Era In Extremis: The Enigma of Extremism

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This particular article, "The Enigma Of Extremism", asks important questions about the false dichotomy of the us and them discourse surrounding extremism. Written against the backdrop of the "Teddy Bear" fiasco in Sudan in 2007, it takes in legal theory, jurisprudence philosophy and sociology. I consider the manner in which we define extremism, the inner immorality of extremism, extremism as a lack of proportionality and extremism and the war on symbols.

Submitted: February 19, 2015

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Submitted: February 19, 2015



The Enigma Of Extremism

Elliot Borges


Is extremism always extremism?


Extremism at the turn of the millennium has become one of the most value laden words in the history of the English language. To be an extremist is to be beyond the pale of human comparison, to be subhuman lacking moral and intellectual authority. The truth is, though we dare not admit it, extremism as most people around the world now understand it, is a racialised word too. For when most people picture an extremist, they think of the Arab wearing traditional dress, brilliant white kufi, kurta-pajama, beard et al. Never before has the “other” been so prone to caricature, to negative self-identification. To be an extremist is to be a Muslim, to be a danger to “our” way of life, irrespective of whether the our relates to North America or Australia. It is to be sexist, and misogynistic, if not a complete sexual deviant, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, unjust and violent. It is everything we are but pretend not to be.

The etymology of the word itself tells a very different story. The word “extremist” does not discriminate in the universality of its application but it has an inbuilt bias in terms of its usage today. An extremist is by his or her very nature incapable of reason. Yet science teaches us that every action has an opposite reaction. Therein lies the paradox - how can we understand the concept of extremism without committing the crime of extremism? Is it logistically possible to be an extremist opponent of extremism?

Philosophy can not provide us with all the answers. But it can provide us with a starting point. In order to understand the word we must strip it naked - of all its connotations and synonyms. We must ignore the picture that springs to our mind when we utter the word. For the purposes of our exercise the particular extremist that we are envisaging is not a Muslim fundamentalist. He is not a sexist, a racist, an anti-Semite or a homophobe. He is not a person of colour. In fact he is not a foreign national. And so we arrive at the particular juncture in our train of thought at which our mind draws blank. Who is he?

The term is now thought of as a pejorative one and an insult to the extent that it is exonymic. There is no religious group or political party that would wilfully categorise its opinions as extremist in any way. Yet is it beyond question that the word must carry a negative connotation? Is it not possible for one to object to murder, rape or famine in an extremist fashion? Is this not desirable?

Allow me to import a workable definition of extremism into the discussion. Think of it as a term used to describe the actions or ideologies of individuals or groups outside the perceived political centre of a society; or otherwise claimed to violate common standards of ethics and reciprocity. It is typically used in reference to political and social ideologies seen as irrational, counterproductive, unjustifiable, or otherwise unacceptable to a civil society. The term connotes the illegitimacy of certain ideas or methods.

Allow me next to suggest that this definition tells us very little. Surely the definition can not be applied to any given society. One thinks of the actions of 54-year-old British teacher Gillian Gibbons who at the time of writing is facing the prospect of 15 days in jail after a Sudanese court sentenced her for allowing her pupils to call a teddy bear Muhammad. If for argument’s sake the majority of people who constitute the society of Sudan would deem her action a crime or violation of their standards and ethics, would we in the West, aghast with horror at the case that unfolds before us in full glare of the spotlight of the international media, so readily label Gillian Gibbons an extremist? If we apply the definition above to the case in question there seems to be a good fit but instinctively it feels wrong. It offends our moral intuition. Obeying rules that you have formulated yourself is no great discipline.

Jerome Himmelstein is a critic of the concept: “At best this characterization tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels; at worst it paints a false picture.”  According to the work of Eric Hoffer, who authored The True Believer and The Passionate State of Mind, both Communism and Fascism were defined in the postwar western democracies as extremist movements, as were other groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. The term was also used at times to describe groups which held views outside of the mainstream but which did not advocate militant or violent action, including: The John Birch Society, the Nation of Islam, and the nuclear disarmament movement.

