The Importance of Terminology

It is important to understand the distinction between radicalism, extremism and violence and the links between them

Abbas Aroua
Srinagar, Publish Date: Mar 22 2018 10:57PM | Updated Date: Mar 22 2018 10:57PM

In recent years, “countering/combating violent extremism” (CVE) or “preventing violent extremism” (PVE) has become a must in most peace building programs. Yet, the fast-growing interest in this topic belies the fundamental problem of the lack of a clear and broadly accepted definition of the VE concept. This paper aims to contribute to a more accurate definition of the terms used in the context of extremism and violence, to attempt a descriptive model of the extremization process, and to discuss the various approaches to de-extremization.

Extremism is not a “standalone” concept and has to be defined relative to a commonly agreed reference (a convention). In natural and social sciences, a normal standard distribution is represented graphically by a bell curve with a maximum at the median and a minimum at the two tails, which indicate the high and the low extremes relative to the median value. Within a community, the extreme may be viewed as a divergence from the norm accepted by the majority. Therefore, what is extreme depends on the context in which the norm is established. The median used as a reference may relate to norms set within the framework of national, international, community, or religious law. The high extreme represents excess and transgression of the norm. The low extreme is characterized by resignation from public action. The median is about acting without either transgression or resignation.

The term “radicalism” is frequently used in a pejorative sense in discussions relating to VE. Radicalism is related to “radical” which derives from the Latin radix meaning root. Political radicalism refers to the opinions and behaviour of people who advocate political changes at the root. Religious radicalism is about returning to the root, i.e. to an understanding and a practice of religion that comply with the religious sources as interpreted and lived by the early believers. It is therefore about orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Violence is “actions, words, attitudes, structures or systems that cause physical, psychological, social or environmental damage and/or prevent people from reaching their full human potential.” (Fisher et al. Working with Conflict. Zed Books & Responding to Conflict, 2000). The position with respect to direct violence, that may take the form of armed struggle, is usually based on three parameters: legitimacy, lawfulness and effectiveness. While pure pacifists consider that violence is not legitimate under any circumstances and is morally or ethically unacceptable, there is a widespread belief (religious or non-religious) that violence may be legitimate in certain situations (self-defence, resistance to occupation, defence of others, etc.). There are various dispositions in international law that make violence lawful and legal in situations of aggression or oppression. Religious law also recognizes the lawfulness of violence in certain situations (e.g. just war theory in Christianity, armed jihād in Islam). But recourse to arms is considered a disliked undertaking and authorized as a last resort only under certain conditions. The legality of such violence is determined by its justification and its optimization and implies compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) and/or religious laws of war (RLW). Lawful violence may be of high intensity; extreme violence is not about intensity but the degree by which it diverges from IHL and/or RLW. Most advocates of strategic non-violence do not contest the legitimacy and legality of violence, but they do not believe in its effectiveness.

It is important to understand the distinction between radicalism, extremism and violence and the links between them, not only for reasons of intellectual rigor, but, above all, to guarantee effective action against extreme violence and terrorism. Extremism and radicalism pertain to two different dimensions; the former is about the extent of “laterality” (how far from the median), the latter is about the degree of depth (how close to the root); religious radicals are in a quest for historical depth and closeness to the original message; political radicals for a depth in change. Moreover, radicals and extremists are not necessarily violent. Some radicals advocate non-violence, others non-extreme violence. Similarly, some extremists do not engage in violence, while others are attracted by extreme violence. Some radical groups may become extremist, but radicalism is not a prerequisite to extremism.

