Where Does Extremism Come From?

Jayne Docherty suggests in order to deal with extremism one must understand its underlying causes and the mechanisms that support it.

There are a variety of schools of thought on the sources of extremism, which are given unequal weight in the literature. Here is a summary of the main perspectives:

  1. Extremism is grown. This means that adverse conditions (poverty, inadequate access to healthcare, nutrition, education, and employment), a denial of basic human needs (for security, dignity, group identity, and political participation), unending experiences of humiliation, and an ever-widening gap between what people believe they deserve and what they can attain leads to extreme acts. This is particularly so because socially accepted channels for getting needs met are experienced as blocked.
  2. Extremism is constructed. This takes two forms. One, political leaders, capitalizing on adverse conditions, reward extremism (such as offering monetary awards to families or emphasizing benefits to "martyrs" in the afterlife) and legitimize militantism in order to draw attention to their cause and gain power. Two, dominant groups, in an attempt to maintain power and resist demands for change, characterize the actions of marginalized groups as "extremist" and create a self-fulfilling prophecy which elicits increasingly extreme actions from these groups.
  3. Extremism is an emotional outlet for severe feelings. Persistent experiences of oppression, insecurity, humiliation, resentment, loss, and rage lead individuals and groups to adopt conflict engagement strategies which "fit" or feel consistent with these experiences. Thus, extremists will use violent, destructive strategies, not because they are instrumental to attaining other goals, but because they feel righteous, vengeful, and good. In fact, when extremism is morally sanctioned by one's in-group as an appropriate response to such feelings, members become more invested in extremist acts because they are empowering and feel "right."
  4. Extremism is a rational strategy in a game over power. Extremist actions are an effective strategy for gaining and maintaining power in an hierarchical environment where resources are scarce and competition for power is paramount for meetings one's needs. In other words, extremism works. It can call attention to one's cause, damage one's opponent, and unite one's in-group against a common enemy. This is a very common and popular perspective on the prevalence of extremism.
  5. Extremism emerges from apocalyptic, eschatological (end-of-life) ideologies. Extremist activities are often committed and valued because they are consistent with broader myths or systems of meaning. Some of these ideologies are focused on the cataclysmic demise of evil ruling powers (the outgroup) and the elevation and glorification of the righteous (ingroup), and thus emphasize the destruction of the other. Such belief systems include: good vs. evil framing; an other worldly orientation; a need for self-purification; divine sanctioning of horrendous violence; and the depiction of martyrdom as an act of self-purification and justice.[1] Youth are often socialized to buy into these ideologies by families, peers, communities, educational systems (such as madrassah), media, and politicians.
  6. Extremism is a pathological illness. This perspective views extremism as a disease and a way of life where people look to violence to provide a feeling of aliveness. Greun (2003) writes, "The lack of identity associated with extremists is the result of self-destructive self-hatred that leads to feelings of revenge toward life itself, and a compulsion to kill one's own humanness."[2] Thus extremism is seen as not a tactic, nor an ideology, but as a pathological illness, which feeds on the destruction of life.

This summary of perspectives on extremism raises many questions. First, are these in fact completely different phenomena, which cannot be meaningfully categorized under the single heading of "extremism?" Or are these all factors or components of a process, which can work in various combinations and result in an extremist act? Or perhaps they are aspects of a developmental process, which begins with certain conditions, and ideologies, are shaped by various political, emotional and tactical dynamics, and result in a closed, severe, and intolerant state which may become pathological. Ultimately, we must leave this for the reader to decide, hopefully in a manner that is informed by the specifics of the situation they face, and mindful of the relative values of the different perspectives outlined above.

By Andrea Bartoli

By Peter T. Coleman

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[1] Derived from Wessells, Michael (2002). "Terrorism, apocalyptic ideology, and young martyrs: Why peacebuilding matters." Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Conference in Chicago, August 2002.

[2] Gruen, Arno (2003). "An unrecognized pathology: The mask of humaneness." Journal of Psychohistory. Vol 30(3) Win 2003, 266-272. Association for Psychohistory, U.S.

Andrea Bartoli is the Founder and Director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University where he is a Senior Research Scholar. His research interests are mainly in the area of religion and conflict resolution, theory of multi-party negotiations and inter-cultural training. An anthropologist from Rome, he completed his Italian laurea (BA-MA equivalent) at the University of Rome, Italy, and his dottorato di ricerca (Ph.D. equivalent) at the University of Milan, Italy. He has been actively involved in conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy since the early 1980s as a member of the Community of St. Egidio (which he joined in 1970), focusing on Mozambique, Algeria, Burundi, Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). More recently he coordinated CICR conflict resolution initiatives in Colombia, East Timor, Myanmar (Burma) and Iraq.