Extremism is any ideology or political act far outside the perceived political center of a society; or otherwise claimed to violate common moral standards.[citation needed] In democratic societies, individuals or groups that advocate the replacement of democracy with an authoritarian regime are usually branded extremists, in authoritarian societies the opposite applies.

The term is invariably, or almost invariably, used pejoratively. Extremism is usually contrasted with moderation, and extremists with moderates. (For example, in contemporary discussions in Western countries of Islam, or of Islamic political movements, it is common for there to be a heavy stress on the distinction between extremist and moderate Muslims. It is also not uncommon to necessarily define distinctions regarding extremist Christians as opposed to moderate Christians, as in countries such as the United States).

Political agendas perceived as extremist often include those from the far left or far right as well as fundamentalism or, as a more general term, fanaticism.


Problem of definition of extremism

In different countries at different times were many different definitions of "extremism". Dr. Peter T. Dickman and Dr. Andrea Bartoli give short observation of definitions:[1]

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 character 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 normative 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 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.

Radicalism or extremism?

The terms extremism or extremist are almost always exonymic — i.e. applied by others to a group rather than by a group labeling itself. Rather than labeling themselves extremist, those labeled as such might describe themselves as, for example, political radicals. There is no political party that calls itself "right-wing extremist" or "left-wing extremist", and there is no sect of any religion that calls itself "extremist" or which calls its doctrine "extremism".

The term extremist is used to describe groups and individuals who have become radicalized, in some way, even though the term radical originally meant to go to the root of a (social) problem. The term radical is one not normally regarded as pejorative (except perhaps in the United States of America) and, unlike extremist, is sometimes used by groups in their description of themselves.

The term extremist is often used with reference to those who use or advocate violence against the will of society at large, but it is also used by some to describe those who advocate or use violence to enforce the will of the social body, such as a government or majority constituency. Those described as extremist would in general not accept that what they practice or advocate constitutes violence and would instead speak in terms of acts of "resistance"or militant action or the use of force. The word violence cannot be regarded as value-neutral. Ideology and methodology often become inextricably linked under the single term extremism.

The notion that there is a philosophy which can be described as extremism is considered by some to be suspect. Within sociology, several academics who track (and are critical of) extreme right-wing groups have objected to the term extremist, which was popularized by centrist sociologists in the 1960s and 1970s. As Jerome Himmelstein states the case: "At best this characterization tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels; at worst it paints a false picture." (Himmelstein, p. 7). The act of labeling a person, group or action as extremist is sometimes claimed to be a technique to further a political goal — especially by governments seeking to defend the status quo, or political centrists. In any event, the term extremist — like the word violence— cannot be regarded as value-neutral.

Theories of extremism

Laird Wilcox identifies 21 alleged traits of a "political extremist", ranging from behaviour like "a tendency to character assassination", over hateful behaviour like "name calling and labelling", to general character traits like "a tendency to view opponents and critics as essentially evil", "a tendency to substitute intimidation for argument" or "groupthink".[2]

Eric Hoffer and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. were two political writers during the mid-20th century who gave what purported to be accounts of "political extremism". Hoffer wrote books such as The True Believer and The Passionate State of Mind about the psychology and sociology of those who join "fanatical" mass movements. Schlesinger wrote books such as The Vital Center, championing a supposed "center" of politics within which "mainstream" political discourse takes place, and underscoring the alleged need for societies to draw definite lines regarding what falls outside of this acceptability.

In this way, both Communism and Fascism were described by some[who?] in the postwar "western democracies" as "extremist" movements, as were (arguably[who?] "fascist") groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. The term was also used at times[who?] to describe groups which held views outside of the "mainstream" but which did not necessarily advocate the use of physical force to achieve their objectives. Examples of such groups might be the Nation of Islam[citation needed] and the movement for nuclear disarmament.[citation needed]

Seymour Martin Lipset argued that besides the extremism of the left and right there is also an extremism of the center, and that it actually formed the base of fascism.[3]

Joining extremist groups has been seen to arise from beliefs about the acceptability of aggression towards the group’s target. For example, in Pakistan, beliefs about the acceptability of aggression against Jews were shown to predict who would join an extremist anti-Semitic group.[4] Cultural differences in acceptability about aggression towards certain groups may explain extremism towards certain targets, and as these beliefs can be easily changed through intervention, this may offer a way in which extremism can be discouraged.[4]

"Extremism" is not a stand-alone characteristic. The attitude or behavior of an "extremist" may be represented as part of a spectrum which ranges from mild interest through "obsession" to "fanaticism" and "extremism". The alleged similarity between the "extreme left" and "extreme right", or perhaps between different religious "zealots", may mean only that all these are "unacceptable" from the standpoint of a supposed mainstream or majority.

