The Many Faces of Extremism

Extremism has always existed although it is since the 9/11 attacks that many people around the world began to fear it. As extremism is a complex phenomenon, scholars and policy makers have significant differences as to what extremism is and is not. Desmond Tutu defined extremism this way: “when you do not allow for a different point of view; when you hold your own views as being quite exclusive, when you don’t allow for the possibility of difference” [1].

Another useful way to think about extremism is “as activities (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, strategies) of a person or group far removed from the ordinary” [2]. It is clear though that the terms ‘ordinary’ and ‘extremist’ are highly subjective and are thus often and easily politicized. Extremism is the farthest out because there is nothing beyond the extreme.

Extremism is something very relative: for some it is the status quo that is the problem, while for others it is the change that some groups are calling for that labels them as radical. And when it comes to violent extremism, a group might be perceived as freedom fighters, but for others they are considered terrorists. However, these tendencies are constructed, either by political leaders who depend on extremist views to gain and hold onto power, or other dominant groups that label marginalized groups such as feminist or environmentalist as extremists in an attempt to defend their privilege. This stark contrast can be explained in terms of the different value systems held by the observers.

Very often, it is the historical and current political context that determines political perceptions; a good case in point is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Another key factor is power, which plays a critical role for the observer when talking about an extremist group, whether that group is a state or a non-state actor. Extremists are regularly associated with violence, whereby it is the term radicalization that is often used to express the process of challenging the status quo with violence [3]. This can lead to fundamentalism in order to reclaim some perceived loss from earlier times [4].

Contrary to widespread perception, extremism is not necessarily violent. In fact, extremists might call for non-violent means to overcome cultural and structural violence (like sexism or girls not being allowed to go to school), concepts developed by the peace researcher Johan Galtung [5]. Overcoming social injustice, or a status quo of inequality, is interpreted as something positive by many social movements. It is the use of violence that stands out as the most controversial part about how to bring about change. Many civil society groups who want to help creatively and constructively transform their societies reject its use.

The phenomenon of extremism can be explained by social identity theory that analyzes from a psychological perspective why group identification pushes members into an “in-group” while devaluing the “out-group,” ultimately leading to polarization [6]. This can and often does lead to extremist views about the other and the acceptance of that labeling by certain groups. In the latter case, extremists use public actions to draw attention to their cause (like some animal rights activists) so that others might become sensitized to this cause and attracted enough to join the movement.

On the downside, extremists often use physical violence that causes harm, death and destruction. Moreover, their violent strategy usually alienates potential allies because it goes against their values and worldview. But from the extremists’ point of view, these actions and strategies are righteous and essential because they are finally taking action to respond to previous experiences of humiliation or loss. It is therefore important to point out that extremism is rational [2] and its resultant acts understood as justifiable.

For many people extremism has a pejorative connotation that expresses clear disapproval of the ‘extremist’ thoughts and actions. In the post-9/11 world, extremism is often negatively linked to Islam, as well as with terrorism. However, this short paper will try to expand this limited view of extremism and include other dimensions as well, particularly political and social extremism. Finally, deradicalization is discussed to present some of today’s strategies that try to overcome violent extremist attitudes—that seem to be so resistant to change.

Political extremism

Over the years, multiple forms of political extremism have evolved, including totalitarian regimes (like Nazism, fascism or Soviet-style communism), rampaging military (like Japan or Indonesia), or extreme ethno-nationalism (like in Serbia, Croatia, or Rwanda). Particularly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the phrase extremism in the political space was coined, as other European governments feared that the Communists would overthrow their regime as well. Political extremism is not necessarily promoting physical violence, although it usually includes cultural and structural violence against “the other” (usually a minority, whether religious, ethnic, political, or racial). - political extremism with pegida
Political extremism is often linked to right-extremist groups like Pegida in Germany (c) BBC

Much of the academic literature has focused on right-wing extremism in Western Europe due to the experience of fascism in the inter-war period but also because it has been perceived as an anti-democratic force that undermines Western values [7] [8](Knigge, 1998). These views are often based on the research of Adorno in the 1950s related to the concept of an authoritarian person who ultimately rejects pluralism and egalitarianism and speaks out for aggressive nationalism and against minorities.

Extreme right-wing parties themselves are characterized by their anti-system ideology and their narratives that are directed against the current political culture, mixed (most of the time) with ethno-nationalist perspectives and racist attitudes. Thus, the issue of immigration is usually high on the agenda for right-wing extremists, arguing for discrimination against foreigners.

