ExtremismNot All Types of Extremism Are Terrorism – Conflating the Two Is Dangerous

By Daniel Kirkpatrick and Recep Onursal

Published 12 September 2019

Extremism has tended to refer to both violent and non-violent forms of political expression, whereas terrorism is predominantly violent. To be an extremist could mean anything from being a nationalist, a communist, to being an animal rights activist – as long as this ideology is regarded as extreme relative to the government’s position. But extremism and terrorism should not be simply interlinked, and it is worrying that more and more the meaning of terrorism is extended to cover both violent and non-violent extremism.

When the Conservative MP Nigel Evans was interrupted during a television interview in early September by an anti-Brexit protester, he criticised the “extremism” of Remainers. Back in February, the avowed Brexiteer Jacob Rees–Mogg warned that delaying Brexit would risk a surge in right–wing extremism. Others have also blamed Brexit for the rise of “extremist views” from both ends of the political spectrum – and complained that extremism is being encouraged from the top.

But the word extremism shouldn’t be used lightly. As Sara Khan – the lead commissioner at the Commission for Countering Extremism – said in July: “We shouldn’t lazily throw around the word ‘extremism’. We need to use it with precision and care.”

In less turbulent times, this ambiguity in the meaning of extremism might not have been a big concern. However, considering the division in British society that’s been exposed and gradually deepened by Brexit, this remains a pressing problem.

The government officially defines extremism as the “Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs … calls for the death of members of our armed forces (are also) extremist.”

According to a recent survey, 75 percent of public respondents find this definition “very unhelpful” or “unhelpful.” A recent study even showed that far–right groups with clearly dangerous ideology are using the definition to “prove” that they are not extremist.

These conceptual challenges are also reflected within the language of politics. In our recent analysis of British parliamentary debates between 2010 and 2017, we discovered a significant and worrying convergence between the terms “terrorism” and “extremism” to the point where they are increasingly being used interchangeably.

These terms have in many ways converged in political discourse replicating the same frames of reference for both concepts. Back in 2013, the then-prime minister, David Cameron, referred to the “extremist ideology that perverts and warps Islam to create a culture of victimhood and justify violence”. He argued that the UK “must confront that ideology in all its forms … and not just on violent extremism.”