Extremism and Radicalism : Unidentical Twins ?

by Senator (r) Javed Jabbar

Coupling the two terms –– Extremism and Radicalism (or, even Radicalization) –– represents how the mistaken yet sustained use of words over a period of time comes to change the very meaning of words (e.g. “Islamic” State –– for an entity whose barbaric practices are the anti-thesis of Islam).  This has introduced entirely new connotations for how most non-Muslims view Islam.

Likewise, owing to the contexts in which they have been used and popularized by discourse in media, public space and academia, the words “jihad”, “Islamist” and “fundamentalist” are being associated with destructive, aggressive and narrow modes of thought and action.

Extremism, even of a non-violent kind, intensively projecting a viewpoint that excludes the scope for the accommodation of other viewpoints, is a state of mind that has already entered the ‘danger zone’.  This danger zone is right next to the ‘destruction zone’ in which non-violent extremism takes the step into violent extremism.

The zone in which lethal weapons replace lethal words used in the earlier ‘danger zone’ is that in which a perversely natural fusion between verbal extremism and violent extremism takes place.  Extremism can sometimes adopt the persona of radicalism to become more credible and respectable.

Whereas the origins of radicalism are rooted in the desire to bring about basic change, by calling for the complete re-structuring of an entire system and for setting a new direction, in essence, radicalism does not inherently contain the imbalance present in extremism.  Extremism abandons the middle ground, where reasonableness, rationality and responsibility provide balance. Reasonableness, rationality and responsibility are the foot-soldiers or the hand-maidens of radicalism.  On the other hand, rashness, raving, ranting are the hallmarks of extremism!

Some of the most progressive, enlightened figures of history, who introduced radical new ideas were peaceful, non-violent human beings, respectful of the life and dignity of other human beings holding beliefs different from their own.  Most of the momentous, transforming eras in human history are the result of radical new ideas, and movements.

While extremism is generally perceived to arise exclusively or mainly in unstable, volatile, under-educated, poor, badly-governed societies and states the fact is that extremism can exist in a dormant, or active form in societies and states that are apparently stable, developed, secular and prosperous.  However in well-governed states, strong institutions and forces are normally present, which eventually curb and check extremism before it becomes violent.

In some of the advanced, democratic states, extremism subsumes itself into the ethos of the state structure.  This is particularly true of advanced democratic states that are also militarist states.  A militarist state has significant armed forces, it seeks hegemony in its immediate region, and in some cases, even outside its own region.

Thus, democratic states can be extremist  states.  These are states that are ready to use extreme violence against their own citizens who challenge state dominance [by peaceful or violent means] or to inflict war and destruction on other states and societies.

Some examples of militarism by democratic states are as follows :

— India in Indian-occupied Kashmir, and in the North-Eastern states of India.

— The US in Indo-China, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

— France in Algeria.

— Israel in Palestine.

In Pakistan, intolerant and bigoted religious elements call for a Sharia-based state, which for all practical purposes would be a theocracy, i.e. they call for radical change in the state structure of Pakistan.  They ignore the fact that there are already several elements of the Sharia integrated into the state structure of Pakistan, e.g. Part IX of the Constitution which is titled “Islamic provisions”. Articles 227, 228, 229, 230, 231 of the Constitution articulate these provisions.

Article 227(1); reads in part: “…no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to (the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah).” Article 41(3);  Only a Muslim can be President.  Article 91 (3):  Only a Muslim can be Prime Minister.

Yet there is also Article 25 of the Constitution which upholds the equality of citizens (1) : “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law”.

The causal relationship of factors that shape violent extremism requires that we take note of determinants :

  1. i) When non-violent dialogue, discourse, debate and measures fail to reduce injustice and redress grievances.
  1. ii) When individuals, organizations and institutions are permitted to express bigoted ideas, make hate speeches, print and distribute hate material and freely use weapons to intimidate, injure or kill those who have different political views or religious beliefs.

iii) When the ideology, the Constitution, laws and the economic and political system that shape society and state are marked by the following :

– Blind beliefs, rigidly interpreted by clergies whose minds reside in a primitive past.

– A free market philosophy that allows greed and profit to sharpen socio-economic disparities and disadvantages.

–  A standard of governance that neither fulfills the valid rights of citizens nor provides channels to redress grievances.
– A political system that does not offer a vision of hope and progressive change shaped by a just social contract.

– External interests that combine with internal elements to foment turmoil and instability.