Extreme right-wing parties usually use strategies that shift the narratives in their country towards their position. They try to shift public opinion in a manner that makes formerly unacceptable positions in politics “normal” in their context. It is often men, small-business owners, the very young as well as the old and socio-economically volatile people that vote for these parties. Despite recent success of right-wing extremists in Europe, it is important to remember that their electoral success is usually not strong over the long term [9].

The consumption of media plays a large role in potentially fostering political extremism [10]. Although the internet and social media have enormously democratized our access to media, they have at the same time become very polarizing, as seen in the current election cycle in the United States. As long as individuals limit their online presence to their own group, there is a likelihood of them becoming increasingly radicalized through a process of singular thinking and narrow opinion development, potentially leading to hatred and even violence [11]. Thus, the internet has fragmented societies and we can see an ever more aggressive interaction in play in this medium. It seems the internet doesn’t allow much space for disagreement, but rather has become a place to trump the other.

Extremist views are relatively uninformed about policy suggestions from different political groups, although some people have very strong opinions about certain topics like climate change, health care or poverty. It is often “unjustified confidence” of people who have relatively little knowledge but when asked to provide more substantial arguments, have a difficult time to do so. By simply having them discuss in more breadth and detail their extreme views on political issues, the participants of a psychological study had their assumptions challenged and ultimately moderated their positions on political topics [12].

Social extremism

One form of extremism that is often neglected is social extremism. We understand that social phenomena of exclusion and/or domination of others are important to keep in mind as well when we talk about extremism. In this paper, only sexism and racism will be discussed briefly, although other social phenomena could be included, like homophobia or xenophobia. In fact, the exclusion of others may be based “on sex, race, color, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation” [13]. That kind of discrimination is often linked with political extremism because political parties or movements exploit such prejudices.

When we address the issue of racism, we need to differentiate between active and passive racism. Active racism is openly expressing pejorative comments about racial groups in order to subjugate them. What also should be kept in mind is passive racism because it is much more hidden. It includes beliefs, attitudes, and actions that maintain a racist system although there is no advocacy for violence, yet forms of psychological and emotional violence are clearly in play. Such a passive racist attitude can be conscious or unconscious and includes laughing at racist jokes or remaining silent when one sees racist actions.

While racism is widespread around the world and in all countries and citizens seem to be affected by it to a lesser or greater degree, it is still extremism following the definition of archbishop Tutu: It does not allow space to hear another opinion other than one’s own. More importantly, it does not respect the dignity of the other or honor their humanity. - sexism
Sexism is a form of social extremism (c)

In the case of sexism, it is often deeply rooted in many societies around the world. While it affects any gender, it is particular to women and girls who do not have equal opportunities as do men and boys and who are often treated in inferior ways. Equal freedom and being encouraged to gain personal fulfillment are basic demands of feminists that are fiercely rejected in some parts of the world.

Yet it is clear that women earn less wages than men, are more likely to have jobs where they cannot advance and they spend much more time in domestic activities [14]. Sexual violence is the extreme form of how sexism expresses itself, degrading women to a sexual object and not allowing her voice and choices to be heard. The fact that 35% of women worldwide have suffered at one point from sexual violence [15], points to how normal and ordinary extreme forms of sexism  have become today.

Religious extremism

In comparison to mainstream religions, sectarian groups follow a more particular reading of the sacred texts, usually in tension with the rest of society. According to Liebman, it is particularly the reach of those groups not only into the private realm but also the public one that makes those sects extremist [16]. At the same time, religious extremists isolate themselves from mainstream society and try to reject the values that are interpreted as alien to the own religious traditions. In the 21st Century, such a position is difficult to uphold, but religious extremist groups have their own media outlets like newspapers, radio and television stations as well as social media that allows for a high degree of control of their followers. - religious extremism
Religious extremism is concerning all religions (c)

While all religious groups attempt to provide public goods for their members, it is even more important for extremist sectarian groups to do so because it justifies the sacrifices their members need to make and accept the prohibitions that help define the group. Examples are Hezbollah, ultra-orthodox Jews or some U.S. Christian groups that have successfully engaged in “good” activities like schools, health care and social services [17]. Extremist groups do that in their own best interest because it is connected to the hope of gaining more followers and keeping those already within their network.

