What is an Extremist?
Most interest groups have supporters who take an extreme view of the conflict and tend to favor extreme and often violent tactics. These individuals who hold positions that are more radical than those of most of the people involved in a conflict can be called “extremists” or “hardliners” by more moderate participants, although those who are sympathetic to this extreme view may refer to the same people in more positive ways, such as “freedom fighters.”

Such hardliners typically refuse to accept any form of compromise and are highly unlikely to change their beliefs or behaviors. Often, they do not really wish to reach a solution, but rather to continue to attack their opponents and cause them harm. They may even want to get rid of them entirely, through genocide or forced migration. Because these individuals refuse to make any concessions themselves, persuasion and negotiation with them are usually not viable options.

In some cases hardliners are also “conflict profiteers,” people who are benefiting or profiting from the continuation of the conflict. These may be the leaders, who gain their reputation and power from being “tough” and standing up to the other side, military leaders whose reputation has been earned through battle victories, or even low-level military personnel who have no other way of making a living.

Other hard-line extremists are those who hold extreme religious or nationalistic beliefs to the effect that their group is superior and that their opponent is morally inferior or even sub-human. In their pursuit of complete victory, extremists often remain fixed on radical ideas and positions. Often they advocate more extreme or provocative confrontation strategies than those adopted by others involved in the dispute.Because extremists often believe that their opponent is deserving of extinction, they may look to violent tactics such as genocide or terrorism to achieve their goals.

Why do individuals adopt such extreme tactics?
In many cases, extremists are those who have lived in poverty and have inadequate access to access to healthcare, nutrition, education, and employment. Persistent experiences of oppression, insecurity, or humiliation may lead individuals and groups to adopt conflict strategies that seem appropriate in their dire circumstances. In other instances, political leaders capitalize on these adverse conditions and reward extremism in order to gain power for themselves. For example, they may offer monetary awards to families or emphasize the benefits to “martyrs” in the afterlife in order to legitimize militant behavior and draw attention to their cause.

There are also instances where extremist actions are an effective strategy for gaining and maintaining power in a hierarchical environment where resources are scarce and there is an ongoing struggle for power. In short, individuals adopt extreme positions because extremism is effective. It can call attention to one’s cause, damage one’s opponent, and unite one’s group against a common enemy.

Why are Extremists So Dangerous?
Ultimately, the hostile tactics used by extremists have a profound influence on conflicts, contributing greatly to their escalation and polarization.

The violent actions committed by extremists include civilian bombings, kidnappings, and the spread of bio-toxins. In addition to taking innocent lives, these actions enrage their opponents, their potential allies, and often the international community as a whole. Other members of the group may be radically opposed to the actions of extremists. However, because the extremists and other hardliners usually gain the most media coverage, it is easy to come to the conclusion that everyone on the other side feels that way. Even if only a minority of the group commits the violent acts, these acts may be attributed to the group as a whole. This leads opponents to conclude that they must respond with extreme tactics of their own and causes the conflict to escalate quickly, even when most of the people on both sides of the conflict are far more moderate in their views.

The provocative actions of extremists can also threaten broadly-supported efforts to de-escalate conflicts. In fact, some extremists desire this sort of response. Spoilers often use extreme tactics in the hopes of disrupting peace processes that they believe will harm their cause. Examples are the many violent acts in the Middle East that were meant to derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Such acts increase hostility, generate additional issues that require resolution, and make parties less willing to compromise.

What can be Done about Extremism?
There are no clear or easy answers about how to deal with extremists or spoilers. Some people suggest they should be marginalized, and negotiation carried on with more moderate parties. Other suggest that extremists should be included in the discussions, so as to prevent them from becoming spoilers. Both of these approaches are discussed by Peter Coleman and Andrea Bartoli in their essay Dealing with Extremists. Another approach is disarming them through humanizing gestures. Juan Gutierrez’s article on the Humanization of Extremists in this knowledge base illustrates this approach.

The “Extremist” Label
We should be careful about labeling activities, people, and groups as “extremist.” To a large extent, the issue of who counts as an extremist is open to interpretation. What one person regards as extreme behavior another person may regard as patriotic. How observers understand and frame such actions often depends on their values, politics, and the nature of their relationship with the individual or group in question. Research demonstrates that parties to a conflict tend to have an exaggerated sense of the extremism of their opponents’ opinions regarding the substantive issues under dispute.

In addition, labeling a group as extremist may serve to frame the conflict in a certain way, making some avenues of response seem more appropriate than others. Once the term “extremist” is invoked, individuals or groups are likely to be seen as unreasonable, morally depraved, or evil. The conclusion is likely to be that it is not even worth listening to their claims or negotiating with them. The only appropriate response is violence. Labeling groups or individuals as “extremist,” “terrorist,” or “fundamentalist” may thereby contribute to conflict escalation and intractability.

Also, dominant groups sometimes characterize the actions of marginalized groups as “extremist” in an attempt to maintain power and resist demands for change. In these cases, the term is used to discount potentially reasonable claims of the less powerful. These considerations suggest that we should be cautious about describing individuals and groups as extremists. In many cases, less stigmatizing terms may be more productive.

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by Michelle Maiese

Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.