Abstract Islamic art with 'Radical' written over the top

What is radical Islam?

This article was written by Zaheer Kazmi
This article was published on

Zaheer Kazmi discusses the key points from his new article in BISA journal Review of International Studies (RIS), titled 'Radical Islam in the Western Academy'. The article aims to interrogate the labelling of Islam and Muslim actors as ‘radical’ as a particular scholarly practice. Zaheer argues that radical Islam is under-theorised and over-determined as a scholarly category.

For over forty years, radical Islam has been one of the most clichéd expressions in Western political discourse. From around the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, it has been invoked habitually by policymakers, the media and academics alike. At the heart of justifications for war, it has also dominated analysis of global terrorism and political violence since 9/11. Yet it has often displayed a ‘we know it when we see it’ quality, evident not only in assumptions that underpin its usage in the lexicon of Western security policies but in settled genealogies of ‘Islamism’ or ‘jihadism’ recycled routinely by scholars across various disciplines. Rather than being self-evident, however, analysis of radical Islam functions more as a kind of Rorschach test onto which assorted interpretations of ‘radicalism’ and ‘Islam’ are projected. In my article for RIS, I address the vagaries of radical Islam’s widespread presence in the Anglophone academy by treating the labelling of Islam and Muslim actors as radical as a particular scholarly practice.

Scholars of radical Islam tend to pay less attention to what radicalism means than what Islam is. To put this another way, despite growth in studies of ‘global’ movements and thought, there has been little reflection on radicalism as a comparative concept in the study of global politics. In the history of political and international thought, for instance, radicalism remains a category defined by, if no longer entirely confined to, its Euro-American intellectual heritage. At the same time, the study of radicalization in the behavioural sciences turns the focus of concepts long-applied to historical movements in Europe to the more recent exigencies of global Western counter-terrorism concerns. In this milieu, radicalism’s Eurocentric character tends to be assumed rather than examined when allied to Islam. It might even be said that, as a scholarly category applied universally, radicalism has no content beyond its Western understanding which is itself variable because it has no fixed definition even though the term is used so profusely.

My article essentially does two things. First, by treating radicalism as a meta-concept it identifies four discourses of radicalism - originating in the Western academy to address Western contexts and phenomena - which scholars have used to describe radical Islam: Euro-radicalism, which I identify with the European left and critical theory, fundamentalism, radicalization and liberalism. They show how the content of radical Islam has been variously determined by specific concepts attendant to each discourse. This can reveal both radical Islam’s malleable and composite nature and the enduring Eurocentrism at work in defining it, including in critical and post-Western approaches which unreflectively import certain concepts, such as radicalism, into the analysis of non-Western traditions, while critiquing others. Second, I point to the apologetic recovery of Islam which is apparent in critical approaches to radical Islam, especially critical accounts in IR since 9/11. These approaches often deploy narratives of Islamic legal, historical or ethical orthodoxy to counter Orientalist depictions of Islam - narratives which are, however, insufficiently attentive to marginal and heterodox voices which fall outside hegemonic conceptions of Islamic normativity. In doing so, they also betray paradoxical affinities with proponents of liberal Islam who see it as a vehicle for promoting Islamic moderation in the face of militancy. All of this also suggests that critical approaches to Islam should not themselves be immune from ideological critique. Below, I give a brief overview of four distinct ways radical Islam is conceptualised in the Anglophone academy.


When radical Islam is comprehended through the interpretive prisms of Euro-radicalism, narratives of resistance to domination are foregrounded. Anti-colonial Muslim actors - from Jamal al Din al Afghani, a founding figure of Pan-Islamism to Maulana Barkatullah of the Ghadar Party - are connected explicitly to global circuits of radical and revolutionary European left activism by scholars working in this vein. These accounts of ‘radical Islam’ stand alongside global histories of other forms of ‘non-Western’ radicalism. Beyond empire, Islamic socialism also gained scholarly currency in the context of Cold War decolonization. Scholars read these developments through conceptual frameworks which pointed to the radical nature of socialism or Marxism inhering in these manifestations of Islamic thought and practice. Yet radicalism itself is not addressed as a transcultural concept in these accounts. Instead, radicalism’s ‘indigenous’ properties tend to be assumed as an extension of Euro-radicalism; authentically recovered, yet presented as mirrors to Marxism, socialism, anarchism etc. The result is an odd assortment of globalising ‘radical’ non-Western actors largely through the analytical prisms of Western thought, coupled with an absence of reflection on the substance of radicalism as a cross-cultural concept.