So the meaning of the word is in a constant state of flux. It would seem to change as frequently as our geopolitical allegiances and interests in the West - always reflecting the wider psycho-social concerns of our psyche, which the media tap into as it becomes  one of the primary sites of social inclusion and exclusion. It is not that the concept is nebulous but rather that it is hollow - completely devoid of any tangible meaning. It is a political weapon used just as easily by the Jihaadist as it is by the neo-Conservative political discourse of the American right to stifle and to short-circuit the debate.


The inner immorality of extremism:


Extremism rather like terrorism is a social construct which is used against the context  of a wider policy of the government and the media to create a climate of fear so as to further their own respective interests. As June Jordan writes (1995:21): “I came to recognise media constructions such as “The Heartland” or “Politically Correct” or “The Welfare Queen” or “Illegal Alien” or “Terrorist” or “The Bell Curve” for what they were: multiplying scattershots intended to defend one unifying desire - to establish and preserve white supremacy as our bottom line”. In spite of its tangibly traumatic consequences, the definition of an act or an opinion as an extremist one depends upon its being recognised as such - an act or opinion that transgresses the laws and norms of any given society. Once one has accepted this premise, one tends naturally to pose questions of moral authority as regards which consensus of opinion holds the most appropriate definition. These concepts are controversial for the fact that they seem to apply just as easily to the foreign policy of the nation states of the West as they do to the acts and ideologies of those people we most commonly associate with them. Extremism can mean just what those people using it want it to.

The definition is therefore a circular one. We define extremists as those who would just as readily define us as extremists. Like mirrors facing mirrors, the word or rather insult is reflected back and forth infinitely until it simply loses all meaning. Yet we have to get to grips with it.

To my thinking what offends one’s sense of fairness and moral intuition about the Sudan “Teddy Bear” case is the complete absence of any sense of proportion in the sentence meted out to Gillian Gibbons for her actions. My training as a lawyer might have geared me to think of the case in these terms as proportionality is a key component of the rule of law ideal which is perhaps predictably, despite the concession of its critics that it is of enduring importance as a central artefact in our legal and political culture, itself a divisive term.

The principle of proportionality operates so as to place limitations on the amount of force that may properly be used in conditions of necessity. No individual should have his or her interests sacrificed except to the extent that it is firstly absolutely necessary and secondly reasonably proportionate to the harm committed or threatened. If we apply the principle to the facts of the Sudan “Teddy Bear” case, we begin to appreciate that the sentence fails on both of these counts. What this principle enshrines in effect is the harm principle espoused by John Stuart Mill in his Essay on Liberty (1859), which states the classic liberal view of the relationship between law and morality.  So in cases of conflicting rights the authority should inflict only the minimum harm necessary. Extremism and proportionality are mutually exclusive. Wherever an extremist view is acted upon, there will be a gross mismatch of the seriousness of the “crime” committed  and the seriousness of the punishment.

When John Stuart Mill states “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”, his view is extensive enough to preclude the law from intervening on a paternalistic basis. Contrast his position with that of the advocates of Sharia law, the traditional Islamic law, which might at best be described as a far-reaching moral code that prescribes how Muslims should properly conduct their lives. In 2002, it came under intense international scrutiny when it was revealed that a young Nigerian woman had been sentenced to death by stoning for bearing a child out of wedlock - another gross mismatch of the seriousness of the “crime” committed and the seriousness of the punishment. Within Sharia law, there is a category of crimes known as the hudud (Koranic) offences, for which there are specific penalties for particular crimes. For example, fornication is punished by stoning, the consumption of alcohol by lashing and theft by the amputation of limbs.

The implementation of Sharia law in some Muslim societies would by the standards of most ordinary reasonable minded people in the West be deemed to constitute an act of extremism. It is my view that what we find repulsive in extremism is reducible to a lack of proportionality and its failure to adhere to the harm principle that enshrines it.

The second thing about the Gillian Gibbons debacle that in my view requires attention is the symbolic significance. The “teddy bear” is a symbol of purity and innocence that signifies childhood. The mind association of the teddy bear now juxtaposed with the “evil” face of extremism struck a nerve in our collective consciousness because we are currently engaged in a war of symbols. The burning of the US flag by Islamic fundamentalists, the Muslim woman dressed in burqa - a ghostly symbol of separatism in our allegedly multicultural society.

