Extremism is "the quality or state of being extreme" or "the advocacy of extreme measures or views". The term is primarily used in a
political Politics (from , ) is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. The branch of social science that studies ...
religious Religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elem ...
sense, to refer to an
ideology An ideology () is a set of beliefs or philosophies attributed to a person or group of persons, especially as held for reasons that are not purely epistemic, in which "practical elements are as prominent as theoretical ones." Formerly applied prima ...
that is considered (by the speaker or by some implied shared social consensus) to be far outside the
mainstream The mainstream is the prevalent current thought that is widespread. It includes all popular culture and media culture, typically disseminated by mass media. This word is sometimes used in a pejorative sense by subcultures who view ostensibly mai ...
attitudes of society. It can also be used in an economic context. The term is usually meant to be
pejorative A pejorative or slur is a word or grammatical form expressing a negative or a disrespectful connotation, a low opinion, or a lack of respect toward someone or something. It is also used to express criticism, hostility, or disregard. Sometimes, a t ...
. However, it may also be used in a more academic, purely descriptive, non-condemning sense. Extremists views are typically contrasted with those of
moderate Moderate is an ideological category which designates a rejection of radical or extreme views, especially in regard to politics and religion. A moderate is considered someone occupying any mainstream position avoiding extreme views and major social c ...
s. In
Western countries The Western world, also known as the West, refers to various regions, nations and states, depending on the context, most often consisting of the majority of Europe, the Americas, and Australasia.Islam Islam (;There are ten pronunciations of ''Islam'' in English, differing in whether the first or second syllable has the stress, whether the ''s'' is or , and whether the ''a'' is pronounced , or (when the stress is on the first syllable) ( ...
or on Islamic political movements, the distinction between
extremist Extremism is "the quality or state of being extreme" or "the advocacy of extreme measures or views". The term is primarily used in a political or religious sense, to refer to an ideology that is considered (by the speaker or by some implied sha ...
moderate Muslim Moderate Islam, moderation in Islam and ''moderate muslim'' is a label used within counterterrorism discourse as the complement of "Islamic extremism", implying that the support of Islamic terrorism is the characteristic of a "radical" faction withi ...
s is commonly stressed. Political agendas perceived as extremist often include those from the
far-left politics Far-left politics are politics further to the left of the left–right political spectrum than the standard political left. There are different definitions of the far-left. Some scholars define it as representing the left of social democracy whi ...
far-right politics Far-right politics, also referred to as the extreme right or right-wing extremism, are politics further on the right of the left–right political spectrum than the standard political right, particularly in terms of being anti-communist, authori ...
as well as radicalism,
reactionism In political science, a reactionary or reactionist is a person or entity holding political views that favour a return to a previous political state of society that they believe possessed positive characteristics that are absent in contemporary socie ...
fundamentalism Fundamentalism usually has a religious connotation that indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs. However, fundamentalism has come to be applied to a tendency among certain groups – mainly, although not exclusively, in rel ...
fanaticism Fanaticism (from the Latin adverb ''fānāticē'' ren-''fānāticus''; enthusiastic, ecstatic; raging, fanatical, furious is a belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal or an obsessive enthusiasm. Philosopher George Santayana defines ''fanatic ...


There have been many different definitions of extremism. Peter T. Coleman and Andrea Bartoli give observation of definitions: 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 are often viewed as cohesive and consistently evil, it is important to recognize that they may be conflicted or ambivalent psychologically as individuals, or contain 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.

