Brussels attacks: How rhetoric radicalises

The radicalising effect of violent Republican rhetoric on prospective ISIL recruits should not be overlooked.

Trump at AIPAC
If Trump is 'liberal America's nightmare', a Trump presidency is the propaganda arm of ISIL's dream, writes Beydoun [EPA]

If you thought the hateful rhetoric from the United States Republican Party candidates could get no worse, Tuesday’s Belgium attacks are sure to up the ante.

The horrific acts in Brussels claimed the lives of 34 innocents, and left hundreds more injured, reigniting fear of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) radicalisation, only five months after the terror network claimed responsibility of the Paris attacks.

However, what the world saw as an immeasurable tragedy, leading Republican candidates pounced on as an invaluable opportunity – namely, an opportunity to not only advance the Islamophobic slander that drives up ratings and delivers voters.

But, more dangerously, intensifying such rhetoric only emboldens extremists in their camps and arms ISIL militants with the propaganda needed to advance their apocalyptic vision – in Belgium, the United States, and beyond.

Converging extremisms

Much blood has been spilled as a consequence of ISIL extremism – the vast majority of it Muslim blood and many words written about the radicalising effect of their ideology, and the marketing of it to impressionable Muslims in Europe and North America.

However, sparse if any attention has been paid to the radicalising effect of Donald Trump’s bombast against Islam, Ted Cruz’s hate-mongering campaign, and the blatant “us versus them” narrative pushed by both fringe and established figures within the Republic Party.

This narrative, which posits the “Islam that hates us” as the ideological opposite and existential opponent of the US, is the very worldview held by ISIL.

In the US, Cruz and most notably Trump are moving from state to state peddling a mutated form of Islamophobia to fringe segments of the Republican Party – disenchanted with the latent racism and bigotry of its establishment.

It is the rhetoric that equips ISIL with an endless supply of propaganda to present to potential recruits, and mainstream political figures and television fixtures - especially Trump - as the living incarnate of American evil.


The brazen rhetoric, in the form of fully fledged “Muslim bans” and “making the desert glow“, is what they have been craving, and Trump – with Cruz not far behind in both delegates and bluster – are more that happy to deliver.

Across the Atlantic, ISIL is likewise peddling the same “West versus Islam” banner. Mainly in Europe, most notably states such as France and Belgium, where endless populations of disaffected Muslims live on the legal and geographic fringes.

Nearly six percent of Belgium’s population of 11.2 million are Muslims, with roughly half living in Brussels. Therefore, nearly a quarter of Belgium’s capital is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are marred by poverty, religious and racial discrimination, and a widespread belief that Muslim identity cannot be reconciled with Belgian identity.

Poverty, discrimination and isolation within Belgian and French Muslim ghettoes – or banlieues – makes for fertile recruitment soil for ISIL. Their message of “the West hates Islam” is turning Trump’s polemic on its head, mobilising young disaffected Muslims in Europe’s ghettos “to become a mujahidin” – and to take the radical step, immediately satisfying and life-changing, to obtain meaning through self-sacrifice.

Similarly, the violent Republic rhetoric pitting the “US versus Islam” is radicalising scores of disaffected Americans – largely white working class with strong anti-establishment feelings – to enlist with presidential hopefuls promising modern religious crusade.

Timeline: Attacks in Europe since 2004

However, this revitalised, radical wing of the Republic Party is no longer fringe – as shown by nearly two-thirds of the party supporting the Islamophobic policies proposed by Trump.

This figure is sure to spike upwards after the Belgium attacks, vividly illustrating that the radicalisation spawned by the Republican rhetoric is mobilising scores of ideological extremists stateside, but also abetting the radicalisation of Muslims recruits in Europe, and possibly, inside the US.

Abetting ISIL

Only hours after the Belgium attack, Cruz said: “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalised.” Expressing that radicalisation was a process exclusive to Muslims; and second, that entire neighborhoods, not fringe individuals, were prone to extremism.

OPINION: The slaughter of the innocent in Brussels

Cruz’s proposal is not new. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policing of Muslim American communities is well under way, and has been piloted in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis since 2014. The New York Police Department has been spying on mosques, community centres, and other Muslim geographies since 2002.

However, much of CVE policing’s success is based upon its operational ambiguity and the intended ignorance it creates. It is clandestine and quiet – nothing like the loud, lurid and in-your-face demonisation of Trump and Cruz.

It is the rhetoric that equips ISIL with an endless supply of propaganda to present to potential recruits, and mainstream political figures and television fixtures – especially Trump – as the living incarnate of American evil.

OPINION: Brussels attacks: EU’s terror problem will get worse

Trump – a Wall Street-bred, no-holds-barred, entitled and angry villain that represents the worse of the US – is framed by ISIL as the poster-politician spearheading the “war on Islam” to pools of potential recruits in Europe and the US.

If Trump is “liberal America’s nightmare“, a Trump presidency is the propaganda arm of ISIL’s dream.

‘Just the beginning’

The radicalising effect of violent Republican rhetoric on prospective ISIL recruits should not be overlooked, and understating it only enhances the peril to the US.

While countering radicalisation has focused exclusively on Islam as a source, and Muslim as culprits, broadening that frame to include other extremist ideologies must be explored.


As illustrated by the 2016 presidential campaign in the US, these extremist ideologies no longer exist on the American fringe but are fully entwined into mainstream political discourse, and championed by presidential frontrunners. Their radical rhetoric is galvanising bigots, emboldening violence, and most dangerously, endorsing the apocalyptic confrontation peddled by ISIL.

Trump may very well be right about saying “this is just the beginning“. Especially if he is elected president in November, and the radical slanders delivered for votes are no longer campaign rhetoric, but become the sanctioned speech and policy of the US government.

Extremists representing the worse of the US, and ISIL faithful embodying the worse of Islam, are both pulling for that very result.

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.