Critical theorists often share an underlying vision of radical Islam as a legitimate form of resistance to Western hegemony. Euro-radicalism is projected onto these accounts both by the adoption of the theories of Western critical theorists and the framing of Islam as an idiom of resistance. When critical scholars of Islam have criticised the Eurocentrism of Western critical theorists, they have tended to do so with a view to the apologetic recovery of Islam as itself a form of critical theory. This can involve recovering premodern Islam as a means of critiquing Western Enlightenment modernity which, in a kind of methodological circularity, in turn, corresponds with Western counter-Enlightenment critiques. The influence of Euro-radicalism is also reinforced by how axes of Western critical-theoretical debate which have played out in postcolonial theory - notably, between Marxists and poststructuralists - are refracted in critical-theoretical accounts of Islam. Thus, while the burgeoning field of ‘Critical Muslim Studies’ can display antifoundationalist and particularist tendencies in its appropriation of Foucauldian and Derridean concepts which present Islamism as a non-Western discourse of resistance, radical readings of Muslim politics which privilege more universal and progressive themes grounded in socialist and Marxist thought can be found in the explicit adoption of the vocabulary of the European left in terms such as the “Muslim Left” and the “Muslim International” which draw consciously on genealogies of the “Third World Left” as guiding concepts for understanding radical Muslim thought and movements as forms of resistance to the hegemony of liberal capitalism.


Fundamentalism represents a different conception of radicalism derivative of Western concepts, one originating in studies of Anglo-American Christianity. When described as fundamentalist, accounts of radical Islam emphasise religious revivalism. The conservative impulses of Christian fundamentalism, often linked in political terms to the Christian right, contrast with the Euro-radicalism of the European left, complicating conceptions of radicalism applied to radical Islam. Interest in comparative fundamentalism formed part of an emerging scholarly drive to understand global religious resurgence in a secular age which appeared in tandem with Western concerns about the rise of radical Islam. The 1980s saw the increasingly explicit use of ‘radicalism’ to refer to Muslim thinkers and movements often also labelled fundamentalist. Cementing this terminological link in Western policymaking, in 1985 the United States House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East published hearings under the title, Islamic Fundamentalism and Islamic Radicalism.

Two broad forms of activism can be discerned in scholarly accounts of Islamic fundamentalism. ‘Societal (nonviolent) activism’, which points to a range of contemporary groups which largely recoil from conventional forms of politics as well as premodern thinkers and movements, and ‘political (violent and nonviolent) activism’ which refers to modern Islamist political thinkers, movements and parties. These are not mutually exclusive definitions and, while some scholars make qualified distinctions between them, fundamentalism is used to describe both tendencies. Fundamentalism in its original Western usage centres on the properties of scriptural absolutism, antimodernism, and illiberalism and these traits are carried over into accounts of Islamic fundamentalism. They cut across the duality in accounts of Islamic fundamentalism by adapting and contextualising their meanings. In doing so, the content of radicalism in radical Islam is reconstituted by these ‘fundamentalist’ properties in ways quite distinct from those associated with discourses of Euro-radicalism, radicalization or liberalism.


Unlike Euro-radicalism and fundamentalism, radicalization, located in the behavioural sciences, privileges the study of behaviour rather than the content of political or religious thought. When defined in terms of radicalization, radical Islam again transmutes tying it to processes which lead to terrorism and political violence. Radicalization reframes the radicalism in radical Islam in three ways. First, by defining its core meaning in terms of a propensity for violence as a form of political action. The academic discourse of fundamentalism pointed radical Islam towards questions of violence but did not centre, chiefly, on theorizing violence. Radicalization is distinguished by a concern with political violence and terrorism in relation to radical Islam. Second, by allying violence to psychological factors which may or may not be determined by the adoption of ‘radical’ thought or ideologies. While they may share with studies of radicalization a concern with radicalism as a process which involves psychological distortions, critical-theoretical accounts of radical Islam tend to link these factors to a singular cause - the predicament of being an oppressed colonial subject. Studies of radicalization address a broader constellation of psychological processes and causes.

