Radicalism in the EU: soft power and elements of internal soft balancing

The EU faces today the challenge of Islamic radicalism. Its internal security is threatened by the emergence of radical Islam in the Middle East and its appeal to individuals of Muslim faith in Europe. In a way, terrorism threatens stability and internal security through a spill-over effect that leads to the creation of radical microcosms in Europe.

Issues concerning the EU’s internal security are interconnected in a complex, multifaceted way and the EU’s external security is in a world where transition and fluidity are almost inherent features of unstable security systems and sub-systems such as the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Internal balancing refers to the use of soft power. The concept was first introduced by Joseph Nye and meant to challenge the traditional Realist concept of power associated with the disposal of military means and thus, hard power. By definition soft and hard power refer to different means, strategies, concepts, approaches to security issues. Soft power is based on the utility and assumed force of persuasion. In terms of means to be used, soft power needs a strong spatial and time dimension since nominal outcomes are expected on a long term basis.

Having in mind the rather limited interaction framework between Islam and Christianity, an inclusion strategy is by default a painstaking task. The cultural and normative gap between Islam and the rest in the EU is a multilevel challenge for all sides. At the very basis of the problem lies the realization of a triple aim, namely, mutual understanding, acceptance and policies of inclusion.  

Under this spectrum, a causational approach to what attracts certain Muslim Europeans to jihadism is required in order to decode motives, cognitive biases and reactions to their respective milieu. This process will allow identification of internal balancing tools in order to deal with sources of radicalization. Approaches are not characterized by unanimity due to different evaluation criteria. This is a critical point when looking for a counter-terrorism policy, especially one that builds upon a soft power policy.  

Internal balancing builds upon a cognitive process of balancing ideas and extreme beliefs. The aim is to influence the process of indoctrination that takes place and affects personal beliefs and behavior. If radicalism takes place in different steps, it targets early stages. It is a cognitive process and should be analyzed within a causational approach framework.  

Soft power should be seen as a means of socialization, a route to inclusion and positive interaction. At this point another crucial question rises. Is there such a thing as moderate Islam to apply soft power? The answer should be given on a need-to-create basis in order to support modest Muslims who have adopted an open-minded approach to otherness. As a consequence, if there is no such a thing as moderate Islam then there is a strong need to invent it. This should be constructed on a capabilities-expectations realistic axis and the need to transform cognitive elements of evaluation on both sides (Muslim and Non-Muslim). This will eventually define outcomes and above all, expectations. Such a strategy has no guarantees for success; a view based on empirical evidence referring to the limits of interaction between Islam and the rest of the world.

Looking into the ontology of EU soft power a crucial question arises. Is soft power a useful tool (the utility factor of soft power) to deal with internal security issues? The answer may have a nominal value since the EU is or claims to be a transformative power appeal, that is transformative on the basis of attraction. Under this spectrum, dealing with radicalism is a hard goal in an effort to build bridges across cultures and religions. As a consequence, two interrelated issues come to the surface.

  • How to deal with the internal face or externalization of external security issues, meaning with threats emanating from the EU’s internal space;
  • How external security threatens the EU’s internal security through spill-over effects and the spread of radicalism among European citizens of Muslim faith.

The use of soft power does not refer to the EU as being “soft” on terrorism. It is rather based on a provide-sticks operational methodology. Persuasion should be taken on a face value, seen under a realistic spectrum. If power is conventionally defined as the ability to alter the behavior of others then it should be applied with consistency, attraction and above all persuasion.

There is a clear need for internal “soft balancing” of radicalism or potential radical microcosms within Europe. The EU has always been a tolerant cultural environment open to cultural and religious diversity, but in the past radicalism was not a defining parameter of internal security.

A side-problem refers to the fact that European “culture”, just like European identities, is not a uniform value but reflects the diversity of an ever expanding Union of states with different cultural and religious backgrounds constructed on a national framework. Having in mind that cultural traits may cause – and at times have caused – cognitive schisms in evaluating otherness, terrorism has added to suspicion towards Muslims. When dealing with internal security, military or police measures are not enough to deal with potential or potentially emerging threats. There is a clear need for balancing mechanisms of threats formulated at the cognitive level before they are externalized. The former is a stage where soft power may have significance and produce desired outcomes, while the latter refers to an outcome that cannot be reversed.

Internal balancing refers directly to the cognitive process of radicalization. Soft power can operate as an internal balancer only during the first stages of the radicalization process or when the process does not accelerate in a way beyond the actual capacity of balancing mechanisms to change, alter individual attitudes. Once balancing fails, the process cannot by default deal with terrorists or potential terrorists. This illustrates the time limitation of intervention in formulating radical ideas.  