In the Islamic context, the Qur’ān bans excess and extremism in interpreting and practising religion: “Do not commit ghulu in your religion.” (4:171 & 5:77). Ghulu describes the attitude of leaning towards the extreme (extremitude). The Qur’ān proposes an alternative to ghulu; that is wasatiya which denotes leaning towards the median (medianitude): “Thus have We made you ummatan wasatan (a community of the golden mean).” (2:143)

Hate is at the heart of extremitude and Córdoban polymath Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126–1198) proposed a formula that identifies the drivers of hate and violence: “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence. This is the equation”. But, in addition to the pathway described by Ibn Rushd, two others lead to hate and violence, through “exclusion and frustration” or through “aggression and revenge”. Ignorance and exclusion are manifestations of structural violence, while aggression is direct violence. Extremization may also occur by empathy and an extremized individual does not need necessarily to be the victim of aggression and/or exclusion. S/he can be sensitive to that which affects others and share their suffering. Extremism is an acquired feature; it transcends gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and social status. Everybody has some degree of “extremability” and can become extremist if certain external and internal conditions are met. The individual can resist the attraction to the extremes if s/he has sufficient internal resources.

Extremization may be viewed as a three-step process. It starts (step 1) with an attitude change, a gradual shift from a state of medianitude to a state of extremitude. This is followed (step 2) by the construction of an ideological or religious framework to support the attitude. Extremitude becomes extremism. This consolidation phase is used to articulate, justify, rationalize the change in attitude. This may lead, but not necessarily, to a behavioural change and extremism may end up (step 3) in the use of extreme violence. The shift in attitude is triggered and driven by external factors: (geo)political, economic, social, cultural, and catalysed by internal (psychological) factors. The former may be referred to as root causes and the latter as aggravating conditions; all of them being push factors. There is also the facilitating environment that may attract individuals to extreme violence such as the propaganda of armed groups, the dissemination of extremist ideology in conventional media and social networks, the financial incentives, the recognition, validation and the sense of belonging and worth within a group, etc. These pull factors would not be operative in the absence of the root causes and/or the aggravating conditions. Any approach to extremism and violence limited to one of these factors is necessarily ineffective and often counterproductive.

There are various possible pathways towards non- violence or non-extreme violence, and to extremism and violence.

Pathway 1. medianitude > extremitude > extreme violence: For individuals more emotional than rational, ideological/religious consolidation is not a necessary step to extreme violence.

Pathway 2. medianitude > extremitude > extremism > extreme violence: For individuals more rational than emotional, ideological/religious consolidation is essential for rationalizing the extremist attitude, for justifying the use of violence, and for articulating and expressing emotions and producing a rhetoric. It also serves as a cement to assure group cohesion.

Pathway 3. medianitude > extremism > extremitude > extreme violence: Extremist ideology does not operate effectively on an individual who has not undergone a change of attitude. Without extremitude, extremism remains in an abstract non-operative state. A religious or ideological text has little effect in a non-favorable social and political context.

Pathways 4 & 5: The individual is immunized against the temptation of a change in attitude and resists falling into extremitude and extremism. S/he responds to the aggression or exclusion either by non-extreme lawful violent means (Pathway 4. medianitude > non-extreme violence), or by non-violent means with a firm belief that this is the most effective, legitimate and lawful way to effect a positive change (Pathway 5. medianitude > nonviolence). The challenge of any de-extremization strategy is to reduce the probability of pathways 1 to 3 and, simultaneously, to increase the probability of pathways 4 or 5.

One way of addressing extremization is to amputate the above mentioned bell curve distribution of its high extreme. This is the doctrine of undifferentiated eradication, the pure and hard security approach or securitism. This approach has, in the past couple of decades, shown its limits and proved to be ineffective, even counterproductive. Expressions like “destroy the group” are an illusion. An individual can be killed, an organization can be defeated militarily, but if the root causes of extremization are not removed, the organization will regenerate, or even worse another more violent one will arise from its ashes. Moreover, this approach tends to enhance and expand the low extreme of resignation, falsely presented as a form of resilience, which often contributes to maintaining an unjust social and political status quo. This, in turn, will necessarily regenerate the high extreme.


Abbas Aroua is a medical physicist and adjunct professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the Lausanne University, Switzerland. He is director of the Cordoba Foundation of Geneva for Peace Studies and Convener for the Arab world for TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. For full text visit




This site uses cookies to deliver our services and to show you relevant news and ads. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Cookie Policy, Privacy Policy, and our Terms of Service.That's Fine