Religious extremists usually cause no direct harm to society but it is becoming problematic when the state suppresses religion because it often leads to the radicalization of those groups and can eventually turn them to violence [18]. Thus, “to equate religious extremism with religious militancy is a serious error (and, in many instances, a political ploy)” [18]. It is therefore religious freedom that is key for reducing the risk of radicalizing sects to violence.

Sometimes, the pressure of turning to violent extremism can also come from within, as the example of Hamas demonstrates. Hamas existed for decades as the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, and followed a non-violent agenda that stressed personal piety and political Islam. It was not until the First Intifada in 1987 when secular nationalists seemed to undermine the support of Hamas that they switched to a more violence oriented theology, finding in the Quran justification for this radical thinking. It is a clear example of how the most sacred texts for a group can be reinterpreted in a short time span to adjust to and attempt to improve upon their standing with their constituents [18].

Yet, religious extremism can be fostered or sponsored by the state or political parties. An example is Indonesia where Sharia Law plays an ever increasing role, despite the multicultural tradition over many centuries [19]. Another example is the concept of Hindutva, a right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology in India that promotes the idea that Muslims and Christians are not part on the Indian sub-continent and only became part of India when they “assimilate” themselves to the Hindu culture [20].

Violent extremism

After 9/11, terrorism has often been used as a synonym for violent extremism. Terrorism usually includes strategies and tactics that reflect the power imbalance related to their intended target. As the individual or group would have no chance on the battle field, it is suicide attacks or attacks against state infrastructure that proves the weakness of the state and allows for fear to emerge in the population [21]. Often, violent extremists hope for a response from the much more powerful target because it will allow them to garner more sympathizers due to the fact that the target often overreacts and disproportionally attacks the community of the terrorist, thus causing many civilian casualties and further grievance. -isis
DAESH is considered as one of the typical examples of violent extremism (c)

Many violent extremists want support from the moderates of their own group and hope that they will become radicalized as well. This is especially likely when the government that was attacked responds with counter-attacks that cause collateral damage. In cases like this, extremists usually receive more support. In fact, the terrorists who foster these attacks are trying to prove to own moderates that the other side is extremist. This logic is also why many scholars have emphasized that terrorist attacks are actually not carried out because of “deep-seated and irrational hatred,” but are actually based on a rational and cold-blooded decision to attack the other group.

Thus, Lake concludes that any country facing terrorist attacks is advised to show some restraint in responding to the attacks [21]. That is easier said than done because a “perceived [and actual] threat is considered the single best group-level predictor of exclusionism and intolerance” [22]. Therefore, it is up to leaders at all levels of society to show both restraint and find ways to constructively and non-violently respond to the threat or attack. The world has seen what happens when this doesn’t occur with further extremism being the result and cycles of violence lasting for decades.

According to a guide from USAID, seven drivers of violent extremism can be identified: 1) denial of basic rights and civil liberties; 2) harsh and brutal rule that includes gross violations of human rights; 3) widespread corruption with the perception of impunity for the elite; 4) bad governance and ungoverned areas; 5) protracted, violent local conflicts; 6) repressive regimes that are perceived as illegitimate; and 7) some extremist groups got support from the state but now lost control [23].

On a more individual basis, several other points can be identified: 1) emotional vulnerability with low self-esteem and confidence; 2) experience of injustice against their family or community; 3) the offer to join a “family” that cares about the individual; 4) having a sense of purpose in life; and 5) addressing political issues and grievances and offer ‘solutions’ to those who feel isolated/marginalized [24]. It is thus a complex web of reasons that lead to violent extremism, whether it is poverty, the lack of basic human needs or embedded injustice that often justifies violence. Extremism is thus often founded on grievance-based explanations like failed secular modernization projects, particularly in the Arab world [25].

After 9/11, the general perception in many parts of the world is that religious fundamentalists are the biggest threat of violent extremism (DAESH, Al-Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Taliban). The argument goes that they murder in the name of their God and they will receive an immediate afterlife reward thanks to their “martyrdom.” However, this view ignores the fact that many terrorist groups are not religious [18].

Also, religion is not “the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective” [26]. Finally, in contrast to widespread perception, Krueger and Malečková  show that in the Palestinian case it is the privileged and comparatively wealthy that are chosen to commit suicide attacks and not the uninformed or people who have nothing to lose [27].

How to deradicalize?

