By Andrea Bartoli and Peter T. Coleman 

Defining Extremism

Extremism is a complex phenomenon, although its complexity is often hard to see. Most simply, it can be defined as activities (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, strategies) of a person or group far removed from the ordinary. In conflict settings it manifests as a severe form of conflict engagement. However, the labeling of activities, people, and groups as "extremist," and the defining of what is "ordinary" in any setting is always a subjective and political matter. Thus, we suggest that any discussion of extremism be mindful of the following:

  • Typically, the same extremist act will be viewed by some as just and moral (such as pro-social "freedom fighting"), and by others as unjust and immoral (antisocial "terrorism") depending on the observer's values, politics, moral scope, and the nature of their relationship with the actor.
  • In addition, one's sense of the moral or immoral nature of a given act of extremism (such as Nelson Mandela's use of guerilla war tactics against the South African Government) may change as conditions (leadership, world opinion, crises, historical accounts, etc.) change. Thus, the current and historical context of extremist acts shapes our view of them.
  • Power differences also matter when defining extremism. When in conflict, the activities of members of low power groups tend to be viewed as more extreme than similar activities committed by members of groups advocating the status quo. In addition, extreme acts are more likely to be employed by marginalized people and groups who view more acceptable forms of conflict engagement as blocked for them or biased. However, dominant groups also commonly employ extreme activities (such as governmental sanctioning of violent paramilitary groups or the attack in Waco, Texas, by the FBI in the U.S.).
  • Extremist acts often employ violent means, although extremist groups will differ in their preference for violent vs. non-violent tactics, in the level of violence they employ, and in the preferred targets of their violence (from infrastructure to military personnel to civilians to children). Again, low power groups are more likely to employ direct, episodic forms of violence (such as suicide bombings), whereas dominant groups tend to be associated with more structural or institutionalized forms (like the covert use of torture or the informal sanctioning of police brutality).
  • Although extremist individuals and groups (such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad) are often viewed as cohesive and consistently evil, it is important to recognize that they may be conflicted or ambivalent psychologically as individuals, and/or contain a great deal of difference and conflict within their groups. For instance, individual members of Hamas may differ considerably in their willingness to negotiate their differences with the Palestinian Authority and, ultimately, with certain factions in Israel.
  • Ultimately, the core problem that extremism presents in situations of protracted conflict is less the severity of the activities (although violence, trauma, and escalation are obvious concerns) but more so the closed, fixed, and intolerant nature of extremist attitudes, and their subsequent imperviousness to change.

By Andrea Bartoli

By Peter T. Coleman

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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.