The potential for extremism is in the DNA of human beings, as it is of Nature.  Excesses of human behaviour are like the periodic turbulences of Nature such as storms, earthquakes, floods, etc.  Human life is all about the struggle to prevent the dark or vicious side of human nature from flaring up and acquiring dominance over the virtuous side of human nature.  Violent extremism represents the darkest side of human nature.

There are also benevolent forms of extremism.  These are extreme honesty, integrity, humility, competence, brilliance, warmth, friendship, fraternity and love.  Even extreme passion for the opposite gender is a form of extremism.

Thus radicalism can also be peaceful.  Extremism is, to count our blessings, transient.

The clothes of an Air France official are ripped and torn by angry strikers. Well-educated law-makers in Japan exchange blows and fisticuffs.  Neighbours in an Indian village beat a Muslim to death on a mere suspicion of his storing beef in a refrigerator.  Three passengers of a rickshaw in Karachi hacked the driver to death on a dispute over 10 rupees.  These are all small examples of the brutal side of human nature, which we see in our daily life.

It is pertinent to remember that extremism is a historic and global condition.  The eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm has written a profound book whose title is : “The Age of Extremism : A History of the World, 1914-1991″ Those 77 years were the most murderous years in recorded human history; with two World Wars initiated in Europe that caused unprecedented mayhem and destruction, culminating in the terrible brutality of atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The present phase of extremism, by the above yardstick, thus, still only spans a period of 24/ 30 years (1991-2015-2021).  The vast majority of humanity is, for the most part, balanced and moderate.  Only in parts, and for intense periods of paroxysm, does humanity succumb to mass extremism.  It would be useful to conduct a survey of history, an audit, to determine the phases of balance and sanity and the phases of violent extremism.

One lesson of history is that a minority can pulverize the majority.  It could be in an elected parliament, or outside in the streets by crowds that turn into mobs, whose ferocity could result in the lynching of a person and even the overthrow of an elected government.  A small group of violent extremists can spread fear and terror in the population of a big country.

As a feature of history, extremism in thoughts, words, actions has occurred across the world in almost all ages and in all societies.  As human nature is very vulnerable to fear, paranoia, and hate, this violent trait is like a somnolent viper which, once stirred by the just mentioned stimulants, can leap up to bite and spread its poison in society.

Extremism in primitive conditions is reflected in the practice of cannibalism and human sacrifice as part of worship of deities.  At one time, in a kingdom in western Africa, anyone who sneezed in the presence of the king was put to death, because this mere physical reflex was considered a bad omen for the almighty ruler.

Soon after the greatest human being who ever lived, viz the Holy Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) brought the message of moderation for mankind, three of the first four Caliphs of Islam were callously assassinated.  The Pope in Rome and several European kings recruited even children to join the Crusades to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims.

With the advent of the early phase of industrialization, Europe, in its quest for cheap raw materials and markets used treachery and violence to occupy large portions of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australasia.  These areas remained under European colonial occupation for hundreds of years.  Collaborating with some Arab Muslim traders, Christian European rulers (e.g. King Leopold of Belgium) commodotized the human beings of the Congo and the continent.  They and their ilk also kidnapped and exported hundreds of thousands of black people from Africa to North and South America to serve as slaves on large cotton, coffee and tobacco plantations.  This is an unprecedented example of the human capacity for violence and brutality.

There is something disingenuous about the concern that Muslim youth in Europe, despite acquiring higher education in universities, become extremists, willing to eventually turn towards violent extremism and wage war in the name of their religion.

The mere acquisition of education is not necessarily an insulation against extremism. Europe itself, at different phases of its history in the past 300 years, has seen educated Europeans enforcing colonial rule, killing thousands of the dispossessed with impunity, and being involved in the slave trade.  The sectarian strife and the resultant bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, the support to aggressive Zionism which displaced the Palestinians from their home land, not to forget the havoc wrought by the Nazis during the Second World War, are some of the more recent examples of extremism.

Continents, whether small or large, adjacent to each other or far away, do not exist in isolation.  Even before the contemporary age of instant connectivity, continents were linked to each other through trade, colonialism, and religious conversion.  Yet each continent, or parts of each continent, may have long-established, deeply-rooted conventions, cultural norms and practices that, cannot be crushed by the bulldozer of 21st century globalization.

Primitive and barbaric practices being sustained in the name of traditions, history and honour should, of course, be curbed and crushed without compromise.  But several other longstanding facets of societies, such as simple etiquette (e.g. how respectfully youth are required to address elders, which can be quite different in Asia and in Europe) or festive rituals, are cherished cultural conventions, and people by and large want to retain them.  These conventions are harmless, so retaining them does not hurt society.

