What to do with the term ‘extremism’

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass are two of my favourite books, in large part because of the way in which the author played with language. There is so much of linguistic interest in these (allegedly) children’s novels that one of my textbooks during my undergraduate courses in linguistics at the University of Western Ontario in the early 1980s regularly extracted small snippets to illustrate a particular point about how language functions.

The excerpt I want to start with today is something that Humpty Dumpty says to Alice. Here is their exchange:

  • “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

There is so much here that I want to expand on, but first the context. The Economist just posted a very good piece on its Website on what some countries mean by ‘extremism’ and how they are using that definition to justify and carry out all kinds of crackdowns and human rights violations. While the whole article is worth reading, I’d like to highlight China’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghurs (an issue I have touched upon myself on several occasions), Russia’s treatment of its Jehovah’s Witnesses, and how Tajikistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia treat those they believe to be either Salafist or members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). As the title of The Economist essay so aptly puts it “Authoritarians worldwide define religions they don’t like as extremist“, adding the subtitle “Stopping violence should not mean repressing belief“.

Getting back to meaning, we seem to have a complicated relationship with the terms ‘extreme’ and ‘extremism’. When used in the phrase ‘extreme sports’ – things such as some forms of skiing – snow and water – motorcycle races, etc. – the word appears to be, dare I say, a positive word, evoking adrenaline rushes and excitement. But when it refers to movements, be they political, religious or whatever, a very different connotation is built. We associate extreme movements with extreme thoughts, thoughts that are not mainstream or normative and which we feel threatened by.

Terrorism is a good example of the latter. Terrorist groups are definitely extreme and seek to use violence to intimidate or force states to alter their course, and as a result we should feel threatened by them. Terrorism is also a criminal act and many legal codes define it as the use of violence in the furtherance of political, religious or ideological goals. As these goals are most assuredly neither mainstream nor normative they are thus extreme, and we often use the synonym ‘violent extremism’ (or ‘extremist violence’) to mean terrorism.

At the same time there is no doubt that some extremist movements, and in this I include religious ones, are not violent. There are lots of ideas out there that challenge our notions of normalcy but which do not advocate violence. In this bucket I would place the aforementioned Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Salafists (the poor Uyghurs brutally suppressed by the Chinese government in concentration camps don’t strike me as anything more than normative Muslims). There may be much in what they stand for that I disagree with, but we have freedom of religion statutes for a reason, don’t we?

As for the pushback that groups such as the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood need to be monitored and restrained because they act as a sort of ‘gateway drug’ to violent extremism, I beg to differ. I am sure that there are some terrorists who started out as Salafis or MB members, but is it not a one-to-one relationship and there are many Islamist extremists who began as neither: I have been studying Islamist extremist radicalisation for two decades since my days at CSIS and have some experience in that regard. What Tajikistan, the UAE, the Saudis (and the Egyptians) are doing is not really counter terrorism or even PVE (preventing violent extremism) but rather eliminating opposition to existing authoritarian regimes. And that is something we need to take a stand against.

I was a linguist for 30 years (and may wander back into that field again) and I know that words change meaning over time. This does not mean that governments can go all ‘Humpty Dumpty’ on language and insist that meaning is what they say it is. Counter terrorism is hard enough without creating more terrorists to worry about. States that label non-violent extremists as terrorists may find that they will reap what they are sowing.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply