Understanding Terrorism and Extremism

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In the year 2008, in an interview with Dan Rivers from CNN, Imam Samudra, the main actor of the 2002 Bali bombing in Indonesia, said that he would never apologize to the non-Muslim victims of the tragedy. His reason was that his religion, Islam, based on his interpretation and understanding, allows him to kill the infidels (CNN, 2008; Rivers, 2008). Moreover, Imam Samudra considered his actions as jihad in the meaning of an “obligation to fight a limited war” (Hassan, 2007). In the same interview, Amrozi, Imam Samudra’s fellow terrorist, was showing a happy face and saying "Alhamdulillâh", in the sense of "thank God", when Rivers showed pictures of the victims and some of other images according to his terror act in Bali (CNN, 2008). By using Kaplan and Weinberg’s approach to extremism (1998), Samudra and Amrozi’s way of thinking obviously shown that they are extremists, especially in terms of their antagonism with other groups based on their own moral legitimacy. But, by the same token, they are clearly convicted as terrorists. How the terms extremism and terrorism are actually relate? This short piece would try to answer the question by discussing the proportion that while all terrorists are extremists, not all extremists are terrorists. Besides providing clear definitions about those terms, this essay will also try to explain and assess the definitions by arguments and examples.

The terms or behaviors of extremism and terrorism may share some similarities, but, in fact, they have subtle differences. Perhaps, it is more likely understandable that all terrorists are extremists, but the question that might be raised is: Does employing an extreme religious, political, or ideological view necessarily entail terrorism? Some scholars may argue that the terms extremism and terrorism are difficult to be defined (Juergensmeyer, 2003). However, by borrowing Pressman & Flockton (2014) point of view about the terms, it is more likely acceptable that while extremism does not require violent actions, terrorism always requires violence to achieve some political goals (p. 123).

According to Kaplan and Weinberg (1998) extremism is a perspective that define the reality just into two oppositional categories, black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. They said that, “[it is] an outlook…that is built around monism and moralism that rejects ambiguity" (p. 11). It means that extremists’ point of view to these categories is strict and has no compromise. Furthermore, they put their selves on the “good” side while they are pointing out the others as “wrong” or “evil”.

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They believe that there is no compromise between those two sides. For the extremists, as Kaplan and Weinberg asserted in their book, every “grey area” is considered as an attitude of dishonesty and indecision (1998, p. 11). Extremists do not believe to the idea of plurality, they always think that they hold the most correct political, religious, or ideological standpoint and, at the same time, they do not respect other views. It is the mindset that rejects the idea of moderation (mesotes), as Uwa Backes pronounced in his article titled Meaning and forms of Political Extremism in Past and Present (2007). Regarding this, by borrowing Daniel Pipes’s expression about extremism, at the most basic understanding, it is holding an idea to its excessive point (Pipes, 1998, p. 29). In the case of Imam Samudra and Amrozi, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, their extreme religious view leads them to see “the others”, or non-Muslims, as the infidels, therefore, they do not need to respect those people. Furthermore, they think that they have particular right to kill these nonbelievers. As regards, Muhammad Haniff bin Hassan stated that, “…[they hold] that the polytheists were given only two choices, either to accept Islam or war” (Hassan, 2007, p. 1036).

It is conclusive that Imam Samudra and his fellows, regarding their actions, are terrorists. For some reason, they are might be seen as extremists who demonstrated their religious and political views to violent actions. According to Berlet and Lyons (2000), terrorists are extremists who commit violent actions to express their political, religious, or ideological view. Similarly, Pressman and Flockton (2014, p. 124) stated that, “Terrorist acts are referred to as violent extremism by governments and constitute a subset of ideologically motivated violence. Terrorists are violent extremists”. In the case of Imam Samudra and his terrorist fellows, they used violent means or terror to proclaim their extreme religious view. Meanwhile, it is also clearly stated that what they did was a “political action”. In the same interview with CNN, they said that they bombed the nightclub in Bali in 2002 as a statement or message to the USA, UK, Australia, and other western countries to stop to kill Moslem people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine (Hassan, 2007, pp. 1033-1056).

It is true that only committing violent action is not enough to transform extremists into terrorists. According to Lentini (2013, p. 9), terrorists are non-state actors that use violence against indiscriminate people or property to threaten or establish fear among societies in order to achieve political objectives. From this definition, at least there are four essential points regarding the so-called terrorism: (1) non-state actors, (2) the use of violence or threat, (3) innocent people or non-combatants, and (4) political goals. These points are strengthening the notion of what Bruce Hoffman described as the term, which is, “[t]he deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change” (Whittaker, 2001, p. 9).

However, another thing that also important in the idea of terrorism is the intention to establish a state of fear (Lentini, 2013, p. 9). This also related to the origin of the term, as Mark Jurgensmayer (2003) asserted, “…terrorism is meant to terrify. The word comes from the Latin terrere, ‘to cause to tremble’, and came into common usage in the political sense as an assault on civil order, during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution…” (Juergensmeyer, 2003, p. 5). In this notion, violent means, political goals and the intention to terrify people are important to the term of terrorism. The last point is especially essential to distinguish between terrorism and the so-called “violent extremism”. Violent extremism is different to terrorism in terms of the intention to cause fear and terror in civilians or decision makers. For example, violent environmentalists or violent anti-abortionist may perhaps use violent means in their actions but generally have not indicated the intention to kill people indiscriminately, or destruct public facilities to cause fear in public domain (Pressman & Flockton, 2014, p. 124).

To sum up, inside the big circle of extremism there is a small circle containing some groups of extremists who commit violence to establish a state of fear in order to achieve their political goals. This small circle is called terrorism. In other words, terrorism is a subset of extremism.



Works Cited


Backes, U. (2007). Meaning and forms of Political Extremism in Past and Present. Central European Political Studies Review, 9(4), 242, 243, 262.
Berlet, C., & Lyons, M. N. (2000). Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: The Guilford Press.
CNN (Producer). (2008). CNN Interviews Bali Bombers. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk_TOI5b0tk
Hassan, M. H. b. (2007). Imam Samudra’s Justification for Bali Bombing. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30(12), 1033-1056.
Juergensmeyer, M. (2003). Terror in the Mind of God. (3 ed.). Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.
Kaplan, J., & Weinberg, L. (1998). The Emergence of a Euro-America Radical Right. Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Lentini, P. (2013). Neojihadism: A New Understanding of Terrorism and Extremism? Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Pipes, D. (1998). Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From. New York: The Free Press.
Pressman, D. E., & Flockton, J. (2014). Violent Extremist Risk Assessment: Issues and Applications of the VERA-2 in a High Security Correctional Setting. In A. Silke (Ed.), Prisons, Terrorism and Extremism: Critical Issues in Management, Radicalisation and Reform (pp. 124). New York: Routledge.
Rivers, D. (2008). Graves dug for Bali bombers awaiting execution. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/11/07/bali.bombings/index.html?iref=nextin
Whittaker, D. J. (2001). The Terrorism Reader. London: Routledge.



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