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Restorative Justice, Violent Radicalisation and Political Polarisation

The rise of violent radicalisation and terrorism in Europe and the West is not as significantly attributable to Islamist or religious sources of radicalisation as disproportionate academic and media attention would tend to suggest. Concurrent with an increasingly globalised emergence of populism, the violent radicalisation of far-right political groups and individuals has seen a dramatic increase following the inauguration of the ‘war on terror’, and has grown exponentially since. In the UK alone, prisoners convicted of far-right terror offences climbed by a third between 2019 and 2020, now accounting for one-sixth of all terrorists in UK prisons. In the US, the numbers of far-right terrorist attacks had quadrupled between 2016 and 2017. 

There are inherent similarities in the processes which lead to violent radicalisation from these varying motivations. Whilst far-right extremists tend to cling to notions of nationalism and the romanticism of a country’s former national glory, the mobilisation of religio-ethnic groups is often aided by the appeal of supra-national bonds, yet both seek to address similar underlying sentiments of social alienation and cultural discontent. However, the rise of nationalism is not a new phenomenon. For centuries now humans have forged wars based on perceived civic or ethnic difference. Yet, nationalism is not the only ideology capable of drawing us into battle. For centuries, Europe waged war on religious grounds; from holy wars, to hunting heretics. Civilising missions too, have caused or justified warfare. As evident in the mission to colonise the new world as it was in the Roman Empire, the distinction between savagery and civilisation has been used to draw battle lines. For as long as history can remember, we have not just been defining and developing our identities in terms of ‘what we are not’, we have been going to war with it. 

The more recent rise of populism has stimulated an illiberal swerve in our societies, and reinvigorated a nationalistic plight. Nationalist and xenophobic parties scramble to exploit and perpetuate the political salience of international issues which can cause public anxieties, such as immigration, asylum, crime and terrorism. The saliency of such issues stimulates the us-versus-them dichotomy, a narrative all too often sold by policy-makers with a subjective desire to frame the state of political debate. The result is hard-line policies and polarisation. As the seeds of populism and polarisation push to erode pluralism, it is hardly surprising that we are witnessing an increase in far-right violent radicalisation. 

Numerous politically motivated attacked have occurred in recent years, not only in Europe, but also in New Zealand, Australia and the US. Far-right groups such as the English Defence League in the UK, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Pegida in Germany are also increasingly displaying ‘anti-Islam rhetoric’. This points to both the global nature of far-right radicalisation, and the necessity for an increased focus directed towards de-radicalisation or ‘exit’ programmes able to address politically motivated radicalisation. 

Research indicates that this type of ‘reciprocal radicalisation’, curated so often in response to Islamist extremism, is grown in regional spaces with locally based processes at work. 

Yet we are encouraged to think of both violent radicalisation and terrorism as aberrations of our society which can therefore be eradicated ‘like a bad apple in an otherwise healthy barrel’. This is the most useful narrative to policy-makers or pressure groups seeking hard line policies, but it also prevents us from viewing radicalism accurately and therefore from tackling it at a grass-roots level. Radicalism, extremism and terrorism are not separate from our societies, but born within them. This is why community-based approaches are fundamentally necessary to preventing it. 

The principles of restorative justice are predisposed to adopt community-based healing programmes. As an ethos, restorative justice employs dialogue amongst offenders, victims, and the wider community, to aid the development of understanding and the recognition of mutually shared values. Such practices would be uniquely positioned to address narrowly defined and exclusive notions of the ‘self’, and dehumanising notions of ‘other’. 

In the same way, community-based approaches to de-radicalisation can also help to address issues of social discontent, through methods such as youth and community engagement programmes. Restorative justice has the potential to begin to erode the negative implications of political polarisation, with a view to removing ‘inequality and hostility towards and between sub-groups based on assumed identity and values’. In this way, restorative dialogue can help to unite and heal our communities, and prevent violent radicalisation in the process. But perhaps restorative justice offers a set of principles which could be taken further. Could the practice of restorative justice ultimately teach us to question our notions of nationality, beyond the bifurcation of us-versus-them, and bring a true sense of plurality to our polarised societies?  

  (1) Koehler, Daniel. ‘Violence and Terrorism from the Far-Right: Policy Options to Counter an Elusive Threat’, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, (2019) pp. 1-21

 (2) Sabbagh, Dan. ‘Number of far-right terrorist prisoners in Britain hits record high’. The Guardian, June 17 2020, [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/17/number-of-far-right-terrorist-prisoners-in-britain-hits-record-high] accessed 21 February 2021

 (3) Jones, Seth. ‘The Rise of Far-Right Extremism in the United States’, CSIS Briefs, November 7 2018, [https://www.csis.org/analysis/rise-far-right-extremism-united-states], accessed 21 February 2021

(4) Abbas, Tahir. ‘Far Right and Islamist Radicalisation in an Age of Austerity: A Review of Sociological Trends and Implications for Policy’, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (2020) pp. 1-16

(5) Jagland, Thorbjørn. ‘State of Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law: Populism – How strong are Europe’s checks and balances?’, Council of Europe, (2017) pp.1-122

(6)  Abbas, ‘Far Right and Islamist Radicalisation in an Age of Austerity’

(7) Kenway, Emily. The Truth About Modern Slavery, (Pluto Press: London, 2021)

(8) Hutchinson, Jade. ‘Violent Extremism and Far-Right Radicalism in Australia: A Psychosocial Perspective’, Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 9:11, (2017) pp.16-19

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