Exploring tricky questions on extremism

Elisa Orofino and William Allchorn, editors, Routledge Handbook of Non-Violent Extremism: Groups, perspectives and new debates, Routledge, Abingdon and New York, 2023, pp xxiii and 500.

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

For all the government initiatives to counter extremism, and notwithstanding a mass of studies attempting to define and analyse it, the category remains contested and unstable. For some people, this is the case even where people turn to violence and terrorism: in the old but still troubling adage, one person’s ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter’ or, at least, a champion of their cause.

The question of whether it is possible, appropriate or useful to categorise people as extremists when they are not advocating violence – perhaps when they are explicitly disavowing violence as strategy or tactic – is even more vexed. For some people, when a senior politician or influential journalist says that environmental campaigners using ‘direct action’ or protestors against a monarch’s coronation are ‘extremist’, this is a crude and worrying attempt to demonise and discredit them, rather than acknowledge their concerns – and their right to protest.

Given the need for clear exploration of issues to do with extremism, this substantial collection of pieces edited by Elisa Orofino and William Allchorn is a welcome addition to the literature. Their introduction surveys some of the methodological issues, making distinctions between people (1) endorsing specific radical ideas at the same time as displaying ‘evident personal zeal’ and ‘excluding more mainstream actions’ from their efforts to achieve their goals; (2) expressing vocal opposition to mainstream values; and (3) carrying out violent, terrorist actions. It is the middle stage in this ‘continuum’ which Orofino and Allchorn categorise as extremism, when radicals have ‘moved to the next step, opposing the enemy (mostly the establishment) with all the legal tools available (generally protests, petitions, demonstrations and online campaigns) but without using violence’.

Defining people who are using available legal tools as ‘extremist’ raises tricky questions: should they not more accurately be seen as legitimate political actors, even though their views and ambitions are in thoroughgoing opposition to the current social settlement? Orofino and Allchorn are alert to the risks and complexities of the issues they are discussing and, for example, do not go along with the ‘scholarly tendency’ to assume ‘that sooner or later all non-violent extremists will become terrorists’, an assumption which they say has prevented some academics from ‘studying the challenge against the national governments put forth by those groups whose pressure is not exercised through violence but through the power of ideas’.

The editors hope that their handbook will be ‘a comprehensive source touching on different kinds of extremism … going beyond the almost exclusive focus on Islamism that has become typical of recent studies’. It is, of course, the threat from ‘international terrorism’ (a phrase often used as a euphemism for violent Islamists), exemplified by the September 11 attacks of 2001, which has shaped the current framing of extremism: the concept’s extension to other actors, motivated by different ideologies, has proved challenging, and, for many Muslim people and anti-racist activists, the view that such initiatives as the UK government’s Prevent programme are entangled – at the least – with Islamophobia remains a barrier to their engagement.

Part Two of the book does include substantial chapters on aspects of Islamism, including Naveed S Sheik on Wahhabism; Jan Ali on the Tabligh Jama’at; and Lorenzo Vidino on debates in Britain on what to make of the Muslim Brotherhood. The editors have balanced these contributions on the theme which dominates discussion of extremism with analysis of other issues, including how forms of Buddhism have resourced repressive and violent actions against Muslim people in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

There are nine substantial chapters on non-violent movements on the ‘exclusionary right’, taking in examples from Britain, Germany, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and the USA. Allchorn’s own chapter confirms his thoughtful approach to analysing dynamics on the far-right, and the response of others to nativist and ‘nationalist’ activism (his 2019 book on how the police and local councils handled ‘anti-Islamic’ protests in several English towns and cities has previously been reviewed here). Discussing the under-researched Democratic Football Lads Alliance, he identifies ‘discursive, strategic and symbolic brakes’ which led the group ‘away from moving further up the conveyer belt of extremism to violent action’.

For this reviewer, the most interesting part of the book is the collection of pieces on ‘non-violent left-wing, feminist and environmental movements since the 1970s’. These take in the DiEM25 trans-national movement led by the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis; left-wing radicalism in Australia; what George Stevenson calls ‘the forgotten extremism of the British women’s movement’; the ‘rise of feminist consciousness in Chile’; and several environmentalist and animal rights campaigns.

Whilst the multi-authored chapter on DiEM25 is detailed and useful on its aims, policies and approaches, its single-instance and indirect categorisation of the movement as ‘extremist’ is offered without any attempt to explain why this label fits. Stevenson is more considered, acknowledging that extremism is a ‘nebulous’ concept, ‘inherently relational’ and ‘open to a myriad of definitions’, before determining that, if extremism is taken to mean ‘an explicit rejection of the rule of law and/or a direct challenge to state authorities’, then the British women’s liberation movement of the 1970s ‘should … be understood as [a] form of feminist extremism, albeit one that saw itself as challenging the extremism of a patriarchal capitalist political economy’. The credibility of some of Stevenson’s arguments is almost entirely undermined by his misjudged assertion that women’s liberation movement activists ‘existed within a milieu that included violent groups’ (a claim which seems to rest on references to a very small number of individual feminists who were involved in a defence group for Angry Brigade members in 1971-72: the assertion is misjudged not least because it is cast in all-encompassing terms).

Tahir Karakaş contributes a thoughtful chapter on the degrowth movement, with a focus on France, providing an historical account of the increasingly sophisticated and reflexive theories it draws on. He describes the degrowth’s movement’s radical aim to achieve ‘a definitive break with consumer society to create a different society around a new set of values’ whilst highlighting ‘its mistrust of politics as the conquest and exercise of power’, which expresses ‘its anti-authoritarian stance and its non-violent philosophy’.

In their closing editorial comments, Orofino and Allchorn highlight several areas for further research: an increased focus on individuals rather than on groups and organisations; breaking down disciplinary barriers so that there is more use made in ‘extreme studies’ of ‘the rich insights of criminology, social movement studies and cultural studies’; and the ‘need to better integrate micro, meso and macro perspectives’.

Alongside these developments, it would be good to see many academics and policy makers working harder in terms of theory, questioning and interrogating the very categories they are using to try and grasp the issues they are concerned with. This would help in making clear analytical distinctions between movements’ strategies and their programmatic positions: it’s important to distinguish these different but related elements, at the same time as understanding their relative importance and the varied ways in which they combine in particular organisations to form the specific political gravities and co-ordinates which motivate, shape and limit their members’ actions. In this reviewer’s opinion, it can only be a failure to do this sufficiently which leads Orofino and Allchorn (in a footnote) to identify the Italian Red Brigades as an ‘ideological counterpart that has taken terrorist action’ for DiEM25, the same confusion leading to the suggestion that National Action should be positioned as an ‘ideological counterpart’ to PEGIDA.

More accurate insights will come from following another of the editors’ footnoted pointers: ‘there was much debate’ amongst the book’s contributors, they say, on the question of ‘whether more structural forms of violence should be integrated into our analyses’. They encourage their readers to delve further into this question.

Review published May 2023.

Illustration: Protestors at the coronation of King Charles III, London, May 2023.