LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Quassim Cassam

March 8th, 2024

Extremism is about actions, not ideology

0 comments | 12 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Quassim Cassam

March 8th, 2024

Extremism is about actions, not ideology

0 comments | 12 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Following an emergency speech by the Prime Minister on the dangers of extremist ideology, the Government is said to be reconsidering the very definition of extremism. Quassim Cassam warns than redefining extremism to include ideological beliefs that reject “British values”, human rights, or democracy is the wrong approach. 


According to reports, the Government is in the process of updating its existing definition of extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”. The Times reports that the new version will define extremism as the “promotion or advancement of an ideology based on intolerance, hatred or violence that aims to undermine the rights or freedoms of others”. It will also include those to seek to undermine or overturn the UK’s liberal system of democracy.

Though understandable, this approach is barking up the wrong tree. Actions, not ideology, are the key to the definitional debate. The mission should be to arrive at a fit-for-purpose definition that works in the UK context without unintentionally casting the net so wide that free speech and freedom of thought are undermined. It’s not that a person’s ideology is irrelevant or that extremism doesn’t have an ideological dimension. Rather, the main focus should be on what extremists do. What they think matters to the extent that it influences their actions.

An extremist, then, is someone who engages in politically or religiously motivated intimidation, threats, or violence for political or religious ends.

Consider the case of someone who campaigns against gay marriage on religious grounds. Or a person who is gender-critical. The new definition implies that such people are extremists, given that they seek to undermine the rights of others – the right of gay people to be married or the right of people generally to self-define their gender. For those who see this as the wrong result, this looks like a clear case of definitional overreach –a definition generating a false positive. Although the government is said to be trying to find a way round this problem, it would be better advised to rethink its rumoured approach.

A good place to start is Rishi Sunak’s excellent statement on extremism, in which he described some recent political protests as having descended into “intimidation, threats, and planned acts of violence”. Football hooligans also use intimidation, threats, and planned violence but they are not extremists in the relevant sense unless their motives are political and they have religious or political objectives. An extremist, then, is someone who engages in politically or religiously motivated intimidation, threats, or violence for political or religious ends.

What about someone who does not engage in intimidation, threats, or violence but promotes such extreme methods? A person who engages in political violence – say carries out a terrorist act – is an extremist in the primary sense. A person who merely promotes political or religious violence – say by calling for violent Jihad – is an extremist in the secondary sense. The two grades of extremism are closely related since, in practice, calling for violent Jihad can itself be a form of intimidation.

Merely arguing against gay marriage does not make one an extremist. For that matter, merely arguing against democracy does not make one an extremist.

On this account, anti-gay marriage campaigners will not count as extremists unless they use violence, threats or intimidation to make their point or advance their agenda. Merely arguing against gay marriage does not make one an extremist. For that matter, merely arguing against democracy does not make one an extremist. Academics who are sceptical about democracy and argue for an alternative political system should not be classified as extremists. The sense in which extremism as I have defined it is anti-democratic is that using intimidation, threats, or violence to get one’s way is undemocratic.

But context is also highly relevant for formulating a fit-for-purpose definition. For example, an objection to my action-oriented definition of extremism is that it would force one to classify someone like Nelson Mandela as an extremist since he promoted an armed struggle – and hence violence – against apartheid. More generally, what about people who live under authoritarian dictatorships and use violence to free themselves when they have no other choice? Should they count as extremists? Perhaps not, but it’s not clear why this is relevant. Defining extremism is not an academic exercise but a practical matter. What matters for a definition of extremism is that it should be fit for purpose in a particular context, not that it should be fit for purpose in any and all political contexts. A definition of extremism can be a good one for the UK today even if it would not be a good definition in a Russian or Iranian or Chinese context.

As I have previously argued, a person who uses intimidation, threats, or violence for political or religious ends is best described as a methods extremist, rather as an ideological extremist. Many extremist ideologies are pro-violence but not all. Consider the so-called ‘Overton window’. Policies or ideologies that are accepted throughout society are inside the Overton window. Extremist ideologies are outside the Overton window. Pacificism is, in this sense, an extremist ideology but plainly not pro-violence.

Press reports suggest that groups or individuals deemed to be extremists may be excluded from government and council funding and barred from working with public bodies. This shows why it’s important to understand extremism as methods extremism rather than in ideological terms. In a democracy, it’s unacceptable to penalize groups or individuals simply because their ideas are outside the Overton window. It’s only groups or individuals who resort to violence or other extreme methods – or who actively incite others to do so – who should be penalized.

When it comes to defining extremism for practical, non-academic purposes, what counts is what people do, not what they think.

The point and value of focusing on methods extremism is to guard against the possibility that people are penalized simply for their opinions, or what George Orwell might have called wrongthink. Healthy democracies encourage contrarian thinking, even if at times it results in political stances that the majority find distasteful or offensive. When it comes to defining extremism for practical, non-academic purposes, what counts is what people do, not what they think.

Definitions are like fishing nets – they may end up catching what they were not intended to catch, and fail to catch what they were meant to catch. What matters is not that they are perfect but that they are approximately correct (‘good enough’) and fit for purpose. If the purpose is to define extremism in a way that catches the extremists that Sunak criticized, but not people with unconventional views about social issues, then it makes sense to define it as I have and not as the government is reportedly thinking of defining it.

If extremism is a matter of using extreme methods, and these methods include terrorism, then there is to an extent a link between extremism and terrorism. This is exactly as it should be. When the Conservative MP Miriam Cates tweeted recently about the foolishness of separating extremism from terrorism, she was onto something. Not all extremists are terrorists but there is a dark attraction between extremism and terrorism. This needs to be acknowledged.

Many questions remain. How should the notions of violence and intimidation be understood, and what kinds of threat are relevant? Jonathan Hall KC, the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, has highlighted threats of murder and rape made towards politicians. Those who make such threats must be counted as extremists, but not the people who threaten to unseat their MP at the next election. Not all threats are equal. Another important question is whether for a group to count as extremist, it’s enough for it to have employed extreme methods, or whether the key issue is if it uses such methods systematically? These are some of the questions that should be exercising the government. If instead it focuses purely on rights and values as a measure of extremism, it is heading towards a dead end.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: John Gomez on Shutterstock

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the author

Quassim Cassam

Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Warwick, Fellow of the British Academy, and an Honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford. His most recent book is Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis.

Posted In: Political Theory | Society and Culture
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.