The continuation of such practices often coexists with changes in other aspects of lifestyle brought about by modernization and new technologies.  Respect for old practices and cultural mores should not be perceived as entrapment in the past, and as a manifestation of an exclusivist mindset.

Europe and parts of North America (excluding the Bible Belt in the USA) in the 21st century exhibit two contrasting approaches to religion.  On the other hand, there is declining attendance in churches.  On the other, in migrant communities (second to third generation) in the West there is visible and determined affirmation of religious identity and increased attendance in mosques and temples.

The claim of some European statesmen and scholars that the European Union does not engage in armed conflict with Muslim countries or with violent extremists outside Europe is contentious, to say the least.  European countries have extensive trade relations with Asian and African countries where violent extremism and state destabilization have occurred owing to interventions by the Western allies either through NATO or other cooperative arrangements.  Several major countries of the European Union are also members of NATO.  Many European countries are major exporters of arms to countries in conflict zones.  So the European Union, even though it does not have a de jure role in armed conflicts outside Europe, does have a de facto role through NATO, and by virtue of bilateral arms sales to countries where violent extremism has flourished in recent years.

Violent radicalization can occur and be visible at the individual, group, and organizational levels.

Words and their connotations must be noted.  Extremism can be benevolent and non-violent, while radicalism can be peaceful, intellectual, verbal, and conceptual.  Both extremism and radicalism can also be aggressive and violent.

Extremism and violent extremism are not restricted to developing countries alone.  Despite the existence of strong institutional checks and balances in the advanced countries, extremism,  including violent extremism, erupts with disturbing frequency.  Instances of lone gunmen going on killing sprees in schools, shopping malls or streets in the US, and organized attacks by extremists targeting non-Christians or non-whites have increased in recent years.  So have the share of votes gained by political parties that are hostile to immigration.  Thus extremism and radicalization among non-Muslims is a reality in Europe and North America.

Presently Europe’s demography is affected both by cross-border migration as in 2015 (or in 2021), which has forced the continent to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees from west Asia and North Africa, and internal migration within states that brings millions to already strained cities.  The competition for space and resources is becoming tough.  Thus a set of 4 Ds has appeared: dislocation, disruption, disparity and despair.

Yet, millions also show a remarkable capacity to adapt and adjust to dramatically changed conditions of existence.  The vast majorities coexist peacefully, whether in pockets, ghettos, gated communities or mixed neighbourhoods.

Then there is mindography!  At the core is genetically and historically inherited identity and the set of beliefs that survive in the mind.  Seen as the external condition in which the body exists changes completely due to, for example, migration.  The external dimension certainly impacts the mind but the psyche can prove to be a formidable fortress.

Institutional conditioning and variable responses to this process shape attitudes and actions related to extremism and radicalism.  If madrassas in Muslim countries impart a narrow, exclusivist worldview, secular schools in Europe may inadvertently, or by design, perpetuate stereotypes, reinforce subtle prejudices, suppress or change the meanings of words.  A report on how even grammar can be intentionally used to efface the cruel aspects of slavery in school textbooks in Texas, USA in the 21st century, indicates a gentle brainswashing that is done in unlikely ways.

The economic system widely prevalent in the contemporary world is marked by rampant consumerism and a heedless pursuit of the free-market, or rather the greed-market model.  Mainstream media, unable to overcome the inherent limitation of being selective in content, are active custodians of lifestyles that idealize self-indulgence, gratification and crass materialism.  Inevitably, among some, there is a reaction to these hedonistic values, most often a peaceful rejection but also, unfortunately, in some cases, an angry reaction and violent opposition.

Perhaps educated extremism is more dangerous than illiterate extremism, because it can use technology, including the internet, and other methods to indoctrinate impressionable minds.

Peaceful radicalism is ideal.  It promotes ideas, values and practices which can aim to supplant prevalent disorder with order, injustice with justice, pervasive corruption with integrity, bigotry with respect for the other, and violence with restraint and non-violence.


(The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister with interests in diverse fields.  www.javedjabbar.net)

Note : The text above is a slightly amended version of observations presented at the International Conference on : Issues of Radicalization in Migrant urban Societies : A comparative assessment in Pakistan and Europe held jointly by the Area Study Centre for Europe, University of Karachi and the Hanns Siedel Foundation, Islamabad on 7th / 8th October 2015.  Published in September 2016, the compendium of the Conference proceedings was edited by Naveed Ahmed Tahir.)