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Nowadays, the term is mostly 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 (acceptable) mainstream attitudes of society, but extremism can, for example, also be meant in an economic sense. However, all terrorists are extremists but all extremists are not terrorists. This is because extremism is only a belief or view that is seen as far-fetched by the public. Terrorism is the use of violence/intimidation in the pursuit of mainly political aims.
The term "extremism" is usually meant to be pejorative; that is, to express (strong) disapproval. However, it may also be used in a more academic, purely descriptive, non-condemning sense.
Extremists are usually contrasted with centrists or moderates. For example, in contemporary discussions in Western countries of Islam or of Islamic political movements, the distinction between extremist (implying "bad") and moderate (implying "good") Muslims is typically stressed.
There have been many different definitions of "extremism". Peter T. Coleman and Andrea Bartoli give observation of definitions: 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).
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.
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.
Laird Wilcox identifies 21 alleged traits of a "political extremist", ranging from behaviour like "a tendency to character assassination", over 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".
Joining extremist groups has been seen to arise from beliefs about the acceptability of aggression towards the group's target. For example, in Pakistan, beliefs about the acceptability of aggression against Jews were shown to predict who would join an extremist anti-Semitic group. Cultural differences in acceptability about aggression towards certain groups may explain extremism towards certain targets, and as these beliefs can be easily changed through intervention, this may offer a way in which extremism can be discouraged.
"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 different religious "zealots", may mean only that all these are "unacceptable" from the standpoint of a supposed mainstream or majority.
Economist Ronald Wintrobe 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":
- Both are against any compromise with the other side.
- Both are entirely sure of their position.
- Both advocate and sometimes use violence to achieve their ends.
- Both are nationalistic.
- Both are intolerant of dissent within their group.
- Both demonize the other side
Among the explanations for extremism is one that views it as a plague. 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." Thus extremism is seen as not a tactic, nor an ideology, but as a pathological illness which feeds on the destruction of life. Dr. Kathleen Taylor believes religious fundamentalism is a mental illness and that is "curable."
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".
Extremism is however seen by other researchers as a "rational strategy in a game over power". See for instance the works of Eli Berman.
Uses of the term in "mainstream" politics
Barry Goldwater said that "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue" at the 1964 Republican National Convention, in a sentence attributed to his speechwriter Karl Hess.
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."
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.
In Russia, the laws prohibiting extremist content are used (both by poorly trained officials and as part of an intentional politics to suppress opposition) to suppress the freedom of speech through very broad and flexible interpretation. Publications classified as "extremist" and thus prosecuted included protests against the court rulings in Bolotnaya Square case ("calling for illegal action"), criticism of overspending of local governor ("insult of the authorities"), publishing a poem in support of Ukraine ("inciting hatred"), an open letter against a war in Chechnya by a writer Polina Zherebcova, the whole Jehovah's Witnesses movement in Russia, Raphael Lemkin, and articles by initiator of the Genocide Convention of 1948.
- "Definition of extremism". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
- "Extremism – definition of". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
- Mogahed, Dalia (2006). "The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Moderate vs. Extremist Views in the Muslim World" (PDF). WikiLeaks. p. 2.
- Dr. Peter T. Coleman and Dr. Andrea Bartoli: Addressing Extremism, pp. 3–4
- G. M. Tamás: "On Post-Fascism", Boston Review, Summer 2000
- "Laird Wilcox on Extremist Traits". Lairdwilcox.com. Retrieved 2013-09-08.
- Amjad, N.; Wood, A.M. (2009). Identifying and changing the normative beliefs about aggression which lead young Muslim adults to join extremist anti-Semitic groups in Pakistan. Aggressive Behavior, 35, 514–19
- "Economics at Western". Economics.uwo.ca. Retrieved 2013-09-08.
- Wintrobe (2006), p. 5
- Bruxelles, Simon de (30 May 2013). "Science 'may one day cure Islamic radicals'". The Times. London. Retrieved 2013-05-31.
- Paul Goble (29 March 2015). "FSB Increasingly Involved in Misuse of 'Anti-Extremism' Laws, SOVA Says". The Interpreter Magazine. Retrieved 2015-04-01.
- "Examples of forbidden content". Zapretno.info. 2014. Archived from the original on 30 October 2014. Retrieved 2014-10-29.
- Neef, Christian; Schepp, Matthias (22 April 2014). "The Propaganda War: Opposition Sings Kremlin Tune on Ukraine". Spiegel Online. Retrieved 2015-06-10.
- "Otkrytoe Pismo Hodorkovskomu o Voyne v Chechne Priznali Ekstremistskim". meduza.io. Retrieved 2015-07-08.
- "Russian Appellate Court Decision Reverses Ban of JW.ORG Website". Retrieved 2015-08-20.
- "Федеральный список экстремистских материалов дорос до п. 3152". SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
- George, John and Laird Wilcox. Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America Prometheus Books, 1992. (ISBN 0-87975-680-2)
- Himmelstein, Jerome L. All But Sleeping with the Enemy: Studying the Radical Right Up Close ASA, San Francisco: 1988
- Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Various editions, first published 1951.
- Schlesinger, Arthur. The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. Various editions, first published 1949.
- Wilcox, Laird. "What Is Political Extremism", retrieved from The Voluntaryist newsletter #27, 1987
- Ronald Wintrobe (2006). Rational extremism: the political economy of radicalism. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-85964-6.
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