Economist Ronald Wintrobe[5] argues that many extremist movements, even though having completely different ideologies share a common set of characteristics. As an example, he lists the following common characteristics between "Jewish fundamentalists" and "the extremists of Hamas":[6]

  • Both are against any compromise with the other side.
  • Both want the entire land of Palestine for their group.
  • Both are entirely sure of their position.
  • Both advocate and sometimes use violence to achieve their ends.
  • Both are nationalistic.
  • Both are intolerant of dissent within their group.
  • Both demonize the other side, so that the members of Hamas, as viewed by the Israeli fundamentalists, sometimes sound exactly like the Israeli fundamentalists as viewed by Hamas.


Among the loved explanations for extremism is one that views it as a plague.[1] Arno Gruen said, "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." Thus extremism is seen as not a tactic, nor an ideology, but as a pathological illness which feeds on the destruction of life.[1]

Another view is that extremism is an emotional outlet for severe feelings stemming from "persistent experiences of oppression, insecurity, humiliation, resentment, loss, and rage" which are presumed to "lead individuals and groups to adopt conflict engagement strategies which “fit” or feel consistent with these experiences".[1]

Extremism is however seen by other researchers as a "rational strategy in a game over power".[1] See for instance the works of Eli Berman.

Uses of the term in "mainstream" politics

Barry Goldwater said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue" at the 1964 Republican Convention in a sentence attributed to his speechwriter Karl Hess.

Robert F. Kennedy said, "What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."

Since the 1990s, in United States politics the term Sister Souljah moment has been used to describe a politician's public repudiation of an allegedly extremist person or group, statement, or position which might otherwise be associated with his own party.

Other terms

The term "subversive" was often used interchangeably, in the United States at least, with "extremist" during the Cold War period, although the two words are not synonymous.

See also



External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • extremism — EXTREMÍSM s.n. Atitudine, doctrină a unor curente politice care, pe baza unor opinii, idei, păreri exagerate, unilaterale, extreme, urmăresc prin măsuri violente sau radicale să impună programul lor. – Din fr. extrémisme. Trimis de ana zecheru,… …   Dicționar Român

  • extremism — 1848, from EXTREME (Cf. extreme) + ISM (Cf. ism). I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. [Barry Goldwater (1909 1998), acceptance… …   Etymology dictionary

  • extremism — [ek strēm′iz΄əm, ikstrēm′iz΄əm] n. the quality or state of going to extremes, esp. the extreme right or extreme left in politics extremist adj., n …   English World dictionary

  • extremism — /ik stree miz euhm/, n. a tendency or disposition to go to extremes or an instance of going to extremes, esp. in political matters: leftist extremism; the extremism of the Nazis. [1860 65; EXTREME + ISM] * * * …   Universalium

  • extremism — [[t]ɪkstri͟ːmɪzəm[/t]] N UNCOUNT Extremism is the behaviour or beliefs of extremists. Greater demands were being placed on the police by growing violence and left and right wing extremism …   English dictionary

  • extremism — Synonyms and related words: Fabianism, Jacobinism, New Left, Old Left, abandon, anarchism, anarcho syndicalism, bigotry, boundlessness, conversion, criminal syndicalism, egregiousness, enormousness, exaggeration, excess, excessiveness,… …   Moby Thesaurus

  • extremism — extremist ► NOUN ▪ a person who holds extreme political or religious views. DERIVATIVES extremism noun …   English terms dictionary

  • extremism — noun Date: 1865 1. the quality or state of being extreme 2. advocacy of extreme measures or views ; radicalism • extremist noun or adjective …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • extremism — noun extreme ideas or actions See Also: extremist, extreme …   Wiktionary

  • extremísm — s. n …   Romanian orthography

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