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Exploring the Root Causes of Extremism
Monday, August 1, 2016
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With extremism of all kinds on the rise, it is important to ask why this is happening. Are we at a point in history that is different from other complex times? Is the news of terrorist acts, along with multiple other expressions of discontent, being hyper-reported in ways that make us feel that our current circumstances are worse than ever before? Whatever the case, extremism in its most negative form is impacting our sense of safety and challenging our beliefs about what is right as well as who is right.

Understanding the complexity of extremism requires us to define it and find ways to address its root causes. Initiatives of Change’s International Council chose to prioritize 'Addressing the root causes of extremism of all kinds,' as the movement’s overarching strategic priority for 2016-2018. At its annual ‘Global Assembly’ in July, a workshop was offered to begin to tackle this complex issue. Workshop participants began with the understanding that multiple forms and levels of extremism exist, and that it can arise:   

  • When individuals, groups and systems polarize and exclude others;
  • Where exploitation, manipulation and being intolerant become the norm;
  • When ideology or a value system is deep enough to give people a sense of belonging and purpose;
  • Where a single, absolutist or fundamentalist, idea overrides and controls others;
  • When stereotyping of ‘the Other’ spills over into humiliation and even elimination.

Desmond Tutu defined extremism this way: 'when you do not allow for a different point of view; when you hold your own views as being quite exclusive, when you don’t allow for the possibility of difference' (Davies, 2008). For many it is a structural issue related to wealth distribution and related classism. Others make the distinction between violent and non-violent extremism, where the former is linked to terrorism and the latter in many cases linked to social justice interventions—interpreted as positive and transformative.

Global Assembly workshop participants began to address the complex range of root causes that energize extremism. The following were identified as some of the most important:   

  • Lack of purpose and belonging, isolation, hopelessness, marginalization;,
  • Categorizing belief systems- and even races and groups - in black and white terms;
  • Power seeking, fear, anger [leading to hatred], group thinking, and exploitation of the vulnerable; hopelessness;
  • Long term poverty and realizing the other side has more than enough—reflecting an imbalance of wealth;
  • Hatred stemming from a sense of historical injustice and marginalization;
  • Humiliation and shame leading to violation of identity and lack of respect for the dignity of others;

Regarding the last point, psychologist, James Gilligan, says that shame is a major source of violence, if not the source. When shamed or humiliated, we experience an attack on our identity, a violation of our dignity and loss of self worth and trust in others—and in ourselves. We no longer feel a common bond with others, but often fear and hatred towards those who violated this bond. Though understandable, this condition too often leads to a desire to harm those who harmed us. Looking at history, we know this cycle of violence continues across generations and feeds extremism of all kinds.

What ways can we find to creatively and constructively speak to not only shame and humiliation, but to the many causes of extremism that destroy relationships, lives and hope? Global Assembly workshop participants named a plethora of possibilities – from creating safe spaces for deep listening and dialogue to take place, to acknowledging personal and institutional power that many of us have—the kind of power that is sometimes blind to the anger, fears and hopes of others.

In order to change this critical reality, very often manifesting in extreme acts of violence, intolerance and injustice, it is essential to reflect deeply on who we are and what we have to offer in terms of care and respect for others across the spectrum of humanity. We also need to have a value system that undergirds critical thinking, situational analysis and strategic action—a value system steeped in our religious and/or philosophical belief system, but one that has high tolerance and respect for other systems of belief. Finally, being moderate in what we believe and how we act isn’t enough. We have to act with courage and wisdom – and through collective discernment processes that allow for the transformation of relationships and structures that sustain us all.

Barry Hart is Professor of Trauma, Identity and Conflict Studies in the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. He was the Academic Director of  the Caux Scholars Program, Caux, Switzerland from 1997-2010. Dr. Hart is a member of the International Council of Initiatives of Change International.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.