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Extremism means, literally, "the equalilty or state of being extreme" or "the advocacy of extreme measures or views". [1]


The term is primarily used in a political or religious sense, to refer to an ideology that is considered (by the speaker or by some implied shared social consensus) to be far outside the mainstream attitudes of society. [2] It can also be used in an economic context. The term is usually meant to be pejorative. However, it may also be used in a more academic, purely descriptive, non-condemning sencse.

Extremists views are typically contrasted with those of moderates. In Western countries for example, in contemporary discourse on Islam or on Islamic political movements, the distinction between extremist and moderate Muslims is commonly stressed. [3]

Political agendas perceived as extremist often include those from the far-left politics or far-right politics as well as radicalism, reactionism, fundamentalism and fanaticism.


There have been many different definitions of "extremism". Peter T. Coleman and Andrea Bartoli give observation of definitions: [4] Extremism is a complex phenomenon, although its complexity is often hard to see. Most simply, it can be defined as activities (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, strategies) of a character far removed from the ordinary. In conflict settings it manifests as a severe form of conflict engagement. However, the labeling of activities, people, and groups as "extremist", and the defining of what is "ordinary" in any setting is always a subjective and political matter. Thus, we suggest that any discussion of extremism be mindful of the following: Typically, the same extremist act will be viewed by some as just and moral (such as pro-social "freedom fighting"), and by others as unjust and immoral (antisocial "terrorism") depending on the observer's values, politics, moral scope, and the nature of their relationship with the actor. In addition, one's sense of the moral or immoral nature of a given act of extremism (such as Nelson Mandela's use of guerilla war tactics against the South African Government) may change as conditions (leadership, world opinion, crises, historical accounts, etc.) change. Thus, the current and historical context of extremist acts shapes our view of them. Power differences also matter when defining extremism. When in conflict, the activities of members of low power groups tend to be viewed as more extreme than similar activities committed by members of groups advocating the status quo.

In addition, extreme acts are more likely to be employed by marginalized people and groups who view more normative forms of conflict engagement as blocked for them or biased. However, dominant groups also commonly employ extreme activities (such as governmental sanctioning of violent paramilitary groups or the attack in Waco by the FBI in the U.S.).

Extremist acts often employ violent means, although extremist groups will differ in their preference for violent vs. non-violent tactics, in the level of violence they employ, and in the preferred targets of their violence (from infrastructure to military personnel to civilians to children). Again, low power groups are more likely to employ direct, episodic forms of violence (such as suicide bombings), whereas dominant groups tend to be associated with more structural or institutionalized forms (like the covert use of torture or the informal sanctioning of police brutality). [4]

Although extremist individuals and groups are often viewed as cohesive and consistently evil, it is important to recognize that they may be conflicted or ambivalent psychologically as individuals, or contain difference and conflict within their groups. For instance, individual members of Hamas may differ considerably in their willingness to negotiate their differences with the Palestinian Authority and, ultimately, with certain factions in Israel. Ultimately, the core problem that extremism presents in situations of protracted conflict is less the severity of the activities (although violence, trauma, and escalation are obvious concerns) but more so the closed, fixed, and intolerant nature of extremist attitudes, and their subsequent imperviousness to change. [4]

Theories of extremism

Eric Hoffer and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. were two political writers during the mid-20th century who gave what purported to be accounts of "political extremism". Hoffer wrote The True Believer and The Passionate State of Mind about the psychology and sociology of those who join "fanatical" mass movements. Schlesinger wrote The Vital Center, championing a supposed "center" of politics within which "mainstream" political discourse takes place, and underscoring the alleged need for societies to draw definite lines regarding what falls outside of this acceptability.

Seymour Martin Lipset argued that besides the extremism of the left and right there is also an extremism of the center, and that it actually formed the base of fascism. [5]

Laird Wilcox identifies 21 alleged traits of a "political extremist", ranging from "a tendency to character assassination" and hateful behaviour like "name calling and labelling", to general character traits like "a tendency to view opponents and critics as essentially evil", "a tendency to substitute intimidation for argument" or "groupthink". [6]

"Extremism" is not a stand-alone characteristic. The attitude or behavior of an "extremist" may be represented as part of a spectrum, which ranges from mild interest through "obsession" to "fanaticism" and "extremism". The alleged similarity between the "extreme left" and "extreme right", or perhaps between opposing religious zealots, may mean only that all these are "unacceptable" from the standpoint of a supposed mainstream or majority.

