An extremist is a person who holds views which are at the extreme side of the continuum of possible views on a subject. A Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim who says that he believes that he is on the right path and the paths others are following are not correct is, to me, not an extremist, despite being a religious exclusivist, so long as he is prepared to concede the possibility that his opinion had the likelihood of turning out to be incorrect and, given that possibility, he was willing to consider other views with an open mind. An extremist is a person who believes that only his views are correct while all others are incorrect and he is therefore not prepared to respect and listen to the other views to find out if they could be correct too.
What is the relationship between extremism and terrorism? Although all extremists were not terrorists, all terrorists were extremists. A person ought to have extremist tendencies to resort to aggression, violence, and terrorism. No non-extremist is likely to resort to terrorism. Despite at times not being a terrorist, an extremist is still a threat to the society because he could cause others to become extremists like him, some of who may also turn out to be terrorists. Moreover, there was no way of finding out when a non-terrorist-extremist may decide to become a terrorist-extremist.
What causes a person to be an extremist? There were apparently three reasons that cause a person to be an extremist: It was either the peculiar personality of an individual, or the kind of information and training he received, or/and a sense of insecurity in him which made him inflexible and as a result extremist. In many cases it was a combination of any two or all three of the above-stated factors that contribute in making an individual an extremist.
There were certain types of personality which are more prone to be extremists. A person who can be easily irritated in the midst of diverse views was a good candidate to be one. Someone who was obsessively fascinated by individuals, ideas, or other influences because of certain immediate, superficial reasons and then refused to reconsider his decision for fear of losing that emotional attachment was likely to be an extremist. A person deprived of his due rights in the society can also have extremist tendencies in reaction to his state of deprivation if he was not willing to reconsider his position on realizing that his reaction was exaggerated. The underlying common denominator amongst all extremists was their inflexibility in the wake of new information.
The training one received in the past could also make a person inclined to be an extremist. For instance, if the religious mentor under whom, or the educational institution in which, an individual got religious guidance continued to instill in his mind the thought that the ideas he was receiving were the only valid ones and the rest of them were either weak, unauthentic, or misleading, the trainee would begin to get convinced that all views other than his were unreliable and thus would give in to the extremist ideology. His stubborn attitude would be reinforced by the constant urging on the part of his religious guides that his reluctance to look at other views objectively was an indication of his ‘strong faith’.
When a potentially stubborn person is put through the experience of a learning environment where participants were trained to be extremists, the likely outcome is that the individual would accept what he was being offered. The process essentially would involve reading about and listening to the same view and the arguments supporting it over and over again. Such process would create an exaggerated affinity for the views thus presented. Once the ideology being presented in a controlled environment was internalized, the participant would stop listening to the opposing views. Even when the opposing view would be heard it would not be taken with an open mind with a possibility of change; it would only be read and heard to be rejected and condemned.
What causes people to be inclined to accept the extremist views? The answer is that it is either misery, or love, or both which cause people to be extremists. If one has led a miserable life in the past, one is prone to be fascinated by extremist ideas that would somehow help in responding to the bitter feelings. If one loved an individual or an ideology to the extent of being infatuated by it, extremism would follow. No balanced, non-reactionary individual can ever fall prey permanently to extremist views.
Peaceful fanatics are as unacceptable as violent ones because they all stem from the same source. You can never stop them from doing what they have decided. Intellect has no role to play in their process of idea formation; it only plays a role in the implementation of ideas.
What can be done about it? All religiously inclined people should be helped to be convinced that their intellect was the most precious gift from God. It was only through intellect that they can sift reliable information from the one that was misleading. In not using one’s intellect one was being ungrateful to God. They should also be made to feel comfortable that it was not human intellect that misled people; instead it was the incorrect use of it that misguided them. While one could still be misled if one used one’s intellect if it was not done judiciously, one could never be on the correct religious track if one wouldn’t use it. Qur’an unequivocally declares “Indeed the worst of the beasts in the eyes of God are those deaf and dumb people who don’t use their intellect.” (8:22)
The most difficult victims of extremist propaganda are those intelligent minds who were influenced by some seemingly impressive ideas of a religious zealot who after having gained their confidence cleverly stopped them from using the mind any more. In other words, there were charismatic people who would capture the imagination of others through their God-gifted abilities to impress them to the level that their followers would ultimately give in to become passively gullible.
The anti-extremism moderates should play their role carefully. The extremist leadership looks at the weaknesses (apparent or real) eagerly and cleverly employs it to convince their followers that the ‘other group’ was dangerous. The extremist leadership is very sensitive about its following. It jealously guards each and every follower they were able to capture. Indeed they were clearly distinguishable from the non-extremists in this matter too: While a non-extremist would care little if someone who was in agreement with him decided to disagree with him through intellectual reasoning and sided with someone else. It would never be a problem for him because his agenda was to let others use their intellect and let them agree and disagree on the merit of arguments. For an intelligent person, therefore, it would hardly ever be a complete and total transformation from one position to another. An extremist leader would always demand total allegiance from his followers. He can therefore never allow his followers to enter into a free dialogue with others. He knows that disagreement of his follower in one area would signal a shift from total obedience to a position of partial agreement on the basis of the merit of arguments, which to him was as good (or bad) as complete disagreement.