Theories of extremism

Eric Hoffer Eric Hoffer (July 15, 1902 – May 21, 1983) was an American moral and social philosopher. He was the author of ten books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983. His first book, ''The True Believer'' (1951), was widely ...
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 ''
The True Believer ''The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements'' is a non-fiction book authored by American philosopher Eric Hoffer. Published in 1951, it depicts a variety of arguments in terms of applied world history and social psychology to e ...
'' and ''The Passionate State of Mind'' about the psychology and sociology of those who join "fanatical" mass movements. Schlesinger wrote ''The Vital Center'', championing a supposed Centrism, "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. 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. Laird Wilcox identifies 21 alleged traits of a "political extremist", ranging from "a tendency to character assassination" and 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". "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 opposing religious zealots, may mean only that all these are "unacceptable" from the standpoint of a supposed mainstream or majority. Economist Ronald Wintrobe 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":


Among the explanations for extremism is one that views it as a plague. 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." Extremism is seen as not a tactic, nor an ideology, but as a pathological illness which feeds on the destruction of life.Dr. Peter T. Coleman and Dr. Andrea Bartoli
Addressing Extremism
pp. 3–4
Kathleen Taylor (biologist), Dr. Kathleen Taylor believes religious fundamentalism is a mental illness and that is "curable." There are distinct psychological features of extremists that contribute to conflict among societal groups
Jan-Willem van Prooijen
identified them as psychological distress, cognitive simplicity, overconfidence and intolerance. 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". Extremism is seen by other researchers as a "rational strategy in a game over power", as described in the works of Eli Berman. In a 2018 study at University College London, scientists have demonstrated that people with extreme political views (both extreme right and extreme left) had significantly worse metacognition, or the ability of a person to recognize they are wrong and modify their views when presented with contrary evidence, thus creating an opinion that supports only their idea of wrong and right. People found on either of the political extremes were shown to have much greater (but misplaced) confidence in their beliefs, and resisted change. A 2019 study found that political extremism on both the left and right tended to have four common psychological features: psychological distress stimulates the adoption of an extreme ideological outlook, extreme ideologies tend to have relatively simplistic black-white perceptions of the social world, said mental simplicity causes overconfidence in judgements and political extremists are less tolerant of different groups and opinions than moderates.


After being accused of extremism, Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the mainstream usage of the term in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice…Was not Martin Luther an extremist…So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?" In his 1964 acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention, Barry Goldwater said, "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." 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." In Russian Federation, Russia, the Russian law, laws prohibiting extremist content are used (both by poorly trained officials and as part of an intentional politics to suppress opposition) to suppress the freedom of speech through very broad and flexible interpretation. Published material classified as "extremist", and thus prosecuted, included protests against the court rulings in the Bolotnaya Square case ("calling for illegal action"), criticism of overspending by a local governor ("insult of the authorities"), publishing a poem in support of Ukraine ("inciting hatred"), an open letter against a war in Chechnya by the writer Polina Zherebcova, the Jehovah's Witnesses movement in Russia, Raphael Lemkin, and articles by the initiator of the Genocide Convention of 1948.

Other terms

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. 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

* Christian terrorism * Cumulative extremism * Domestic Extremism Lexicon * False consensus effect * Fundamentalism * Hate group * Hindutva * Horseshoe theory * Islamic extremism * Kahanism * Political extremism in Japan * Religious persecution * Sikh extremism * Terrorism * Vigilantism * Violent extremism


Cited publications

* George, John and Laird Wilcox. ''Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America''  Prometheus Books, 1992. () * Himmelstein, Jerome L. ''All But Sleeping with the Enemy: Studying the Radical Right Up Close''  American Sociological Association, ASA, San Francisco, California, San Francisco: 1988 * Eric Hoffer, Hoffer, Eric. ''
The True Believer ''The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements'' is a non-fiction book authored by American philosopher Eric Hoffer. Published in 1951, it depicts a variety of arguments in terms of applied world history and social psychology to e ...
: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements''. Various editions, first published 1951. * Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Schlesinger, Arthur. ''The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom''. Various editions, first published 1949. * Wilcox, Laird. "What Is Political Extremism", retrieved fro
''The Voluntaryist'' newsletter #27, 1987

Further reading

* Maajid Nawaz, Nawaz, Maajid
''Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism'' (Lyons Press, 2013)
* Bibi van Ginkel
''Engaging Civil Society in Countering Violent Extremism'' (ICCT – The Hague, 2012)

External links

{{Wiktionary, extremism

at the Library of Congress contains materials on Extremist Movements. Extremism, Anti-intellectualism Barriers to critical thinking Political ideologies Political spectrum Political theories