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What is extremism?

When reflecting on the issue of violent extremism, there exists a confusing array of terms – extremism, radicalisation, terrorist, fundamentalism.  The “war on terror” has become an established part of our politician’s rhetoric and our tabloid newspapers confuse matters further by freely applying such labels to anyone from the irate protestor to the religious adherent, right through to the roadside bomber.

However this situation is not as new a phenomenon as it might seem.  Consider the following movements…
Feminism, animal liberationists, anti-abortionists, Suffragettes

Irish Republican Army, Hezbollah, Tamil Tigers, Hamas

…and individuals…
Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Jerry Adams

This is a small sample of those who have been defined at one time or another as everything from freedom fighters to terrorists, depending on who is doing the labelling, where they stand and what point in history we are in.

What becomes apparent is that this is an area of great complexity, but also one where some clarification on what some of the key terms broadly mean, might be useful.  The following is sourced from Lynn Davies Educating against Extremism (details of which are included in the Further Resources section) and whilst not conclusive, it briefly offers some of the different perspectives on the terms – extremism, radicalisation, terrorism and fundamentalism.


Extremism and radicalisation

Extremism is a huge concern globally with its links to terrorism and religious fundamentalism, which present a danger to societies globally.  Human history has been full of extremism leading to persecution, violence and death – whether through the Crusades or the holocaust – it begs the question is extremism really that new?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines extremism as “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”
When extremism starts to have a political end – for example to force governments to the table of negotiation or to some changes in their policies – it starts to become synonymous with radicalisation.

According to the Dutch Intelligence Service, radicalism comprises three aspects:
“The active pursuit of and/or support for fundamental changes in society that may endanger the continued existence of the democratic order, which may involve the use of undemocratic methods that may harm the functioning of the democratic order”



Terrorism is often applied as a pejorative term – usually it applies to enemies or opponents or to those with whom one disagrees.  The two definitions below are from the UK Government and the US state department respectively:

“The use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, of action which involves serious violence against any person or property”

“Pre-meditated or politically motivated violence perpetuated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience”

However the term terrorist has also come to be applied to those fighting to get rid of a perceived occupation or to achieve independence.

“Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is little.  Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or international scale”



While often associated with extremism, it is important to establish that fundamentalism is not the same.  The term fundamentalism originated in the specific theological context of the early twentieth century Protestant America.

“Put at its broadest, it may be described as a ‘religious way of being’ that manifests itself as a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group in the face of modernity and secularisation.” (Ruthven quoted in his book Fundamentalism: the Search for Meaning)

It is important to note that in simple terms not all fundamentalists are, or go on to become, extremists or terrorists.


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