The Sydney race riots of 2005, though misguided and hard to justify, were a manifestation of the frustration felt by white Australians at losing the symbolic war on Islam. For centuries the beach had been a great equalising force in Australian society if not the social microcosm that epitomises it - the place where people of all colours and creeds put aside their differences to strip down and enjoy a surf or a suntan on the beach. In many ways the beach was the embodiment of the nation’s egalitarian image of itself but before the Sydney riots it had become the very place where cultural and religious differences are being glaringly magnified. Muslim women now frequented the beach covered from head to toe in traditional Islamic dress, whilst Australians stopped in their tracks, staring nervously and trying to make sense of this presence. The burqa is just another commodity that has become dissociated from its apparent function but is now more important as a symbol.

The late French philosopher Baudrillard argued that in late Twentieth Century global society the excess of signs and of meaning had caused a (quite paradoxical) effacement of reality. Because the "global" world operates at the level of the exchange of signs and commodities, symbols are exchanged violently as is evident in the strategy of the terrorists.

The threat posed by 21st century terrorism is one that is peculiarly conducive to fear because it is of the type that has never before been seen - suicide bombing by terrorists born and raised in the UK and the 9/11 attacks striking at the heart of the symbols of Western capitalism and might (the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon). The terrorists’ use of sacrifice and their disregard for the value of human life created a mass spectacle. The manner in which the Twin Towers came crumbling down was a symbol of the suicidal nature of hegemonic power. By watching the audience became complicit in the mass consumption of death. We have reached a particular juncture in our evolution at which we are now watching society destroy itself.

Now that I have structured my own understanding of extremism that is free from an inbuilt bias,  it is my intention to address these two points and place the characteristics that I have just adverted to into some type of context.

Extremism as a lack of proportionality:


My understanding of the concept entailed the complete absence of proportionality in the actions or ideologies of individuals or groups outside the perceived political centre of a society. But what happens when the perceived political centre of society does not condemn an idea or governmental policy that would otherwise appear extremist?

There has been disproportion in our treatment of Muslims in the West since the September 11th 2001 atrocities yet few reasonable minded Brits or Americans would consider the backlash against Muslims to be an extremist one. Draconian anti-terrorism measures such as internment without charge, control orders and house arrest are normally associated with Burma and Zimbabwe. Yet this is what is happening in Britain today. The passage of the UK Extradition Act 2003, which was fast-tracked through parliament without sufficient scrutiny or debate, allows the UK to extradite any individual to the US without the need for the US to provide prima facie evidence to support the extradition request.

Some people argue that this is no less than what is necessary to keep Britain safe, yet the equation takes on a different complexion when one considers that only 23 of 895 arrestees under the Terrorism Act 2000 in between 11 September 2001 and 30 September 2005 have been convicted. This tells us that about 97% of all people who were arrested as terror suspects during this time were completely innocent, which few people could argue conforms to the proportionality principle. Is this really the minimum harm necessary to protect our society from extremism or is this itself this a form of the disproportion we see and abhor in extremism?

The amount of media coverage that is attached to horror stories such as the case of Gillian Gibbons can be disproportionate too. Only in the West are we so arrogant to publicise so unreservedly the case of one British woman being sentenced to 15 days in prison, whilst at the same time detaining and torturing prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan for years without charge.

The Israeli government legalized "moderate physical pressure," with controls to limit its use. However, once permitted, thousands of “suspects” were tortured, and the practice became routine and systematic. Even though the Israeli High Court banned the practice in 1999, Amnesty International continues to document Israeli authorities' use of torture. Leaving aside the moral repugnancy of legalising torture, this reasoning overlooks the very well proven fact that evidence obtained from torture is completely unreliable. The US does not deny that it is using sensory deprivation and “interrogation in depth” techniques banned in 1972 by the British government after such methods resulted in wrongful convictions.

