European Eye on Radicalization
After the recent Rethinking Islamism Beyond Jihadi Violence (reviewed a few weeks ago by European Eye on Radicalization here) Dr. Elisa Orofino — this time with Dr. William Allchorn — edited a fundamental work for readers who want to understand non-violent extremism and its complex and multilayered relationship(s) with activism, violent extremism, radicalization and terrorism.
The Routledge Handbook of Non-Violent Extremism: Groups, Perspectives and New Debates provides the first comprehensive in-depth analysis of non-violent extremism across different ideologies and geographic centers — a topic overshadowed until now by the political and academic focus on violent extremism and jihadism.
Elisa Orofino is Academic Lead for Research on Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region, Anglia Ruskin University, UK. She has published extensively on extremism, vocal extremist groups, radicalization, Muslims in the West and social movements.
On his part, William Allchorn is Visiting Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Richmond, the American International University in London, and Interim Director of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right. He is an expert on anti-Islamic radical right social movements in the United Kingdom and has most recently advised the UK, US and Australian governments on their approaches to radical right extremism. Dr. Allchorn is also the author of Anti-Islamic Protest in the UK: Policy Responses to the Far Right (2018) and Moving beyond Islamist Extremism: Assessing Counter Narrative Responses to the Global Far Right (2022).
The book’s unique perspective does acknowledge the potentiality of non-violent extremism as a precursor to terrorism, but clearly states that non-violent extremism ought to be considered a stand-alone area of study, and this is the first milestone contained in the work.
Indeed, the editors make the vital point that non-violent extremism is more than part of a conveyer belt toward violent extremism or — let alone — terrorism. It can be a destination as well, not merely an intermediate stage on the path to political or religious violence.
In the editors’ words: “Individuals can rest in the grey zone between radicalization and extremism for a long time before moving on to terrorism, if they will ever move on in the first place.”
The assumption that all extremists will become terrorists might prevent scholars from studying the challenge against the national governments put forth by those groups whose pressure is not exercised through violence but through the power of ideas.
Hosting an extremely wide set of contributions by scholars focusing on Islamist, Buddhist, Hindu, far right, far left, environmentalist and feminist manifestations, the handbook discusses the ideological foundation of their War on Ideas against prevailing socio-political and cultural systems in which they operate and provides an empirical examination of their main claims and perspectives.
Inevitably, the Routledge Handbook intersects several relevant disciplines, including social movement studies, political science, criminology, Islamic studies and anthropology and, while extremely detailed and highly specialized on the one hand, it offers an extremely interesting bigger picture of non-violent extremism for the layman.
Better Approach Needed
As Matthew Feldman, author of the Preface, appropriately states, the editors and authors show that when explaining nonviolent extremism, we could and should do better than adopting a “I know it when I see it” approach, and provide a characterization of nonviolent extremism as “opposing the enemy (mostly the establishment) with all the legal tools available (generally protests, petitions, demonstrations and online campaigns) but without using violence”. Essential is a rejection of pluralism and hostility to multicultural democracy — whether by states, groups or doctrines.
Different from violent organizations who support the killing of innocents and therefore are more readily banned and persecuted by governments around the world, vocal extremists stand in a very liminal space in Western states, where the freedom of speech and association grant them the right to legally operate despite being opposed to key values and mechanisms within democratic states.
Vocal extremists hold extreme ideas (mostly anti-government, anti-establishment) and seek a radical change. Still, they do not espouse violent methods, and this problematic stance makes them quite complex non-state actors to study, hence the need for their greater consideration and research.
Vocal radical groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, represent living evidence that individuals have moved on from endorsing specific ideas (radicalization) to expressing vocal opposition (extremism) without ever performing violent actions (terrorism). Although some people affiliated with the group have shifted to terrorism, the organization as a whole has steadfastly stood by a commitment to non-violence.
Vocal Extremism v. Political Activism
To complicate things further, there is also the need to differentiate between vocal extremism and political activism. According to the authors, a key aspect to distinguish the two is that while vocal extremists would strongly oppose the political, economic and cultural establishment (aiming for a radical change), even when holding vigorous opposing views, activists would accept that in a democratic society change should be achieved only through popularly mandated constitutional principles and the rule of law.
In this respect, it should be noted that scholars have insisted on the need to encourage political activism in order to discourage extremism: when people are free to express their dissatisfaction towards the government (activism), escalation into violent extremism is generally contained as it is often related to the denial of freedom of speech. Nevertheless, sometimes, encouraging activism can also mean to encourage vocal extremism (and the shift to violence) as the boundary is neither clear nor straightforward.
Different Varieties of Extremism
Besides being easily confused with activism, extremism can come in many varieties: extreme by method and not by goal, extreme by goal and not by method, or extreme by goal and method.
What unifies extremists (both vocal and violent) is their rejection of pluralism, legal rules, and the economic, political, religious and social system they live within. Nevertheless, harboring critical ideas of the prevailing system should not be enough to criminalize a group (or individuals) in the West where universal rights (such as the freedom of speech and association) should be granted.
Criminalization (and subsequent bans) might occur when there is evidence that a group has already worked its way along the cognitive and behavioral conveyor belt of extremism/violence. Problematically, even this has proved to be not enough to ban specific vocal extremist organizations in some Western countries such as the United Kingdom.