Economist Ronald Wintrobe [7] argues that many extremist movements, even though having completely different ideologies, share a common set of characteristics. As an example, he lists the following common characteristics between "Jewish fundamentalists" and "the extremists of Hamas": [8]


Among the explanations for extremism is one that views it as a plague. name=aditya [Arno Gruen]] said, "The lack of identity associated with extremists is the result of self-destructive self-hatred that leads to feelings of revenge toward life itself, and a compulsion to kill one's own humanness." Extremism is seen as not a tactic, nor an ideology, but as a pathological illness which feeds on the destruction of life. [4] Dr. Kathleen Taylor believes religious fundamentalism is a mental illness and that is "curable." [9]

Another view is that extremism is an emotional outlet for severe feelings stemming from "persistent experiences of oppression, insecurity, humiliation, resentment, loss, and rage" which are presumed to "lead individuals and groups to adopt conflict engagement strategies which "fit" or feel consistent with these experiences". [4]

Extremism is seen by other researchers as a "rational strategy in a game over power", [4] as described in the works of Eli Berman.

In a 2018 study at University College London, scientists have demonstrated that people with extreme political views (both extreme right and extreme left) had significantly worse metacognition, or the ability of a person to recognize they are wrong and modify their views when presented with contrary evidence, thus creating an opinion that supports only their idea of wrong and right. People found on either of the political extremes were shown to have much greater (but misplaced) confidence in their beliefs, and resisted change. [10]

A 2019 study found that political extremism on both the left and right tended to have four common psychological features: psychological distress stimulates the adoption of an extreme ideological outlook, extreme ideologies tend to have relatively simplistic black-white perceptions of the social world, said mental simplicity causes overconfidence in judgements and political extremists are less tolerant of different groups and opinions than moderates. [11]


After being accused of extremism, Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the mainstream usage of the term in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, ″But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice…Was not Martin Luther an extremist…So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?″ [12] [13]

Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention, said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." [14]

Robert F. Kennedy said "What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."

In Russia, the laws prohibiting extremist content are used (both by poorly trained officials and as part of an intentional politics to suppress opposition)[ citation needed ] to suppress the freedom of speech through very broad and flexible interpretation. [15] Published material classified as "extremist", and thus prosecuted, included protests against the court rulings in the Bolotnaya Square case ("calling for illegal action"), criticism of overspending by a local governor ("insult of the authorities"), publishing a poem in support of Ukraine ("inciting hatred"), [16] [17] an open letter against a war in Chechnya by the writer Polina Zherebcova, [18] the Jehovah's Witnesses movement in Russia, [19] Raphael Lemkin, and articles by the initiator of the Genocide Convention of 1948. [20]

Other terms

Since the 1990s, in United States politics the term Sister Souljah moment has been used to describe a politician's public repudiation of an allegedly extremist person or group, statement, or position which might otherwise be associated with his own party.[ citation needed ]

The term "subversive" was often used interchangeably, in the United States at least, with "extremist" during the Cold War period, although the two words are not synonymous.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

Fundamentalism usually has a religious connotation that indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs. However, fundamentalism has come to be applied to a tendency among certain groups – mainly, although not exclusively, in religion – that is characterized by a markedly strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining ingroup and outgroup distinctions, leading to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which advocates believe members have strayed. Rejection of diversity of opinion as applied to these established "fundamentals" and their accepted interpretation within the group often results from this tendency.

Islamic fundamentalism Muslims who seek to return to the fundamentals of the Islamic religion

Islamic fundamentalism has been defined as a movement of Muslims who regard earlier times favorably and seek to return to the fundamentals of the Islamic religion and live similarly to how the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his companions lived. Islamic fundamentalists favor "a literal and originalist interpretation" of the primary sources of Islam, seek to eliminate "corrupting" non-Islamic influences from every part of their lives and see "Islamic fundamentalism" as a pejorative term used by outsiders for Islamic revivalism and Islamic activism.

Religious terrorism is a type of religious violence where terrorism is used as a tactic to achieve religious goals or which are influenced by religious identity.

Militant means vigorously active, combative and aggressive, especially in support of a cause, as in "militant reformers". It comes from the 15th century Latin "militare" meaning "to serve as a soldier". The related modern concept of the militia as a defensive organization against invaders grew out of the Anglo-Saxon fyrd. In times of crisis, the militiaman left his civilian duties and became a soldier until the emergency was over, when he returned to his civilian occupation.

Moderate is an ideological category which designates a rejection of radical or extreme views, especially in regard to politics and religion. A moderate is considered someone occupying any mainstream position avoiding extreme views and major social change. In United States politics, a moderate is considered someone occupying a centre position on the left–right political spectrum.

Hisham Kabbani American Sufi leader

Muhammad Hisham Kabbani is a Lebanese-American Sufi Muslim. Kabbani has counseled and advised Muslim leaders to build community resilience against violent extremism. His criticism of extremism has stirred controversy among some American Muslims. In 2012 the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre named him one of the top 500 most influential Muslims. His notable students include the world-famous boxer Muhammad Ali and former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America is a 1992 book by John George and Laird Wilcox. It is an examination of political extremism of both the far left and far right in the United States.

