National and International Issues

Defining Extremism and Terrorism

There is an ongoing debate in Jordan amongst scholars on the clear definition of extremism prominently iterated in a news item published in the February 28th issue of Jordan Times, stating that, "there is still no clear definition of ‘extremism’ in Jordan, experts warn". I am certain the same confusion is prevalent in many other countries which may also include Pakistan. Drawing on my military training which enables discerning black and white from shades of gray, I thought it imperative to contribute my views in endeavouring at a definition that could serve as the foundation for evolving a strategy to fight radicalism by all the elements of national power of any nation. It could also help launch a debate to arrive at a broadly acceptable definition of extremism, which is a prerequisite for devising a counter strategy.

The dictionary definition of extremism states that ‘it is the quality or state of being extreme or advocacy of extreme measures or view’. Nowadays, the term is mostly used in a political or religious sense, for an ideology that is considered to be far outside the acceptable mainstream attitudes of a society. The term “extremism” is usually meant to be pejorative and expresses (strong) disapproval. However, it may also be meant in a more academic, purely descriptive, non-condemnatory sense. Extremists are usually contrasted with centrists. Political agendas perceived as extremist often include those from the far-left politics or far-right politics, as well as radicalism, fundamentalism, reactionism and fanaticism.

There have been many different definitions of “extremism”. Peter T. Coleman and Andrea Bartoli have provided more elaborate definitions. Extremism is a complex phenomenon, although its complexity is often hard to see. Most simply, it comprises activities (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, strategies) of a character far removed from the ordinary. In conflict settings, it manifests itself as a severe form of conflict engagement. However, the labelling 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, any discussion of extremism should be mindful of the following: 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 (anti-social “terrorism”) which depends on the observer’s values, politics, moral scope, and the nature of 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 and historical accounts) change. Thus, the current and historical context of extremist acts shapes our views.

The terms ‘extremism’ or ‘extremist’ are almost always exonymic i.e., applied to a group by others rather than by a group labelling itself as extremists, as in the case of political radicals. There is no political party that calls itself “right-wing extremist” or “left-wing extremist”, and there is no sect of any religion that calls itself “extremist” or which calls its doctrine “extremism”. The term extremist is often used with reference to those who use or advocate violence against the will of society at large, but it is also used by some to describe those who advocate or use violence to enforce the will of the social body, such as a government or a majority constituency.

In the light of the foregoing, a rational definition of extremism could be, “An individual or a group which has extreme views, in conflict with the rest of the society, considers right only his version of views and imposes his views on others, if needed, by force”.

This definition has four distinct facets. It encompasses individuals, groups and organizations. Extreme views which may be in the realm of religion, politics, economics and social behaviour and are at variant or a contrast to popular beliefs of the rest of the society, considers that only his views or beliefs are righteous and others are on the wrong path and uses all means, pre-dominantly force, to instill these views into others. In the light of this definition, if we analyze the existing extremist organizations like Al-Qaeda, Daesh, Taliban etc. they embody these provisions. Their defining principle is ‘the imposition of the organization’s views on other segments of the society by the use of force and violent methods’.

In view of the ambiguous definitions provided by the Western societies regarding extremism and radical Islam, which could be subject to exploitation, it is the prime responsibility of Muslim scholars and states to define these terms in a rational perspective acceptable to Muslims all over the world. Extremism is outside the ambit of religious beliefs and dogmas. Narrowing its scope to Islam alone is a prejudiced approach. History is replete with examples of extremism manifested in other religions and societies.

While terrorism is an old phenomenon that has existed since antiquity, today we face a novel and a far more complex variant. It has changed its character and meaning over time. What was true for one terrorist group in a certain place, at a certain time, does not necessarily apply to another in a different country, at another time, reflecting different politics and traditions. As a result, consensus has become elusive over a universally accepted definition of terrorism. Conceptual problems positioned over the years can be reflected in the popular statement: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.
The absence of a universally agreed definition, however, does not mean lack of definition, or criminalization of terrorist acts within national jurisdiction. The diversity of contexts in which this kind of violence appeared over history and the many and often contending political causes, whose advocates use the definition for their own purposes makes it a difficult proposition. 9/11 created a new international dynamic that sought to de-legitimize any political violence aimed at civilians, irrespective of context and unwilling to distinguish this from resistance to state terrorism or foreign occupation.

The Resolution 1373 adopted by the United Nations Security Council on September 28, 2001 imposed wide ranging obligations on member states to combat terrorism in the absence of a definition of terrorism. Such ambiguity has served to emphasize the role of domestic legislation to criminalize terrorist offences. International counter-terrorism measures could not be implemented effectively due to the lack of a proper definition for terrorism. The United Nations has already adopted major international conventions or protocols (between 2001 and 2017), in addition to regional legal instruments, to provide the legal framework to prohibit various forms of terrorist behaviour.

The concept of “state terrorism” has been rejected by many Western countries on the grounds that the actions of states are already governed by rules of international law relating to state responsibility. This view has been endorsed by the UN Secretary General as well as the Report of his High Level Panel. But for many the question of states contravening international law remains an important and real one.

An agreed definition of terrorism enunciates, “Any action which is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization, to do or to abstain from any act”. Any definition that is not backed by consensus can have a divisive effect and hinder international counter-terrorism efforts.

These stipulated definitions of the most serious threat facing mankind today could provide a common ground for identification and initiation of a punitive response or at a minimum basis to initiate a debate to coin all encompassing definitions. To define these phenomena in clear terms is also essential for an internationally accepted interpretation to devolve an efficacious response and develop a counter-narrative.

The writer is presently serving as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He has also been Commander Lahore Corps and remained Military Secretary to the President. He is author of 'Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan' (published 1983).

Email: [email protected]

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