Finally, radicalization expands radicalism’s analytical focus from the activities of marginal actors – the main focus in accounts of radical Islam linked to Euro-radicalism, fundamentalism and liberalism - to everyday citizens. In this respect, the absorption of ‘extremism’, violent and non-violent, into an everyday latent conception of radicalization has redefined radicalism by making it, at once, an individuated concept that can exist potentially everywhere - a reframing tied also to justifications for expansive surveillance measures by states. Studies of radicalization share much vocabulary with accounts of Islamic fundamentalism and Euro-radicalism, in descriptions of particular theologies, political ideologies and grievances against Western domination. However, they also add conceptually to the lexicon of radical Islam through these three properties.

Liberal v Radical Islam

Critical IR scholarship focused on Islam’s neglected contribution to IR represents a distinct approach to understanding radical Islam. While it follows other critical approaches in challenging Eurocentrism even as it draws on Euro-radical concepts, it also departs from them in being both more markedly apologetic, in seeking to recover Islam’s positive contribution for IR, and more concerned with ‘de-othering’, or arguing that Islam is not anathema to Western liberal democratic norms. It is particularly evident in the work of Mustapha Kamal Pasha and Co-IRIS (International Relations and Islamic Studies Cohort). Highlighting the heterogeneity of Islam and the Muslim world - against monolithic, regressive and violent representations – critical IR/Islam scholarship seeks to recover a more pluralistic and nonviolent vision of Islam from within this multiplicity, seen as masked by the West’s ‘othering’ of Islam.

The critical recovery of Islam by IR scholars leads to particular interpretations of Islam. Against an Islam distorted by orientalist assumptions, its actual traditions and practices are seen to offer enriching alternatives for IR. In these ways, critical IR/Islam scholarship can be seen as a form of ‘strategic essentialism’ where the ‘essence’ of Islam, variously defined, is naturalised as an instrumental means of challenging Western readings of Islam and providing novel resources for theorising the international. While they usefully expose IR’s Eurocentrism, such readings can advocate particular visions of Islam which are left uncontested for the most part because they themselves are vehicles for critique. This has significant implications for how these accounts view radical Islam which point to the positive contribution of Islamic theories, concepts and ethics for IR while distancing this contribution from ‘orientalist’ conceptions of Islam as backward and violent, especially since 9/11. This latter political context has meant that critical IR/Islam scholars have also been particularly concerned with marginalising radical Islam, or dismissing it as being beyond Islam and, paradoxically, betraying liberal impulses even as they contest Western liberalism by seeking identification between Islam and the West.

Not unlike apologetic accounts of liberal Islam, critical Islam/IR scholars seek not to reframe but to negate radical Islam. They illustrate how radical Islam shares an intimate relationship to liberalism through defining Islam by its very opposition to radicalism. In this way, ‘liberalism’ can be described as a fourth discourse of radicalism which defines radical Islam, alongside Euro-radicalism (resistance), fundamentalism (revival) and radicalization (terror); one pointing to an absence of radical properties in Islam rather than their variously defined presence. Seen in the light of accounts of liberal Islam which negate Islamic radicalism, it is the absence of radicalism in Islam, rather than its apparent presence, or indeed, prevalence, that has enabled multiple scholarly readings of radical Islam. This can seem less ironic given there is no tradition of radical thought in Islamic intellectual history which equates with traditions of radicalism in Western thought, the only one being that recently constructed in Western scholarly accounts of radical Islam which subsumes genealogies of ‘political Islam’ and so obscures the discrete investigation of radicalism as a cross-cultural category.

Like the phantom nature of liberal Islam which is animated through the projection of Western liberal categories, accounts of radical Islam step into the interpretive gap opened up by this absence. Having no discernible radical tradition of their own, narratives of Islam which depart from dominant conceptions of Islamic normativity require a language of legitimation which radical Islam, via Western conceptions of radicalism, provides. In doing so, academic accounts of radical Islam also authenticate Islam in some fashion by advancing selective or apologetic descriptions of what constitutes radicalism.

Want to know more? You can read the full article at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210521000553

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