A quick cursory glance at any internet forum discussing the case of Gillian Gibbons is itself revealing for the disproportionately harsh condemnation of and alarmingly casual incitement to murder all Muslims. British people talk of the mass deportation of Muslims, putting them all in British jails or even dropping a bomb on all Muslim nations to rid the world of this problem. All this hardly seems like a proportionate response to one British woman being held in a Sudanese prison, when she herself has urged the media not to use her case to inspire resentment of Muslims. The sentence that was handed to her is seen in terms of a cultural pathology rather than the action of the judiciary in one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world with a very poor record of human rights and one that is unable even to protect its own citizens from crimes against humanity.


Extremism and the war of symbols:


No war can be fought by one side. The West has been just as guilty of employing symbols in our “War On Terror”. The notorious 1, 600 or so photographs depicting Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib reflect another pornographic fantasy played out before the viewer. Stripped naked the prisoners are both the objects of desire and hatred. Some of the prisoners wear hoods, so that they are seen but cannot see. The acts carried out for the camera include sitting on, bashing, sodomizing and masturbating an Arab man. The perspective of the camera is that of the guard. The viewer is intended to feel as if he is the one in control -  pointing the gun, holding the dog. Prisoners are shown in a variety of positions. One photo shows Private Lynddie England holding a cord around the neck of a naked Iraqi, sprawled out on the floor like an animal - a psychologically revealing and disturbing attempt at the complete role reversal and violation of Islamic norms which  enshrine sexual reticence of men and women in particular. Such dehumanising depictions of Iraqi war prisoners bear a chilling resemblance to the postcards that portrayed the lynching and genital mutilation, the fear and fetishising of black slaves in America.

The very small percentage of British Muslim women who wear veils might indeed be unwise to adopt a physical signifier of difference but this symbol also leads to them being sworn at, spat on, beaten and having their veils physically removed from their faces as Muslims have become the biggest victims of racial violence in the UK in recent years.  During the Iraq war pornography had to be banned in the US because it recreated the rape of Iraqi women by US soldiers. After the row over Muslim veils in September 2006 there was also an increased interest in “Hijaab porn” (“Blue Nun”, Channel 4, 16 October 2006).

But why have we taken to adopting symbolism and symbolic victories as our mode of attack against the Muslim world? Why do they respond with symbols like that of the Twin Towers collapsing in turn? The explanation for this lies in the manner in which authority operates.

Let us consider what authority means in a parental context. The father who has real authority over his child is the father who has only to raise his voice to strike fear into his son. He always maintains control, perhaps threatening to beat him if his son misbehaves but never actually doing it. The authority of the father is therefore symbolic or what we might describe as virtual authority. If the father does actually lose his temper and beat the child, this is no more than a vulgar display of power and of course the child might feel physical pain but there is this unspoken feeling that his father now seems impotent, lacking control and mastery of his emotions like a puppet. The authority on display here is self-destructive and the child loses respect for his father for beating him. This is not real authority. So we begin to see that for authority to be real, it has to remain symbolic - it has to be a type of virtual authority.

This translates into our political lives too. If Bush and Blair in waging their “War On Terror” had actually sought to defeat and destroy the whole of the Muslim world as the victors of any war should do and as many of the most virulent critics of Islam would encourage them to do, the West would undermine its authority like our drunken father. The West would seem like the extremists. Instead the West too has sought to make its victories symbolic. To retain its virtual authority. The Danish cartoon row is an illustration of the manner in which the West has sought to score symbolic victories against Islam.




It would seem apparent therefore that once we strip extremism of its connotations and mental associations and seek to understand the concept outside the context of the racialized cultural pathology discourse, there is rather less difference between ourselves and the extremists than we would like to imagine.

It is my view that when we talk about extremism in the West we have entered the realm of the virtual - or what I like to describe as the reality of the virtual. Consider the example of the cult of Santa Claus. If we ask the fathers of the household whether they believe in Father Christmas, they will with few exceptions tell us that they obviously do not. They simply dress up and go through the festive ritual to please their children. But of course when we ask the children of the family whether they believe in Father Christmas, they too will assert that they do not but that they pretend to in order to reward the effort of the father. Father Christmas exists only in the virtual. Yet the virtual can have real effects because when Father Christmas sits the child on the knee and tells the child to behave if he wants to receive his Christmas present the child will do so. There are real effects that have been created by something that does not exist.

