A philosophical treatise on extremism — an elaborated review of Quassim Cassim’s ‘Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis’ (Routledge, 2021)
[Text of the 20-minute response to the book during the Extreme Beliefs — Interdisciplinary workshop: Mapping the Terrain, convened Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the ERC Extreme Beliefs project, 15–16 December 2021]
First of all, I would like to say thank you to the conference organisers, in particular Dr Rik Peels, for the opportunity to read the book and to provide some feedback in relation to some of its contents.
Off the bat, I was quite interested in the ways in which different types of extremism were being defined in this book. For example, the distinction between methods, ideological and psychological extremism was a useful framework as it is a means to work through ideas that are about the application, techniques as well as mindsets in relation to those that might interest us as extremists.
The book explores these themes in detail and discusses the philosophical ramifications of the application in context for all who are interested in its meaning in practice — and, in some cases, what can be done to alleviate it in working through these conceptualisations, but what was interesting is the ways in which there are synergies between all. That is, no extremism exists in a vacuum. There needs to be some contextualisation that is important in the establishment of any type of extremism and, of course, we’re talking here about violent extremism rather than extremism pre se — because it is clear that not all extremism is violent and so what matters to us as social and philosophical thinkers as well as those engaged in the policy world is what to do about the most worrying form of extremism; that is, extremism which is a threat to our national security; that is, our collective sense of well-being, safety and cohesion in nations all over the world.
Invariably there are interests in this field at the level of policymakers who are tasked with the urgent need to find solutions to problems that can sometimes be described as wicked. However, part of the problem here is that when attempting to frame extremism as wicked, it requires a certain approach that somewhat absolves basic human rights in some cases and certainly can lead to issues of surveillance and securitization which can create a sense of a problem that is far greater than the reality in practice. The question here becomes one of the need to police extremism; that is, those on the verge of extremism or have become violent. But what does this mean for extremism in general? It is here we can find ourselves engaging in all sorts of discussions around the freedom to express dissent vs how this freedom verges on issues of hate speech that promotes violence. There are also the issues of what one thinks as punishable at the level of the state in relation to what is regarded as extremism and again these have the problem of being somewhat compounded by politics, ideology and wider practice of the count-terror state. Here, the question of classification adds further concerns in relation to the detail that can often be overlooked in the context of attempting to find urgent solutions to immediate problems.
Therefore, if we go forward with this starting point, we can imagine that extremism itself is not a problem but a kind of extremism that causes states and members of society to be alarmed because of the risks to wider notions of security. Indeed, if we peel it back even further, extremism is a normative concept. It has little meaning without contextualisation. For example, I could considerably describe myself as extremely kind, extremely generous and extremely open-minded. For others that might be seen as extremist to the extent that it requires a certain degree of policing if my extremism somehow unfairly disadvantages others (absurdly enough). This is also related to the often misunderstood term radicalisation, which in practice has a top-down state-centric application in relation to identifying trends in society or among individuals that need to be countered or prevented in some way or another. But again to be radical is perfectly reasonable in any context of secular liberal democracies in Western Europe today, and, certainly, it has been in the past. We do not have to look too far into history to think about the radical social developments of the 1960s that introduced the liberal hour of race relations in the case of the UK. We can also talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and the anti-Vietnam protests across Western Europe that mobilised a generation coming of age. Many of these actions might have been described as extreme or as radical in their times. Thus, what we regard as extremism has to be contextualised. There is no absolute extremist. All extremist truths are relative — after all, today, one man’s extremist is another man’s countering violent extremism initiative. As the opening chapter of the book elucidates, we give meanings to words that do not have meanings on their own and this applies to their use in popular discourses, in policymaking and in academic as well as community circles where all these terms, namely, extremism, radicalisation or even terrorism are understood, experienced and externalizing in very different ways.
I understand that what we are talking about in this book is of the philosophical approach to appreciating the nature of the concept of extremism and this is a valuable contribution in the light of so much that goes on to counter it but without fully appreciating or understanding it. Invariably, this can lead to more problems than solutions, especially when there are implications for the ways in which certain communities are framed as being extremist and how this labelling has the impact of reifying the relations between the labeller and the labelled. I am referring here to the ways in which Muslim minority communities on the whole, especially in Western Europe, get sucked into a wider discourse in relation to Islamophobia that is based on misunderstanding and misdirection, which is largely led by various media and political discourses. Without a doubt, there are some very bad people who need to be put away because they are capable or have done very bad things, but how much of what we understand as extremist in the popular parlance is framed by an Islamophobic perspective on Islam and Muslims that continues to suggest that the problems are within, and not without. Labels such as Jihadi, Takfiri, Salafi are used without care or due diligence. Furthermore, those who would seek to counteract this negative labelling can often be labelled as extremist in their own ways, such that they are regarded as part of the problem of extremism itself. The dissenting, critical, reaction on the part of Muslims who have faced genuine grievances, whether in the streets and towns of Western Europe or more widely in relation to the Middle East today, in the recent past or more historically over the last 300 years, is dismissed. It thereby confirms another aspect of Islamophobia, which is the automatic dismissal of Muslim criticism.
