Two sides of the same coin? An examination of cognitive and psychosocial pathways leading to empowerment and radicalization

This report explores a new model for reorienting violent radicalization and the similarities between empowerment and radicalization.

A Project of
Nigeria, Sahel, Building Peace & Transforming Extremism, Participatory Media & Technology, Research & Learning

Is there a link between empowerment & radicalization? Society treats one as a goal to be supported, while the other is shunned and feared – why? This report examines key theories of empowerment and radicalization to understand their commonalities and identifies opportunities for creating empowered off ramps from violence towards non-violent civic engagement.

Just as many vaccines contain small doses of live virus, radicalization does contain small doses, or shared elements, of empowerment. That is not to suggest that the desired outcomes are the same, but rather a similarity of process.”

The commonalities between empowerment and radicalization are closer than one thinks. This innovative and detailed report examines the opportunity to reframe empowerment so that it is informed by a deep understanding of what makes radicalization so total, so quick, and so potent a path for creating transformative personal and social change.

In this report, the authors dissect the assumed standards of “empowerment”  as a desired and supported achievement, whereas “radicalization” is to be prevented and feared. Exploring how the contrast between the two terms became normalized in conversational, political, and theoretical agendas, this report unravels what elements these two key theories share.  

Ultimately, the purpose of this exploration is to leverage and transform the often-destructive processes and behaviors associated with radicalization for positive, pro-social outcomes. Instead of relying on countering violent extremism (CVE) approaches that aim to prevent radicalization or emphasize de-radicalization, which have inherent limitations and often deny the potential assets of radicalized youth, this report explores the merits of a process akin to “re-radicalization.” (Sieckelink 2016; Nema 2016)

According to this review, de-radicalization programs are often premised on conformity, in essence placing the burden for reform and rehabilitation on the “radicalized” individual. The authors argue that this not only strips away core elements of an individual’s chosen identity, belief system, and path, this approach also fails to demand that societies, institutions, or states acknowledge their contributions or push for change.

This paper argues that to be more effective, CVE programming needs to recognize, enhance, and channel potential assets of radicalized youth – such as agency, commitment, leadership, and self-efficacy – and examines the possibility of reorienting their impulses, attitudes, and behaviors from violent radicalization towards non-violent civic empowerment.