We usually think of extremism in terms of the political ideas one might hold and the willingness to resort to violence for their realization. But simply believing in an ideology on the extreme end of the spectrum, or resorting to violence are not enough to make one an extremist. Extremism is a mindset, a way of seeing the world and others that cuts across ideologies and methods of achieving them, argues Quassim Cassam.
Almost twenty years ago to the day, Mohammed Atta piloted American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Atta was, by most people’s lights, an extremist. So was Anders Behring Breivik who, ten years later, massacred 69 people at a summer camp in Norway. Wind the clock forward another ten years to 2021, and extremism is still alive and well in Afghanistan and many other places.
A tired old cliché about terrorism is that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Much less popular is the idea that one person’s extremist is another person’s moderate. It is hard to think of a way that flying a commercial jet into a building or suicide bombing people at the gates of Kabul Airport could not be the actions of an extremist. Some things, it seems, are not relative. However, one might wonder what extremists like Atta and Breivik have in common. Certainly not ideology. Breivik is on the far right of the political spectrum and anti-Muslim. Atta was an Islamist whose ideology is hard to place on the left-right spectrum.
Breivik and Atta are ideological extremists, people with extremist ideologies though not the same ideology. Something else that they and many other extremists have in common is a willingness to use extreme methods, including violence, in pursuit of their political objectives. Methods extremists regard violence as the key to getting what they want. Extremist ideologies can be left-wing or right-wing or neither, but they are almost always pro-violence.
Most governments, including elected governments, are also quite prepared to use violence for political ends. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government convinced itself that regime change in Iraq was to be one of the strategic objectives of its ill-fated “war on terror”, and it resorted to extreme violence in pursuit of this objective. Those carrying out the violence were soldiers in uniform, acting on the orders of an elected government, but this is hardly an adequate basis for denying that those who favoured violence as a means of achieving their political objectives in Iraq were methods extremists.
A tired old cliché about terrorism is that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Much less popular is the idea that one person’s extremist is another person’s moderate.
In fact, the relationship between extremism and violence is more complicated than this implies. Using violence in self-defence does not make one a methods extremist. The fact that German army officers tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb in 1944 did not make them extremists. The ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa did not makes its leadership methods extremists. Nelson Mandela was not an extremist.
In these examples, it is relevant that violence was used in a just cause. No doubt Atta and Breivik thought that their violence was in a just cause but they were wrong about that. Martin Luther King Jnr. said that the question is not whether we will be extremists but whether we will be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice. But if violence is used for the extension of justice, should those who use it be classified as extremists at all?
It depends. Even if one’s cause is just, it is a further question whether the use of violence in pursuit of it is just. Methods extremists don’t just use violence in pursuit of their objectives, they use violence when it is not strictly necessary. If Mandela was right that violence was the only method that would destroy apartheid, then that counts against classifying him as a methods extremist. For true methods extremists, violence is more like a first resort than a last resort. They relish violence and regard it as redemptive.
There is also the issue of proportionality. Methods extremists endorse disproportional violence and do not distinguish legitimate from illegitimate targets. They see everyone on the other side as fair game. In his 1998 fatwa, Osama bin Laden explicitly rejected any distinction between civilian and military targets. He insisted that the killing of innocents was ‘valid both religiously and logically’. These are undoubtedly the words of a methods extremist. Methods extremists use unnecessary, disproportional, and undiscriminating violence in pursuit of their objectives regardless of the justice of those objectives. To the extent that their ideologies try to legitimate this type of violence, it follows that their ideologies are also extremist.
For all the talk of ideological and methods extremism, there is another type of extremism that is harder to put one’s finger on but is in many ways the most fundamental type of extremism. When one thinks about extremists like Atta and Breivik, one is struck by their psychological similarity. Extremists don’t just use extreme methods and subscribe to extremist ideologies. They also have what might be described as an extremist mindset that helps to account for their methods and ideological preferences.
For true methods extremists, violence is more like a first resort than a last resort. They relish violence and regard it as redemptive.
On a psychological view, extremism is defined not so much by what a person believes – by their ideology – but by how they believe, by their mode of belief. Psychological extremists are peculiarly fervent and uncompromising in their beliefs. They hate to negotiate and see politics as a battle between good and evil, light and dark. They have no tolerance for the Other and they reject pluralism. Isaiah Berlin described pluralistic societies as ones that accept and even celebrate differences between individuals and their choices about how to live. Extremists find it hard to accept that there may be more than one right way to live.
One might think that psychological extremism is compatible with any ideology. After all, even liberals can be fervent and uncompromising. However, a person cannot be anti-pluralist and still be a liberal. In fact, there are several elements of the extremist mindset that are much easier to reconcile with some ideologies than others. There is the taste for violence and a faith in the power of creative destruction. Extremists are utopians who believe that, as John Gray puts it, ‘a better type of society than any that has ever existed can be brought into existence by the systematic use of violence’. This is close to the view of ISIS, though it uses force to return us to a type of society that existed in the 7th century rather than to one that has never existed.
Extremists in the psychological sense are not just preoccupied with violence and a future or past utopia. They have many other easily recognizable preoccupations. One is a preoccupation with purity. The Nazis were preoccupied with racial purity, the Taliban with religious purity and other extremists with ideological purity. Extremists also tend to think of themselves as victims of persecution. What the philosopher Jason Stanley calls ‘victimology’ is a major part of the extremist mindset, though in many cases the alleged persecution is total fantasy, as in the case of Incel extremists who think that they are persecuted by women who refuse to have sex with them.
What the philosopher Jason Stanley calls ‘victimology’ is a major part of the extremist mindset, though in many cases the alleged persecution is total fantasy, as in the case of Incel extremists who think that they are persecuted by women who refuse to have sex with them.
Although there does not appear to be a great deal to be said for extremism in any form, there is still the intuition – to which Martin Luther King Jr. gave expression – that extremism can be a positive force, a force for justice. Didn’t the abolitionists in 19th century have to use extreme methods in their fight against slavery, and were the suffragettes who resorted to terrorism not extremists in a good and necessary cause? A character in a Philip Roth novels says, ‘Sometimes you have to fucking go to the extreme’. Isn’t that the truth? Wouldn’t the world be even more benighted than it is if it were not for the efforts of “extremists” against slavery and other forms of injustice?
The scare quotes in this question are entirely appropriate. Most campaigners against slavery and in favour of women’s rights were not violent. They were not methods extremists and did not have an extremist mindset. They were not preoccupied with purity, and they really were victims of persecution. Their ideologies were extreme by the standards of their day but not by our standards.
Instead of using such examples to vindicate extremism, it makes more sense to see histories of the abolitionists and suffragettes as highlighting the need for a distinction between extremism and radicalism. Though poorly understood, this is a crucial distinction for progressives who want to make the case for sweeping and radical changes in the way that society is organized. If they want to rebut attempts by critics to tar them with the E word, they need to explain how their radicalism differs from extremism.
Radicals believe that, as Greta Thunberg puts it, ‘Everything needs to change. And it has to start today’. They demand sweeping and rapid changes in the face of the climate emergency or what they see as serious social injustice. Tinkering at the margins is not for them, and one can understand why not. However, this does not necessarily make them extremists, even if some radicals are also extremists.
It is possible to believe that everything needs to change without having an extremist mindset or believing that change needs to happen at the point of a gun. Radicals believe in democratic politics in a way that extremists do not, and it is radicalism rather than extremism that has been, and continues to be, a key to social progress. The question is not whether we will be extremists, or even what kind of extremists we will be, but whether we will be radicals and, if so, what kind of radicals we will be.