Similarly in the capitalist democracies of the West, we do not really believe in democracy. Like multiculturalism it is a myth, a symbol that we have all made a silent but mutual pact to uphold in order to save face. One cannot build an existent ontology from one’s belief in democracy - ultimately it is meaningless - there are just too many contradictions in practice and an insuperable gap between the ideal and the reality. We choose not to believe in it too much because we feel somehow above people who take their religious beliefs too seriously. We are repulsed by them as they appear to us as puppets - abdicating all freedom. We pretend to believe in democracy for the sake of some virtual entity who we wish not to disappoint.

Yet the vast majority of Muslims do not believe in Islam too much. They themselves are keeping up appearances, trying to save face. Like the Polish Sunday worshippers at a small town church, the Turks, the Lebanese, even the Pakistanis and the Iranians do not really believe in the scriptures of the Koran. Yet we Westerners act in reality as if this whole strata of their being, namely the absence of genuine religious conviction, does not exist. We presuppose that they believe. We presuppose that they are extremists - that they support the jailing and detention of a British woman for naming a Teddy Bear Muhammad. And they in turn do the same to us.

The Iranian philosopher Dr Abdulkarim Soroush argues that there are two Islams. The Islam as an alleged religious truth (which we may think of as religious belief) and the Islam as an identity (which we may think of as a socio-political symbol). In the context of our discussion this distinction is a useful one as it corresponds with the lineation of the real and the virtual. In the 21st century reality has been subordinated by the virtual. We live in an era where appearance counts for more than inner reality - where people refer not to the Islam that claims (rightly or wrongly) to be a means of exploring the truth of a higher power but to Islam as the political ideology and identity of the gun-toting, shaheed seeking maniac.

There is no neutral way to define the difference between the extremists and the West. In itself it is a void. Yet there is a reality of the virtuality of our belief in democracy and their belief in Islam. It functions as reality. It is real enough because the consequences are real. The belief that Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very effect of labelling people as extremists become the justification for doing so in the first place.

Just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral, so extremism as we now use the term exists to conceal the fact that we too are extremists. The notion of liberal extremism sooner or later exposes itself as the oxymoron it appears to be. Much like the sexually repressed father who scalds his daughter for dressing too provocatively, this self-defence mechanism and safety valve allows us to deflect any feelings of guilt  over our own extremist tendencies by giving the “other” his “just deserts”, reinforcing the line between us and them each time, and the desire that we have to punish is a manifestation of the inner conflict we face in seeking to repress our own extremist inclinations.

There is an unbridgeable ideational gap between our discourse on extremism and our policy on it which renders it futile. An ideal rational person would agree to his punishment as a moral necessity, but such a person would by definition never need to be punished because he would never be so irrational as to be an extremist. But the actual extremist, who is not subject to rational thinking, would break these norms and need punishment but would be by definition incapable of grasping the rational necessity and justification for it.

This means in effect that sanctions against or punishment of extremists does not work, which inevitably leads us to abandon our attempts to deal with extremists by employing reason and rationality. We decide the only alternative is to destroy them. So that comments like “The Arabs are a cancer, cancer, cancer in the midst of us…let me become defence minister for two months and you will not have a single cockroach around here! I promise you a clean Israel!” by Rabbi Meir Kahane and “And these are intelligent people, wealthy people. They are very depressed by the weakness that America is showing to thee psychotics in the Muslim world. They say, ‘Oh, there’s a billion of them.’ I said, “So, kill 100 million of them, then there’ll be 900 million of them.’ I mean, would you rather die --  would you rather us die than them?” by radio talkshow host Michael Savage, 17 April Talk Radio, The Savage Show become part of the same continuum of  this discourse. In order to defeat extremism, we become the extremists.

Elliot Borges is a legal scholar, published writer and novelist. He works as a lawyer in the City of London.


© Copyright 2019 Elliot Borges. All rights reserved.

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