New Research Agenda Needed
The Handbook clearly posits the need for a new research agenda that moves beyond two main problems that caused the current marginal role played by research on non-violence in the study of extremism. The first problem is the scholarly tendency to associate non-violent extremism with terrorism, assuming that sooner or later all non-violent extremists will become terrorists.
The second problem is that the lacuna within the current academic research in which non-violent extremism is still overshadowed by the study of a particular ideology (i.e. jihadist extremism).
While accepting that vocal extremism precedes terrorism, this volume rejects academic assumptions on the unavoidable evolution of extremism into terrorism. This handbook acknowledges the importance of nonviolent extremism as a liminal space preceding terror acts but at the same time argues that nonviolent extremism reserves itself as a standalone area of study in its own right.
It also aims to be a comprehensive source of literature touching on different kinds of vocal extremisms — both traditional and post-modern — going beyond the almost exclusive focus on Islamism. The author of this review would add also the alt-right that has become typical of recent studies.
From a structural perspective, after the exhaustive introduction the book is divided into four parts, each of them featuring a number of case studies of specific nonviolent extremism groups or trends. Part 1: Between Extremisms: Violence and Non- violence across Multiple Ideologies; Part 2: ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Religious Extremisms: Nonviolent Islamist, Buddhist and Hindu Movements; Part 3: Far-Right Extremism: Non-violence Among Movements on the Exclusionary Right; Part 4: Post-modern Extremisms? Non-violent Left-Wing, Feminist and Environmental Movements Since the 1970s.
The Three Stages are Connected
As Dr. Orofino and Dr. Allchorn remark in the conclusion to the Handbook, although not all radicals become terrorists, it is a fact that all terrorists have moved along the imaginary continuum starting with radicalization, proceeding with extremism, and finally concluding with the terror act.
Given the connection between these three stages, this contribution stands as a topical addition to the current academic and political debate on such pressing security issues which stress the need to refocus research on prevention rather than on exclusively repressive approaches.
Significantly, the chapters dedicated to the many case studies showed that nonviolent extremist groups share the same ideological foundations of their terrorist counterparts, and it is the method(s) chosen to achieve their political, social, economic and religious goals that differ and do not involve violence.
As illustrated throughout the volume and across different ideologies, nonviolent extremist groups mostly tend to base their methodology on propaganda directed at their target groups in order to win the hearts and minds of as many followers as they can. They believe that a long-term change requires time to be implemented: people need to accept the ideas sponsored by the specific group, they need to espouse their cause and strongly long for the change that specific groups are advocating for.
In restating the need of a new robust research agenda focused exclusively on nonviolent (or vocal) extremism, the editors of the Handbook of Non-Violent Extremism highlight some of the most interesting and potentially fertile strands of research and bodies of knowledge that can be furrowed in the coming years and decades.
First, a more substantive look at individuals over groups or organizations per se will become even more prescient and important. As we see a shift to nonviolent extremist groups largely existing online, formalized structures and memberships will become even more eroded and opaque. To dovetail with this trend, then, ethnographic studies of individuals and their pathways into and out of these groups will become more pressing for researchers as we come to grips with these new dynamics of activism in the current post- organizational epoch.
Second, a more substantive integration of counter movements, the role of security forces and law enforcement and how this links into the dynamics of non-violent contention will become all the more important in gaining a 360-degree view of what energizes and informs the development of non-violent extremist activism at the group level.
In this volume, we’ve rightly emphasized the move away from scholarly reductivism that looks away from the violent–nonviolent dichotomy. Going forward, however, we also need to skip disciplinary boundaries within extreme studies and draw on the rich insights of criminology, social movement studies and cultural studies in order to provide a more holistic assessment of how certain nonviolent extremist groups coalesce, emerge and subsequently fall into abeyance.
Third, and on a related note, we also need to better integrate micro, meso and macro perspectives when analyzing the progression, elaboration and perturbation of nonviolent extremist movements. Often analyses of such movements predominantly focus on the groups themselves and the policies enacted against them (i.e. meso level).
More ambitious approaches, therefore, need to be sought that contextualize the national and international level factors (i.e. the macro level) that are driving these movements and at the micro level (as mentioned before the integration of individual level life histories and ethnographic study). This pluralistic and more granular approach will hopefully put (nonviolent) extremism studies on a sustainable footing going forward — incorporating new approaches as new movements and threats develop.
The Routledge Handbook of Non-Violent Extremism. Groups, Perspectives and New Debates represents one of the most valuable works on extremism published in the last few years and likely the most comprehensive one.
The unique perspective provided by the editors — integrated with contributions written by several outstanding scholars from different origins and backgrounds who offer a wealth of information about an incredibly vast array of extremist groups and orientations — will turn the book into one of the pillars of radicalization, extremism, and terrorism studies.
 Karagiannis, E. 2018. “Three Generations of Greek Left-wing Terrorism: An Overview,” European Eye on Radicalization; Orofino, E. 2020. Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Caliphate. London: Routledge.
 Lowe, D. 2017. Prevent Strategies: The Problems Associated in Defining Extremism: The Case of the United Kingdom. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.