unspoken ‘Muslim’ in front of it. Rather, in this context, ‘radicalization’ refers to the radical left – so-called ‘anti-globalization’ activists (a misnomer, since they are not anti-globalization, simply anti-neoliberal and capitalist version of globalization),[iv] part of the global justice movement who want to see less emphasis on the economy and more emphasis on social welfare, for example, or who at the least are skeptical of the extent to which we can achieve sustainable economic growth at the same time as preserving the climate. Such skepticism is not unwarranted or illogical, given the linkages between carbon emission increases and decreases and the cycles of financial markets,[v] and recently published research that suggests that economic growth and sustainability are irreconcilable goals.[vi]

So are ‘radical extremists’ Muslim terrorists? Or are they anti-capitalism, anti-growth activists? Or are they white supremacist organisations like Aryan Guard or Christian Identity? Or Christian terrorists who bomb abortion clinics, like the Army of God? Or right-wing anti-Muslim organisations like Reclaim Australia? Because the terms ‘radical’, ‘extremist’, ‘radicalization’ and ‘extremism’ have been used to refer to all of these groups. Even Martin Luther King was labeled an extremist.

That’s the trouble with this term ‘radicalization’ and associated words like ‘extremism’, and I always feel uneasy whenever I hear them. Not because of the threat or the fear that they are supposed to inform or remind me of, but because they are so politically charged, so ambivalent, so malleable. There is an over-used saying that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. The same can also be said of the terms ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’. This is why I dislike them; they can be and are used to label and ostracize anyone whose actions threaten the status quo.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be wary and cautious about individuals and organisations that use violence, whether physical or verbal, to disrupt society, create division and marginalize people. But we should always be careful about labels like ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ – who is doing the labeling and why.

Erin Wilson is Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen




[iv] Steger, M.B. and E.K. Wilson. 2012. “Anti- or Alter-Globalization? Mapping the political ideology of the Global Justice Movement” International Studies Quarterly 56(3): 439-454;

[v] Steger, M.B, J. Goodman and E.K. Wilson. 2013. Justice Globalism: Ideology, Crises, Policy. London: Sage, especially Chapter 7.

[vi] Monbiot, George. 2015. ‘Consume more, conserve more: Sorry but we just can’t do both’ The Guardian 24 November 2015 ; Wiedman et al. 2013. ‘The material footprint of nations’ PNAS Available at


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