Much of the literature has been focusing on the question why people radicalize on an individual or collective basis and form violent extremist groups. In the last ten years or so, the question why people want to get away from violent extremism has become more popular. Thereby it is important to differentiate between two words: 1) disengagement is about behavioral change that includes leaving a group or changing one’s role within it. While values or ideals don’t necessarily change, it does require giving up achieving the change through violent means. 2) Deradicalization demands a cognitive shift, thus being receptive to other ideas that will allow for a fundamental change in understanding the world [28].

It is often violence that puts off people who have left violent extremist organizations because they get traumatized when a friend dies or what others experience on the battlefield. Another reason can be the disillusionment with the movement, seeing the incoherence of the leaders in regard to how they act in comparison to what they teach, as well as intellectual incoherencies which leads to questioning the ideology that directs the movement.

Even when people were not involved in violence it is usually this dissonance between the attitude to violence or other extreme actions and their own feelings about violence that caused them to question what was happening to them. The constant negativity about the outside world that may be linked with a missing sense of spirituality, also causes people to become stressed and disillusioned with the violent extremist group. They felt that they were put under surveillance all the time, were not free to move, think for themselves or even have their own emotional responses to the world around them.

At such point, it is particularly important that a person from the outside, from mainstream society, demonstrates support and sincere care, thus helping to get the person out of such a network. Also, former extremists point out that they sometimes had moved on with their life and wanted to have an ‘ordinary’ family life, and that the costs of being engaged in an extremist organization outweighed the benefits [24] [28]. What it really comes down to are the social and economic benefits experienced when one disengages and eventually deradicalizes.

It is often the family that plays an important role in “bringing home” the once radicalized individuals, as well as respected and trustworthy people who accompany these individuals through the change process. People such as clerics or former combatants are critical actors in the deradicalization process. Such processes are often difficult, particularly with those that have low literacy and vocational skills. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs around the world have faced such issues [28].

Some form of restorative justice will be also be useful to allow for the return of former extremists and reintegrate them into society. The ideas of restorative justice do not mean though that it is all about reconciliation and forgiveness, but rather that it is a victim-centered approach that holds accountable former extremists, expecting their acknowledgement of crimes committed and challenging them to take responsibility for the wrong done to others. Therefore, personal transformation, the integration into the community and some form of reparation can allow for healing with the other and the own community [29].

Moreover, Davies suggests that we need to have a critical analysis to counter extremism: critical respect, critical thinking, critical values and critical action [1]. In the first place it is important to understand that the opposite of extremism is not being moderate. Often, there is the fear of offending certain religious or cultural groups, because this is seen as being intolerant.

However, it needs to be clear that certain lines cannot be crossed like wife-beating, female genital mutilation, or the stoning of those labeled adulterers—and a host of other factors that fully disrespect human safety and well-being. In terms on critical thinking, education is of great importance since allows people to read between the lines of what the media is portraying, so the messages of manipulation can be deconstructed.

When it comes to critical values, it is particularly human rights that stand out as well as the often-difficult realization that there is more than one truth. Without wanting to fall into a postmodern trap of relativism, it is essential that different narratives be portrayed, with a focus on those people who do not have sufficient or any voice in life choices, like women, the disabled, ethnic, racial and religious minorities. Finally, critical action can be the basis of the three other points noted above (critical respect, thinking and values), since it allows the building a global civil society that gradually develops resistance to extremism and ultimately violence as well [1].


Extremism can have many forms. In this short paper, we have discussed some dimensions of extremism (political, social, religious) as well as violent extremism and how it is possible to deradicalize individuals caught up in its complex web. While extremism is mostly linked with negative ideas and actions, it also brings about positive change for society and helps overcome social injustice. Therefore, it is important to determine whether extremism is negatively focused and uses violence or not. This marks a major difference in identifying whether some forms of extremism can be potential allies for constructive and non-violent change.

However, it is clear that extremism can a be very highly destructive, devastating communities and causing much suffering. It is thus essential to have clarity about what extremism is, and the kinds of extremism that needs to be rejected and welcomed. It is the latter that is connected with ideas and actions that are meant to overcome violence along with the political, social and religious manipulation that threatens individual and group safety and well being.

This text has been prepared for Initiatives of Change at their meeting in July 2016.




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1 Comment

  1. Thanks Johannes for a insightful and stimulating article on extremism. Plenty to take away from it – particularly the breadth of the term and the inherent danger of not focussing on specific forms of extremism.

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