Jihadism 21-century Western neologism to describe armed Islamist movements

"Jihadism" is a 21st-century neologism found in Western languages to describe Islamist movements perceived as military movements "rooted in Islam" and "existentially threatening" to the West. It has been described as a "difficult term to define precisely", because it remains a recent neologism with no single, generally accepted meaning. The term "jihadism" first appeared in South Asian media; Western journalists adopted it in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks of 2001. It has since been applied to various insurgent and terrorist movements whose ideology is based on the Islamic notion of jihad.

Laird Wilcox American writer

Laird Maurice Wilcox is an American researcher specializing in the study of political fringe movements. He is the founder of the "Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements," said to be one of the largest collections of American political material in the United States. It is housed in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas. Wilcox worked as carpenter, investigator and writer while living in Olathe, Kansas.

Islamic extremism is any form of Islam that opposes "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs." Related terms include Islamist extremism, fundamentalism and radical Islam. It is not to be confused with Islamism, which is politicized Islam. Islamic terrorism or Jihadism is very often the result of Islamic extremism, although not in every case.

Chip Berlet American political analyst

John Foster "Chip" Berlet is an American investigative journalist, research analyst, photojournalist, scholar, and activist specializing in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the United States. He also studies the spread of conspiracy theories. Since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Berlet has often appeared in the media to discuss extremist news stories. He was a senior analyst at Political Research Associates (PRA), a non-profit group that tracks right-wing networks.

Radicalization is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly radical political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that reject or undermine the status quo or contemporary ideas and expressions of the nation. The outcomes of radicalization are shaped by the ideas of the society at large; for example, radicalism can originate from a broad social consensus against progressive changes in society or from a broad desire for change in society. Radicalization can be both violent and nonviolent, although most academic literature focuses on radicalization into violent extremism (RVE). There are multiple pathways that constitute the process of radicalization, which can be independent but are usually mutually reinforcing.

Institute for Strategic Dialogue organization

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) is a London-based think tank concerned with extremism. Its Founding CEO is Sasha Havlicek.

Autonome Nationalisten

Autonome Nationalisten are German, British, Dutch and to a lesser degree Flemish neo-Nazis, who have adopted some of the far left and Antifa's organizational concepts, demonstration tactics, symbolism, and elements of clothing, including Che Guevara T-shirts and keffiyehs. Similar groups have also appeared in some central and eastern European countries, beginning with Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Romania and Greece and others.

Radical right (United States) Political preference that leans towards extreme conservatism and anti-socialism

In United States politics, the radical right is a political preference that leans towards extreme conservatism, anti-socialism, and other right-wing beliefs in hierarchical structure. The term was first used by social scientists in the 1950s regarding small groups such as the John Birch Society in the United States and since then it has been applied to similar groups worldwide.

Jihadist extremism in the United States refers to Islamic extremism occurring within the United States. Islamic extremism is adherence to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, potentially including the promotion of violence to achieve political goals. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Islamic extremism became a prioritized national security concern of the United States government and a focus by many subsidiary security and law enforcement entities. Initially, the focus of concern was on foreign terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda, but in the course of the years since 9/11 the focus has shifted more towards Islamic extremism within the United States. The number of American citizens or long-term residents involved in extremist activity is small, but nevertheless is a national security concern.

The White House released the United States' first strategy to address "ideologically inspired" violence in August 2011. Entitled Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, the eight page document outlines "how the Federal Government will support and help empower American communities and their local partners in their grassroots efforts to prevent violent extremism." The strategy was followed in December 2011 by a more detailed Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States. The National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners and the strategic implementation plan (SIP) resulted from the identification of violent extremism and terrorism inspired by "al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents" as the "preeminent security threats" to the United States by the 2010 National Security Strategy and the 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism. Regardless of the priorization of the threat from al-Qaeda's ideology, both the strategy and SIP are geared towards all types of extremism without focus on a particular ideology.

Islamic Extremism is any form of Islam that opposes "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs." These extreme beliefs have led to radical actions in the past across the Middle East, and Egypt itself has a long history of these radical and extreme sects of Islam with roots dating back to around 660 CE. Islamic extremism in Egypt has been the cause of much terrorism and controversy in the country in the 20th century, and still continues to be a main issue in the current Egyptian society. The main conflict between Islamic extremists and the government officials throughout history stems from two major issues: “the formation of the modern nation-state and the political and cultural debate over its ideological direction.”

Violent extremism is a form of extremism that condones and enacts violence with ideological or deliberate intent, such as religious or political violence. Violent extremist views can manifest in connection with a range of issues, including politics, religion and gender relations. No society, religious community, or worldview is immune to violent extremism. Though "radicalization" is a contested term, its general use has come to regard the process by which an individual or group adopts violence as a desirable and legitimate means of action. Extremist thought that does not condone the exercise of violence may be accepted within society, and be promoted by groups working within the boundaries of legally permitted activity. The term "violent extremism" may also occur as a code name for Islamic terrorism.

Online youth radicalization is the action in which a young individual, or a group of people come to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that reject or undermine the status quo or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions of the nation. As for radicalization, online youth radicalization can be both violent or non-violent.


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