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Studies 06 July, 2015

On Extremism

Azmi Bishara

General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies (DI). Bishara is a leading Arab researcher and intellectual with numerous books and academic publications on political thought, social theory and philosophy. He was named by Le Nouveau Magazine Littéraire as one of the world’s most influential thinkers. His publications in Arabic include Civil Society: A Critical Study (1996); On The Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Manifesto (2007); To Be an Arab in Our Times (2009); On Revolution and Susceptibility to Revolution (2012); Religion and Secularism in Historical Context (in 3 vols., 2013, 2015); The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context: Theoretical Problems (2017); The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon (2018); What is Populism? (2019) and Democratic Transition and its Problems: Theoretical Lessons from Arab Experiences (2020). Some of these works have become key references within their respective field. His latest publication titled The Question of the State: Philosophy, Theory, and Context (2023) with a second volume forthcoming in 2024 titled The Arab State: Beginnings and Evolution.

Bishara’s English publications include Palestine: Matters of Truth and Justice (Hurst, 2022); On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts (Stanford University Press, 2022); Sectarianism without Sects (Oxford University Press, 2021), among other writings. His trilogy on the Arab revolutions, published by I.B. Tauris, consists of Understanding Revolutions: Opening Acts in Tunisia (2021); Egypt: Revolution, Failed Transition and Counter-Revolution (2022); and Syria 2011-2013: Revolution and Tyranny before the Mayhem (2023), in which he provides a theoretical analysis in addition to a rich, comprehensive and lucid assessment of the revolutions in three Arab countries: Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.


To describe something as a form of extremism, whether it is an idea, opinion, behavior, taste, or temperament, means—if we adhere to its literal meaning as a qualifier and a state—an idea or behavior taken to its utmost limit. Extremism is the affirmation of one aspect of a composite phenomenon at the expense of its others. The active subject to which the word is appended, can apply to an individual or a group, which can be ‘extreme’ in its violence or its non-violence, in its intolerance or its tolerance, in its moderation or centrism. This last juxtaposition reveals the sterility of the word, even as a term of art, let alone as a useful concept for the analysis of social phenomena.

In our time, not a day passes without seeing or hearing the words ‘extremism’ or ‘extremists.’ Whether used to describe political positions and opinions, or styles and methods of political action, at every point it connotes stereotypes and a host of pre-conceptions, half-truths, and assumptions concerning groups of people branded as extreme. 

By the same token, violent acts these days tend to be deemed acts of “terrorism” if those who carry them out are characterized as extremists. In turn, ‘extremist’ might almost be a definition for terrorism: in this era terrorism as an act of violence is undertaken by extremists, even if it is directed against soldiers or occupying forces. Indeed, the very same act (killing of civilians, destruction of property with the intent to terrorize) is not considered terrorism if it is perpetrated by individuals who are not labeled as extremist, or without ties to so-called extremist groups. This process of labeling and association has numerous ramifications. One particularly significant outcome is that it becomes difficult to brand states as extremist. By definition states are not extremist, rather it is the state that applies the term to others. In this sense, terrorism is a political act of violence undertaken by an extremist person or group; the extremist then is not a state, inferring it is not possible for a state to be terrorist.

In the past, extremism was applied to the right in the phrase “the extreme right” during the interwar period amid the rise of fascism, Nazism, and other nationalist movements, and to the “extreme left” in the 1960s and 1970s, and to national movements against colonialism viewed as extremist in comparison with those who cooperated with colonial forces (termed moderates). Today, however, ‘extremist’ evokes mostly the image of Jihadi Islamists, even if the term is not used in specific conjunction with Islam.                


This begs the questions: Can the word extremism be useful in understanding those labeled as such? Is it an analytical concept? Does it lend itself to understanding their practices either in essence or in nature? Or is the term a relative category that doesn’t explain much?

Definitions and Usages of ‘Extremism’

Today the concept of extremism is set against that of moderation, centrism, or the mainstream. This categorization places the phenomenon outside any social or political consensus, and outside what is understood as socially or politically acceptable. Indeed, it is set at the furthest reach of acceptability. Are there elements in common between ‘extremists’ in general, which might make this term a concept of use for categorizing the ideas of groups or political movements (their aims and methods)? Or is it a word, or even a term, in a shaky relationship with its concept? Is it, perhaps, the expression of a negative stance adopted by those in power so as to exclude other groups?

History has proven this latter position untenable. From the struggle against racism by the civil rights movement in America and the African National Congress in South Africa; to the fight against occupation by the PLO, African liberation movements, and the Vietcong; to the struggle against dictatorship and oppression in general, with groups like Nicaragua’s Sandinistas; all these once marginalized groups were at a time considered extremist.