The ontology of the appeal or terrorism to certain European Muslims leads to a substantive question, namely, has diversity failed in a space that has always meant to be diversified by default? Political and social realities rarely stand a yes or no answer. This is the case simply because the social world is extremely complex and affected by numerous given.

In practical terms what is suggested is the adoption of a policy based on enhancing the role of moderate Islam by re-instituting the EU as a normative power, as a model to follow. The fight against terrorism in Europe should take place in every single mosque in European cities in an orchestrated effort to establish workable internal balancing antibodies to extremists. The suggested strategy is by no means the way to guaranteed success. Yet, police measures, exclusion, isolation and demonization cannot offer the required social, cognitive milieu for an inter-cultural approach.

The above suggestions underpin the need for:

  1. An elaborate approach to internal security and the need to apply soft power.
  2. The sole use of hard power within the EU is not an option as it is bound not to affect “hearts and minds”.
  3. Soft power should be seen as part of an overall smart power strategy differentiated in terms of space, intensity and scope.
  4. Soft power should be used in a way that makes sense to a target group whose cognitive biases are non-western, non-Christian even non-liberal and are formulated under specific circumstances. As plausibly suggested by Irshad Manji and Mohammed S. Dajani (2015), “the difference between “reformist” Muslims and “moderates” is not semantic. The latter term is misleading because many “moderate” Muslims exhibit all the traits of orthodoxy, including dogma and a fear of challenging their communities’ groupthink. The qualities associated with religious moderation are positive and desirable as a goal, but they are inadequate as a means to realize positive change in Islam. Although Islam has the potential to be wise and tolerant, it has been deeply corrupted, and rooting out this corruption requires something more potent – even radical – than moderation. It requires reform”.

Under the cognitive and operational basis of this analysis soft power is associated mainly but not exclusively with the EU’s internal security and specific needs to be covered under the impact of the spread of terrorism. The basic elements of the EU’s soft power within its extended territorial base are or should be constructed on the need to:

  1. Persuade a diversified European public that radicalism is a common threat to the peaceful co-existence of European citizens in a multi-cultural Europe.
  2. Establish multilevel links among various cultures and religions in order to enhance mutual understanding. Under this backdrop, an important role should be attributed not only to governments but also to the local level (i.e. municipalities), CSOs (i.e. those ones of Muslim-Christian composition), cultural institutions.
  3. Support moderate Islam or trigger an open dialogue as far as the merits of constructing moderate Islam microcosms are concerned (see, RAND Proposes Blueprint for Building Moderate Muslim Networks).

What has been argued demands the inclusion of Muslim communities in European strategies in the quest to deal with radicalism. Soft power is a means to avoid cognitive zero-sum-games in a way that provides carrots in the form, inter alia, tolerance, inclusion and participation. Failures in these fields are ideological and operational tools in the hands of radicals who have actually targeted moderate Muslims. As Jessica Stern wrote on the Boston Globe (2016), “attacks in the West would seem to put ISIS’s state-running project at risk because they invite massive retaliation. But ISIS has spelled out a third goal – to eliminate what it calls the ‘gray zone’ of moderate Islam, practiced by individuals living in the West, and to make moderate Muslims feel unsafe as a result of prejudice”.

George Voskopoulos

Associate Professor of European Studies at the University of Macedonia
Thessaloniki, Greece


Benard C. (2015) “‘Moderate Islam’ Isn’t Working”, The National Interest, December 20th, retrieved from bit.ly/2armruI.

Ibrahim R. (2016) “”Radical” vs. “Moderate” Islam: A Muslim View”, Gatestone Institute, retrieved from bit.ly/2aC8hq8.

Manji I. & Dajani M. S. (2015), “Is There a ‘Moderate’ Islam?”, The Washington Institute, December 16th, retrieved from bit.ly/2aCbnuf.

Nye Joseph S. (2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, review by G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004.

Oxford Dictionary, Definition of “Power”, retrieved from bit.ly/2aGnHus.

Stern J. (2016) “ISIS targets ‘gray zone’ of moderate Islam”, Boston Globe, March 23th. Retrieved from bit.ly/2aGr4BS.

Voskopoulos G.(ed.). (2007) Transatlantic Relations and European Integration, Realities and Dilemmas, ICFAI University Press, Hyderabad, India. Retrieved from bit.ly/2asH4Vh.

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