Prosecuting Violent Extremism While Not Persecuting Extremism

Responding to: Religion and Violent Extremism: Contending Perspectives

By: James Patton

May 3, 2019

In recent years, the world has been preoccupied, even perplexed, by the phenomenon of violent extremism. What causes it, how does it manifest, and how can it be prevented? One of the fundamental challenges, however, is understanding and articulating what distinguishes violent extremism from simple violence. I believe that this uncertainty has been partially responsible for politicization of the term and social debate about who qualifies as an extremist, particularly after significant acts of civilian violence. Who should or should not be called a violent extremist? What makes countering violent extremism different from countering other forms of violence, and why does it matter?

The first task is to define extremism. I would contend that extremism is characterized by a few specific attributes. The first of these is that extremists often hold a belief that is outside of the mainstream. The second is that they see that belief in a black-and-white fashion, which is to say, anything that is not categorically aligned with their belief is by definition wrong. The third, which is related, is to be closed to considering alternative points of view. The fourth is that an extremist is generally more inclined to want to convince others to embrace the same ideology. There also seems to be a widespread perception that an extremist in thought will be more likely to act in an extreme manner in order to defend or promote their ideas (or to punish those who disagree). 

Interestingly enough, one core principle of Western pluralist democracies is the freedom of belief, which defends the right of people to hold extremist views. These “permissible extremisms” are tolerated and even defended by law as long as they do not result in extremist behaviors that break the law, such as those that harm the property or lives of another person. Some extremisms are even considered “positive,” at least in historical retrospection, such as abolitionism and conscientious objection. However, even “bad” extremisms are protected. Being a white supremacist is permitted in the United States, for instance. Marching in a white supremacist rally is permitted. Fire-bombing someone’s home or place of worship, however, is not. Therefore, the extremism becomes impermissible when it results in or calls for illegal acts, including acts of violence. Permission to express extreme views in a society may actually preserve the peace, as “legal activism may serve as a safety valve for the expression of grievances that might otherwise lead to terrorism.”

Therefore, a critical challenge for pluralist democracies is defending the rights of those who may not wish to defend the rights of others. Societies that cherish pluralism and the rights of a diverse population must find a way to remain open to ideologies that fundamentally reject pluralism. This has come to the fore recently over religious fundamentalism and different forms of nationalism, as well as the backlash against them. In many cases the backlash has been more violent than the fundamentalism it purports to challenge, and in those cases there has often been heated debate about whether or not to label those actors extremists.

One reason that this debate is important has to do with legal norms. There are laws that have been instituted in recent years in many Western societies that specifically target certain ideological violence in ways that those not labeled extremists can avoid. Therefore, a religious conservative might face certain penalties for violence that a white nationalist does not. But the distinction is important for other practical reasons, specifically, stopping the violence. While certain methods may be helpful to prevent opportunistic or survival-driven violence, transforming drivers of violence that has an extremist ideology behind it requires an engagement with those ideas. This is particularly true if the ideas are the shared basis for group belonging. Also, recalling the idea of permissible extremisms, there is a serious risk of stigmatization of belief aimed at “permissible extremists” who are not advocating for or practicing violence. 

When teaching how to prevent violent extremism (PVE) in Kenya recently, the conversation turned to violent extremist “early warning” signs. It became quickly evident that in a vacuum, these early warning signs may have described extremist ideology, but in no way predetermined extremist violence. In fact, some research has shown that, in the case of Islam, deep religious knowledge and piety are actually inversely correlated with support for extremist violence. One has to be especially careful not to target groups for their extreme ideas in a society that embraces freedom of thought and belief.

In the end, what one is trying to prevent when engaging in PVE work is the violence. The fact that violence is associated with extreme beliefs is important for determining certain preventative actions, such as building resilience against extremist recruitment. Violence prevention, however, has some similar strategies no matter what is the key driving factor. Physical apprehension, disarmament, and the protection of potential targets, for instance, are all strategies that apply equally to the prevention of extremist violence and the prevention of petty crime. 

Where the distinction truly lies is in the ideas that serve to justify violence, and thereby in their potential transformation. In one case violence might be driven by practical, historical, or political needs or interests, but not represent a worldview that is absolutist, outside the mainstream, rejects other worldviews, and seeks to increase adherence to the belief. This violence is not, therefore, extremist. On the other hand, certain ideologies that fit that definition do not encourage violence to advance their ideas. Therefore, in the Western liberal democratic context, they are not legitimate targets in seeking to reduce violence. We may wish to change those beliefs because we find them corrosive to a certain civil society model, but those are interventions that rely on the free competition of ideas. If an ideology requires violence as a criterion for belonging to an identity group, then transforming the belief system itself could constitute a target for more severe intervention to prevent violence.

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Prosecuting Violent Extremism While Not Persecuting Extremism