A blog by Cumberland Lodge Scholar Saeed, on the recent Cumberland Seminar 'What Motivates Extremism?' with Professor Harvey Whitehouse

Published Date: 
Tuesday, 28 November 2017
Saeed Akkad

After each gruesome act of terror humanity suffers, we spend considerable time discussing the affiliation of the attackers and the repercussions of their actions, but we often fail to examine what motivated them to embrace such an extreme approach.

As a result, the chasm between those who may sympathise with elements of the perpetrators’ cause and those who can only see the victims’ tragedy keeps growing, and the vicious cycle of reciprocal harm never breaks. This is true not only for conflicts that are religious in nature, but also for those that have a racial, ethnic, or political background.  

The seminar ‘What motivates extremism?’ held at Cumberland Lodge on 8 November 2017 was a valuable opportunity to contemplate the motivations that drive and breed extreme beliefs. Delegates from academia, the government, and non-governmental organisations took part in the seminar with Professor Harvey Whitehouse sharing insights from his research across the globe. 

Whilst the concept of ‘extremism’ remained imperfectly defined, we shared a fundamental agreement that it involves the readiness and willingness of someone to induce physical or emotional harm on others who have a different set of beliefs, skin colour, or political views. Based on these criteria, the seminar addressed the factors that may help explain extreme ideology and behaviour. The relationship between an individual’s extreme tendencies and the group to which he has allegiance provided a good starting point.

Identity fusion within the group

It has been theorised that if an individual identifies with a group whose members share the same physical or emotional pain, suffering, or struggle as him or her, the personal identity of this individual can fuse with that of the group, and the bonds developed with its members can be stronger than those with family or close friends. Such individuals believe that they have a shared essence with the members of this group because they went through the same self-defining experience, which gives them a sense of unity and belonging. This can be seen across a wide range of groups whose members are bound by a common cause: from football fan clubs to groups of freedom fighters to terrorist organisations.

Delegates discussed the role identity fusion has in developing extreme behaviour in individuals and their willingness to sacrifice for each other, while some argued that sharing a common suffering is not necessarily enough to adopt the extreme philosophy of others.

Extreme beliefs vs extreme behaviours

We explored the relationship between belief and extreme practices, the possibility of countering extreme beliefs through argument, and whether the passions generated by such beliefs could be channelled to resolve conflicts and build coherent societies.

Because these questions have always been controversial, there were no definitive answers, but delegates raised some interesting points. While holding extreme beliefs may eventually lead a person to translate belief into action, that is not always the case. For example, some ‘hate preachers’ have a wide audience that sympathises with their cause but would never act upon their beliefs no matter how appealing the preacher’s rhetoric. Thus, the link between having extreme beliefs and the likelihood of being recruited by others to actualise them is quite complex and might depend largely on personal circumstances.

The true fight against extremism

Can we counteract extreme ideology with liberal argument and turn it into a constructive dialogue? Most of those at the seminar believed we could. Some delegates pointed out that supressing those with extreme ideas and preventing them from speaking out will not only prevent us from understanding their motivations, but could also push them towards committing violent actions in order to be heard. Others proposed that the modern, individualistic, commercial societies we live in do not provide enough fulfilment or support for vulnerable individuals, particularly those experiencing oppression, marginalisation, or discrimination. This eventually may make them seek empathy and appreciation within groups of peers that give them a platform for expression, but often through hate speech, violence, or even terrorism.

I left the seminar with an important message: that being open to discussion with those who hold extreme beliefs is a potentially powerful tool to reduce conflict and further understanding. It will not only help individuals, in many cases, question their sense of shared experience with other advocates of such beliefs, but may also make them re-evaluate the perceived threat to their respective groups and learn that their cause or struggle can be recognised and sympathised with through dialogue and mutual understanding.

I believe that Amy Buller, in her quest to understand the extreme Nazi ideology and the hold it had over young minds, reached the same conclusion. In the prologue to Darkness Over Germany, she summed up her understanding of the root of the calamity, that those who are voiceless, marginalised and angry are also vulnerable and need to be heard: ‘I record these stories to emphasize the need for youth and those who plan the training of youth to consider carefully the full significance of the tragedy of a whole generation of German youth who, having no faith, made Nazism their religion’.