Shafaat Ullah Shah
INFLUENCED by a news item in The Jordan Times of February 28, that says “there is still no clear definition of ‘extremism’ in Jordan, experts warn”, I thought it imperative to endeavour to find a definition that could serve as the foundation for a strategy to fight radicalism by all the elements 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 defines extremism as “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 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 extremists often include those from the far-left or far-right politics, as well as radicalism, fundamentalism, reactionism and fanaticism.
According to some, extremism is a complex phenomenon that 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 defining 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”), depending 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, current and historical context of extremist acts shapes one’s views. The term extremism or extremist is almost always applied to a group by others. No political party calls itself “right-wing extremist” or “left-wing extremist”, and there is no sect of any religion that calls itself “extremist” or that calls its doctrine “extremism”.
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 organisations.
Extreme views may be in the realm of religion, politics, economics and social behaviour and are at variant or contrast the beliefs of the rest of the society. People holding them consider that only their views or beliefs are righteous and others are on the wrong path, and use all means, predominantly force, to instill these views in others.
In light of this definition, organisations like Al Qaeda, Daesh, Taleban, etc., qualify as extremist. Their defining principle is imposition of the organisation’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 the world over.
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. Terrorism While terrorism is a phenomenon that has existed since antiquity, today we face a novel and 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, there is no consensus on a universally accepted definition of terrorism. The absence of a universally agreed definition, however, does not mean lack of definition or no criminalisation of terrorist acts within national jurisdictions.
September 11 created a new international dynamic that sought to delegitimise any political violence aimed at civilians, irrespective of context and unwilling to distinguish this from resistance to state terrorism or foreign occupation. 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 served to emphasise the role of domestic legislation to criminalise terrorist offences.
International counter-terrorism measures could not be implemented effectively due to the lack of a proper definition for terrorism.
The UN 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 international law. But for many, the question of states contravening international law remains important and real. Any definition that is not backed by consensus can have a divisive effect and hinder international counter-terrorism efforts.
—Courtesy: Jordan Times
[The writer Lt-General [Rtd] Shafaat Ullah Shah is Ambassador of Pakistan to Kingdom of Jordan]