Extremists were once labeled as such simply by virtue of their violent methods of political action (particularly the targeting of civilians). Refusing to use the term whenever civilians were targeted by air bombardment or other means by states that adopt liberal democratic systems, however, meant that the term lost part of its meaning: violent methods could no longer on their own constitute extremism. Indeed, extreme violence such as killing civilians and terrorizing the innocent—are extremist or terrorist. When states used these tactics in Vietnam, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon and Chechnya, as part of a plan to terrorize or as a response to operations undertaken resistance movements, these tactics were publically sanctioned. Instead, extremism is now used to describe political groups and the nature of the conflict that these groups (be they organizations, movements, parties) are engaged in—in particular conflicts with a state actor. This is also problematic.

Saint Augustine, in his 5th century The City of God, uses a dialogue between Alexander the Great and a pirate as an allegory to draw a comparison between someone who occupies and plunders lands and is called an emperor, because he does so with a large fleet, and someone who raids other ships using a small ship, and is called a pirate.[1] Augustine goes on in the section to stress the similarity between kings and robbers in two respects: not only are kingdoms without justice like gangs of robbers, but so too are robbers themselves like little kingdoms, since they are bound together by a pact, led by a ruler, and the spoils are distributed according to certain rules. For entities to become kingdoms therefore, does not necessarily mean that they have dispensed with the greed that bound them into gangs. In fact moral rule is the exception, but rule means that impunity is granted[2], which is what turns robbers into kingdoms.  


After setting out this similarity, Augustine goes on to detail the story of the pirate and Alexander: “For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, ‘The same as you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who do it with a great fleet are styled emperor.’”[3]

It is the state, able to bomb from the air that categorizes others as terrorist and extremist. Excluded from the semantic field of extremism (and its artifact, terrorism), then, are the armies that carry out large-scale destruction and mass killings of civilians on the pretext that they are not targeting civilians, but rather the enemy living amongst civilians (who are used as human shields). It is only extremists and terrorists who can be said simply to target civilians. In fact, states that bomb civilian centers today are aware of the presence of these civilians, making their death an inevitability, and not simply a possibility. This necessarily weakens the force of the argument that civilians are not being targeted. More tellingly, it has been shown that random bombing employed by state actors is usually “targeted,” since it is also intended as a response to ‘extremist’ operations targeting civilians with the objective of punishing what is termed the “social incubator” for the group. The very idea of making a group, its members, or its constituency “pay” a price for membership is to terrorize (the literal definition of terrorism). Instilling terror is the intended act, and as such civilians are the targets, meaning states engage in acts of terrorism, and exhibit extreme behavior.

In contrast, there are political forces and individuals who support an idea that is considered extremist, but they do not employ violent means in their political activity. For example, some Salafi movements hold what are considered extreme ideas compared to a more mainstream Islam on the purely intellectual level. However, their methods are non-violent. The same is the case for most Communists nowadays, who do not use methods deemed extremist.

These initial definitions, however, are all relativist. Is it possible to go beyond this relativism when dealing with extremism and develop mechanisms that take into account the location, interests, and historical context of those who make this categorization? 

Whether an attempt to answer this question proves fruitful is questionable. Perhaps it will be sufficient to deal with the content of the political idea that includes aims and methods deemed extremist for each case in isolation. This alone would preclude the need for using the term. Perhaps it would be enough for people to take positions on the values of any movement or its ideas, or to assess how realistic its aims are and how acceptable its methods at each stage, without the need for this sweeping category, and without the need for the distinction between moderates and extremists, which in itself has turned into an ideological weapon in conflicts.

Given contemporary power relations, the category of extremist might be classed as a justification for oppressive policies, or as laying the ground for them. Given this state of affairs, we might present a meaningful idea or at least benefit from the analysis of particular aims and means of groups glasses ‘extreme,’ by way of approaching an answer to the question, without necessarily reaching a conclusive answer.

As a starting point, it can be said that there is no objective scientific criterion for extremism. However, the term might be of value if it is dealt with from a moral perspective. This means making political judgments within the framework of practical reason and giving these judgments a moral dimension, so that the term can be in some way non-relativist. Universal moral criteria, if they exist, can provide moderation and extremism with a certain content, irrespective of who is acting in moderate or extreme ways. This is especially so in the case of existing labels of extremism, which tends to signify rather an abhorrence of the practices and ideas of an ‘other.’ It is rare, however, for this abhorrence to apply to ‘our’ ideas and practices. Only a moral stance can make ‘us’ subject to the same standard. The transcendent moral position—one that transcends circumstance and interest—is able to characterize the ideas of the side to which one belongs as extremist, and similarly the practices of one’s own side, be it as an individual or group. For this reason, an alternative definition for extremism is suggested that frees the term to some extent from this relativism, and gives it a certain epistemological value.


To continue reading this essay as a PDF, please click here. This essay was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which was printed in the 14th Edition of Siyasat Arabia and appeared online on May 26, 2015, please click here.

[1] Noam Chomsky used this dialogue to describe the difference between terrorism and the practices of the United States in the title of his book, Pirates and Emperors.

[2] Augustine, The City of God: Against the Pagans, 9th edn. (Cambridge, NY, Melbourne: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), Book IV, p. 147-8.

[3] Ibid., p. 148.