The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, $15.95, 201 pages, ISBN 9780262535878
J.M. Berger, co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror” with Jessica Stern and research fellow with VOX-Pol, studies a well-known phenomenon from a different perspective in his new book on “Extremism”.
So far, most academics have focused on the spread of extremism worldwide and its different ideological connotations. Berger tries to dig deeper into the theoretical questions of what extremism actually is and why it can escalate into violence.
One of the reasons why policymakers and scholars have started using the term “extremism” extensively in recent years is because a shared definition of terrorism is still missing. This has to do with political sensitivities, but also with the complexity of providing a compelling definition of what terrorism means.
Berger questions the dictionary definition of extremism: “the quality or state of being extreme” as circular and meaningless. When trying to define it, he rather prefers to start from three assumptions: extremism is rarely simple; it is not limited to any single race, religion or political view; and it can be profoundly consequential in societies.
The author’s investigation moves around the social identity theory, developed by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner. It was originally formulated in the 1970s and 1980s to explain intergroup behavior. They theorized that people categorize themselves and others as members of competing social groups. The so-called in-group is a group of people who share an identity, such as a religious, racial or national group. It is the group to which one belongs. The out-group consists of people who are excluded from a specific group. They both represent an identity, and people who share a common identity may form an identity collective.
This is the core idea that Berger borrows to elaborate the concept of extremism. In the book, he analyses episodes from ancient history such as the powerful city of Carthage, not only defeated by the Romans, but also razed to the ground. Other examples come from the besieged fortress of Masada, where the Jewish “Sicarii” zealots committed suicide rather than surrender, and the rebellion of the sect known as Kharijites or Khawarij, terms sometimes used nowadays for Islamic State and its affiliates.
The author also provides a definition for social categorization as the act of understanding yourself to be part of an in-group and determining whether others are part of your in-group. He considers an extremist ideology the collection of texts that describe who is part of the in-group.
At this point, Berger gives his working definition of extremism as the belief that an in group’s success or survival can never be separated from the need for hostile action against an out group. The main difference with violent extremism is the need for violent action, not only a hostile one. But the author also underlines that not every harmful or violent act is necessarily extremist. An example of this definition comes from white nationalists: they believe that white people can never be successful unless and until nonwhites are removed from the in-group society by means of segregation or extermination.
The analysis of crises and solutions is central in the author’s theory. He asserts that the in-group begins to see the out-group as a threat to its legitimacy. This threat creates a crisis, a pivotal event that requires an active response from the in-group. Then, the extremist group offers a solution, consisting of hostile (or violent) actions against the out-group, in the effort to resolve the “crisis”.
The author lists the most common crisis narratives used by extremists, including impurity, conspiracy, dystopia (for instance, The Turner Diaries, a 1978 white nationalist novel in which minorities take over the United States and disarm white people, which inspired the Oklahoma City bomber), existential threat and apocalypse. Anti-Muslim extremists such as mass murderer Anders Breivik stipulate that Muslims present an existential threat to Western culture. The same goes for the jihadist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who in a 2002 speech warned that Americans and Europeans “are going to approach all of the Arabs who are living in their midst, and every Arab man and woman and child will be killed. They will be exterminated. A holocaust”.
The apocalyptic crisis, the author elaborates, has two types of narrative. The first is the simple end of human society. For instance, the 2011 eco-extremist manifesto Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet argues that an out group defined as industrial civilization will destroy every living being. The second type is a millenarian belief, according to which the current world will be replaced by a perfect utopian world. Berger also finds an additional factor: triumphalism, greatly employed both by the Nazi regime and Islamic State propaganda.
The solutions to these crises are enumerated by the author, including case studies. The most common ones proposed by extremists are harassment and discrimination, segregation and hate crimes, terrorism, oppression, war and genocide. Some of them can be considered ways to achieve the goal of erasing the threat, others are the goal itself. Berger provides a definition of terrorism as public violence targeting noncombatants, carried out by nongovernmental individuals or groups, in order to advance a political or ideological goal or amplify a political or ideological message. When carried out by a governmental actor, he chooses to call it oppression rather than terrorism.
The author concludes this investigation by asking himself why extremist ideologies work. He finds that they meet the need for certainty by providing a quality known as entitativity. It is defined as the property of a group, resting on clear boundaries, internal homogeneity, social interaction, clear internal structures, common goals and a common fate.
This book is one of the first serious attempts to provide answers to the lack of scholarly consensus about what extremism means. The author does so by way of a meticulous study of historical phenomena and social behaviors because this topic requires a multidisciplinary approach and deserves increased focus as a discrete academic subject.
 Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin. Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chicago.