And so with all of these perspectives in mind, namely historical, political, cultural, ideological, policy-oriented, economic and therefore structural and individual, it is true that the study of extremism needs to be interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, whether it through philosophy, sociology, political science and international relations and beyond. In this space, we must not forget the growing importance of psychology or public mental health, which focuses on individual-level vulnerabilities that are often the triggers in between the factors described as push and pull in the path to extremism, radicalisation or worse. We, therefore, need therefore to find a language that helps to understand extremism that is fit for purpose, but the questions will always remain — that is, for whose purpose? Who benefits? And who loses out?
As the book addresses the philosophical nature of extremism and how we must think through it as a concept that is open-ended, unbounded and capable of delivering solutions to problems, it is difficult to avoid the politics of the realities that fortify aspects of extremism. There are genuine material concerns that are underpinned by ideological motivations that exist in contexts that are a result of history and present-day conflicts. Therefore, it is difficult to put two extremists in the same room together, seemingly with the same backgrounds and supposedly fighting for the same causes and determine degrees of similarity that can be understood in generalisable terms. To counter extremism is not simply to counter narratives or counter ideology. In many cases, there are grievances that lead to material challenges for individuals who might be motivated by the need to alleviate genuine structural disadvantage. And this is where I agree with the author when the argument made is that without dealing with the genuine issues at hand, there will always be some degree of extremism, because some people will always feel dissatisfied with their material outcomes. Society is by nature unequal. As a consequence, divisions are par for the course. And in today’s world, polarization divides people more than ever, and especially in a space where there is no centre ground that holds together a majority consensus that is fit for most.
What is a clear issue is that there remains an assumption that somehow there is path extremism that somehow can be reversed through clever re-engineering policy and practice to interrupt a linear path between different degrees of extremism that can lead to political violence one the end or in some cases can be reversed into anti-extremism or de-radicalisation however defined. The problem with this approach is that it is linear, presenting a conveyor belt theory that places people along a path and if this path can be reworked people will turn away from extremism. But the mounting evidence on extremism and radicalisation studies tells us that there is no linear path. There is no consistent explanation. There is no pattern of understanding that fits all. Rather, every individual experience is unique (by definition). This is why it is almost impossible to find solutions that are fit for all and therefore the reality is that, often, the world of policymaking takes the easy approach and this can lead to severe implications. Not only does it dismantle basic concepts of human rights, the social contract and issues of social and political trust, it also ensures a counter-terror state that introduces legislation first and thinks afterwards. It introduces a system of policing, securitisation and intelligence-gathering that cares less for the individual and more for ideas for protecting the nation-state that remains imaginary. It has the effect of widening polarization, which has the impact of introducing new forms of extremism. Unsurprisingly, in some cases, the introduction of countering violent extremism policies has the effect of introducing more violent extremism, particularly when there is a competition for individuals and organisations to position themselves at the top table in pursuit of personal and group gain. This only makes the fringes even angrier and it only ever widens the violent extremism landscape even further.
For certain social thinkers, this amounts to new forms of extremism, but this is often Ivory Tower thinking, where certain thinkers can be seduced or event co-opted by grand narratives that have their sources in other ideological perspectives such as exceptionalism or nationalism. Was Donald Trump an extremist? Ongoing investigations into the 6 January 2021 events tell us that perhaps his words however rambled and confusing to the trained ear were able to motivate and mobilise the disenfranchised and the disillusioned into violent extremism with conspiracy theories abounding. It is no surprise that those who believe the unbelievable are most likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Is Boris Johnson an extremist for instigating and supporting the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union? Was it an extremist ideology that was behind that divisive and deeply problematic move? Who gets to decide what happens in these situations? Who gets to punish unaccountable elites, especially when acts of political resistance themselves are surveilled and ultimately punished as extremist by the very institutions of the state that permit the possibility of global leaders of such hue to hold power? This extremism is both at the centre and at the periphery at the same time. The fact that extremism exists across all sectors of society suggests that philosophical approaches to understanding extremism provide us with an added dimension but what remains important is to better understand what we can do about it having first established that extremism in these contexts is a problem. All of these are value-laden positions that require specific solutions that can transcend wider concerns around who we are and who we are not as nations that seek to position themselves as special or unique in their own right. And yet extremism transcends borders, not just through the movement of ideas through people on the move, but through the proximity and the immediacy of social media and other digital forms of communication and exchange. Extremism results in real-world problems that require real-world solutions. Here, the tools of philosophy can help us to think through the concept of extremism so that we can cut through the noise, heat and ambiguity that wrestles minds, policymakers and communities the world over. For this reason alone, this book is a valuable contribution to the ever-growing field of what can only be described as ambiguous extremism studies.