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07 October 2019

We need to better understand extremism in the UK

Armida van Rij and Benedict Wilkinson

ARMIDA VAN RIJ and BENEDICT WILKINSON: A shared definition of extremism will help us respond to it effectively, with community support

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Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, said recently that the fastest-growing terrorist threat in the UK is from far-right extremists. But what are extremist views, and how can we distinguish them from unpopular or fringe opinions? And what does the public know and think about extremism today? If we are to stop the far right and other groups from causing harm, we need to better understand these issues – otherwise efforts to counter extremism will be partial, politicised, and in all probability, futile.

In research for the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism, the Policy Institute at King’s College London surveyed both members of the public and people working on these issues to explore their views on the nature of modern-day extremism. We wanted the public’s views because it is only through a shared definition of extremism that we can respond to it effectively, with community support.

The government defines extremism as “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”, along with calls for the death of members of the armed forces as extremist.

But we found that two-thirds of those surveyed believed that the government’s existing definition of extremism is unhelpful. We also found that the public struggle to put their finger on what extremism is. When asked, only one in five could define it, as opposed to 70% of practitioners.

Despite this, we identified recurrent patterns in respondents’ answers that suggested there was at least some consensus on the core behaviours and beliefs associated with extremism. So while many struggle to precisely define it, there is nonetheless agreement on what extremism is.

77% of our sample of the public and practitioners thought that violence or threats of violence – including acts of terrorism, criminality and violence against women – are a key element of extremist behaviour.

We also identified more than 80 different themes relating to, or underscored by, beliefs and opinions in people’s descriptions of extremism. These extremist beliefs fit within four categories. Among these categories, beliefs advocating the restriction of other people’s beliefs or the restriction of freedoms and/or democracy, and beliefs that mobilise ideology to support and/or justify harmful behaviour, were most commonly associated with extremism (63% in total for both). This included beliefs that oppose or human rights, or opinions that are motivated by an ideology or social values. This showed that, while some see extremism as driven by ideology, others see extremism as fuelled by conflict with other religions and political viewpoints. 

This gives us some understanding of perceptions of extremist behaviours and beliefs, but what about those opinions which aren’t extremist but at the same time don’t quite seem to fit within the so-called mainstream? Views which challenge the concept of “British values” or the benefits of democratic societies fall into this category. These kinds of opinions were hardest for respondents to define and distinguish. As one respondent said:

“I am not sure that extremism can be defined, especially ‘non-violent extremism’, in a way that will be acceptable to most people. One person’s extremism can be another person’s mainstream belief. Social reformers in history, such as those advocating the abolish of slavery, have been labeled 'extremist' as the challenged the prevailing view. Disagreeing with another person’s point of view is not 'extremism'.”

In essence, one person disagreeing with another person does not make either of them an extremist, or mean they hold extremist views as such.

The boundaries of extremism remain a difficult and contested area, one where much-needed public consensus is lacking. It is possible that as the public discourse and extremist ideologies keep evolving, we may always struggle to pin down exactly where these boundaries lie.

Yet having this conversation publicly, and mapping where consensus on extremism exists, is very much necessary. There is little that angers people more than being called an extremist. It isolates those on the receiving end, and alienates them further – not just from other members of society, but from government too. While we recognise the challenges yet to be overcome, identifying commonalities in what extremism looks like is a step towards better identifying and tackling extremism in our communities and societies.

Armida van Rij is a Research Associate and Dr Benedict Wilkinson is Associate Director at the Policy Institute, King's College London.

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