- Radicalization by Kevin McDonald
By Kevin McDonald
Wiley, 2018, 248 Pages. https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Radicalization-p-9781509522644
A large body of scholarship seeks to explain why individuals radicalize. This work has invoked a range of factors, from psychological predispositions and beliefs (Victoroff 2005) to broad societal changes, like industrialization (Calhoun 2012) and urbanization (Neuhouser 1989). Recent research, however, increasingly finds radicalization to be a social process shaped by personal networks (Nielsen 2017; Rink and Sharma 2018; Sageman 2004) and localized sociocultural isolation (Mitts 2019; Roy 2017). But how is this process experienced? What happens in these networked relations? How do radicalizing individuals make sense of hostility in their school or neighborhood?
In Radicalization, Kevin McDonald offers answers to these questions by detailing the intimate interactions and emotions that have accompanied contemporary instances of radicalization. In other words, McDonald does not aim to explain why or how radicalization occurs in general. Rather, his goal is to describe the "feelings, emotions, embodied states and sensations" (15) of individuals who espoused support for—and sometimes participated in—violent (so-called) jihadism.
To do so, McDonald focuses his attention on jihadists' social media content. Taking advantage of the extensive digital traces some have left, he immerses readers in the online lives of a handful of young jihadists and jihadist sympathizers from Britain, France, and the United States. Key insights are supplemented with information gathered from interviews with over 50 British supporters of jihadist action. This digital ethnography shows readers that radicals construct meanings and orientations to the world that manifest jihadist sentiments—sometimes in piecemeal and haphazard ways, but nearly always creatively and through interaction with others around them.
McDonald uncovers some patterns in jihadists' meaning making. For example, several individuals in his study come to understand the world through a dichotomized framework pitting purity against impurity. Some others wrestle with notions of the intimate and the vast, or an encounter with the "sublime" (Chapter 3). Omar Diaby, a Franco-Senegalese street preacher living in Nice, creates and posts online videos that mystify the world, pointing to hidden meanings in geopolitical events, impending danger, and hitherto unrevealed truths. McDonald infers that these videos induced an expanded imagination and feelings of awe in Diaby and some of his viewers.
Frameworks like purity/impurity and intimate/vast, McDonald argues, shape the experience of radicalization. He identifies three experiential forms, or "pathways" (186). One entails a communitarian perspective on the world, such as when radicals view members of another community as impure. Another pathway unfolds when radicals orient themselves to individuals in their surrounding social milieu. In these cases, radicals may claim to be revealing hidden truths or evoke feelings of the sublime in an attempt to exert power over others. The third is inward-facing; it involves a transformation of the self. For instance, Tooba Gondal, a university student in London, responds to feelings of guilt over her lax religiosity—as well as a teacher mocking her religious commitment—by changing her dress and eventually traveling to the Islamic State's territory in Syria (161).
Taken together, these experiences of radicalization highlight how radicalizing individuals engage in ongoing, complex interpretations of the world around them. Thus, McDonald's findings challenge accounts of radicalization that strip radicals of agency while granting primary agency to those around them. Such explanations typically portray radicals as passive recipients of indoctrination and grooming (9–12). But, some recent scholarship on radicalization has moved beyond the debate over agency, recognizing that both radicals and people and organizations in their networks have agency. That is, radicalization is a relational process (Alimi et al. 2015; della Porta 2018). For example, the rhetoric that radicals adopt grows out of an interplay between their own narratives and those of their supporters (Karell and Freedman 2019). Or, someone could choose to respond to cultural rootlessness—due, in part, to governmental policies—by constructing a jihadist imaginary (Roy 2017). So, while Radicalization advances the valuable argument that jihadists have agency during radicalization, it points to the need for further research on how jihadists' construction of meaning involves not only themselves and their intimate social circle, but also the community and...