The structure of extremist groups has been classified as a “preamble to terrorism,” although it is important not to conflate extremist ideology with violent extremism. While related, violent extremism involves both ideology and behaviour and registers further along a spectrum of radicalisation. This article analyses the potential for radical ideology formation within homogenous spheres of association. The following discussion occurs in the contexts of shifting international norms and the global proliferation of right wing populism, the advocates of which use negative and polarising rhetoric in their political communication. This article compares the violent group dynamics of Islamic State (IS) to South Africa’s emancipatory Black Power movement and urges policymakers to employ nuance in their response to current international terrorist threats and domestic extremism. It argues that within associational groupings that lack diversity, misrecognition of group identity can occur, leading to polarisation and ‘groupthink.’ This in turn, can proliferate and strengthen existing belief systems causing group ideology to become extreme, relative to broader liberal democratic society. However, a lack of diversity cannot produce extremist tendencies in isolation from other socio-economic and political grievances. Moreover, in-group dynamics can be used to mitigate extremism, as established avenues of trust can serve as effective channels for propagating tolerance – countering extreme messaging.
Group Dynamics and Liberal Democratic Expectations
Extremism is a broad concept that includes the promotion of ideology, hatred of other racial or religious groups, the exertion of control over others and the targeting of opponents. Additionally, extremist behaviour is grounded in ideology and “actors and structures are mutually constituted.” When political and cultural group norms are changed by ideology the result can be a fundamental shift in the organising principles of the group. In other words, by changing the rules of the group, ideology can change group structure and group expectations. Negativity associated with extremism is often well justified, as ideology can spur groups along a path of radicalisation toward violent extremism. However, some extremisms can reflect an emancipatory agenda and can help to bridge divisions – if broader society is receptive to the real and/or perceived grievances of marginalised voices. Importantly, understanding democratic theory can be key to accurately judging wether the nature of a groups’ dynamics is dangerous or rewarding to society as a whole. This is due to the fact that democratic principles underpin the structure and expectations of liberal ‘Western’ societies.
Broadly speaking, the Liberal Democratic model of society is considered ‘best practice’ in the twenty-first century. Although it remains problematic, as critical theorist Jurgen Habermas notes when questioning, “when and under what conditions the arguments of mixed companies could become an authoritative basis for political action?” Habermas explores an inherent tension in liberal democratic theory. Liberal accounts often assume the individual to be an “abstract being, devoid of cultural characteristics, even though culture is part of human nature.” Democratic governments are therefore compelled to juggle the needs of various – often ideologically opposed – groups within their jurisdictions. When this complex task is handled poorly, groups and individuals can become marginalised.
In circumstances where profound and persistent material and status inequality arise, democracy suffers and societies can disintegrate into violence. Liberal scholars assume that an overlapping set of norms can peacefully accommodate group diversity. However, the notion that universality exists between cultures remains highly controversial. At a more immediate societal level, how cultural values are actioned and debates over how such values ought to be actioned can generate conflict. It follows that in a pluralist liberal society some groups’ values will exist outside the norms of the majority. In situations where communities perceive their own norms and values to be mutually exclusive to another’s, political illegitimacy is accorded to that “Other.”
Liberal societies frequently distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate groups. Immigration quotas, for instance, restrict migrant intake on the basis of identity – drawing the line between groups that can exist alongside others, and groups whose views are inherently dangerous. Habermas envisions a “public sphere” where the uncertain balance between assimilation and group diversity can be teased out democratically. Where the rights of individuals and groups enjoy recognition; where society can construct a dialogue of civility; and where political engagement is channelled through legitimate state institutions. However, there is a danger that marginalisation and xenophobia can entrench divisions between groups making them less receptive to arguments that diverge from their own groups’ ideology. When this happens, the public sphere is diminished and groups become insular, regurgitating and reiterating their own arguments – to the exclusion of others’. This “echo-chamber” phenomenon is largely responsible for the negative reputation of group homogeneity in social democratic contexts.
Right Wing Populism, Echo-chambers and Fear of the Other
Elements of the echo-chamber phenomenon occur in the ongoing controversy between race-bating and pro-tolerance Australians over the ‘legitimacy’ of Muslims in Australia. Following 911 and a slew of anti-Western terror attacks, citizens of the ‘West’ – Australians included – experienced heightened anxiety toward Muslims and ‘Islamic culture’ generally. (It is important to note that ‘Islamic culture’ is an umbrella term; its most basic interpretation denotes cultural practices carried out according to faith in one Islamic God and the Prophet Muhammad. However, it is not an instructive unit of analysis as the cultures of Muslims around the world can be extremely diverse). While this fear plateaued in the late 2000’s, we have seen another spike coinciding with the rise of IS and widespread media coverage of the groups’ atrocities. In the current populist national and international political climate, which is characterised by negative political communication across sectors and platforms, people are able to subscribe to and consume only media that affirms their existing ideas of the Other.
Mainstream media has become a vehicle for IS’ hateful messages, which have directly targeted Westerners. Some mainstream media outlets, that are trusted by much of the public to provide credible news, have reproduced these toxic messages without adequately qualifying the limits of IS’ power. Sensationalist reporting confounds an already overblown fear of radical Islamism and tarnishes the reputation of Muslims everywhere. Furthermore, research shows a clear link between the number of articles on terrorist incidents and the number of follow-up attacks: “one additional New York Times article about an attack in a particular country increased the number of ensuing attacks in the same country by between eleven and fifteen per cent.” The absence of nuance and scrutiny in reporting sets up an uncritical environment that is conducive to echo-chamber formation.
Extremists pose a legitimate threat to security in Western societies and precautions are needed to prevent their impact. However, subpar media coverage and poor analysis can skew the fact that extremists represent a very small minority of Muslims. According to a global study by Pew Research Center, most Muslims say, “suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam are rarely or never justified.” Furthermore, while many of IS’ foreign fighters are familiar with Islamic rituals and Salafist slogans, their engagement with Islam is superficial and many are “theologically illiterate.” Despite this, radical Islamists appropriate religious symbolism to build the perception of legitimacy around their extreme agendas.
For non-Muslims who are uninitiated with the nuanced teachings and practices of Islam, Islamist symbolism and everyday Islamic symbolism can be difficult to distinguish. For instance, a Cable News Network (CNN) reporter mistook a spoof IS flag for the real thing at London’s 2015 Gay Pride March. The black flag in question was not marked by IS insignia; it was rather depicting an array of horizontally positioned sex toys. The fake-news headline that followed – “ISIS FLAG SPOTTED AT GAY PRIDE PARADE” – was internationally broadcast. It is one example of irresponsible media enhancing the ubiquitous notion of IS power and it points to the ease and power of misrecognising group identity.
The larger problem of misrecognising Muslims arises from the more insidious and subtle conflation of meaning between “Muslim” and “Islamist.” In public discussions in the media and in politics their meanings are often used synonymously, demonstrating profound bias and Islamophobia. Additionally, reproducing IS propaganda and framing it using impressive terms of reference contributes to an inflated perception of IS power and lends credence and grandeur to its Caliphate – making it a more attractive destination for foreign fighters. The cumulative effect of misrecognition and misinformation raises the plausibility that racists and pro-tolerance Australians will withdraw into respective echo-chambers and processes of Othering. Such phenomenon is symptomatic of a curtailed public sphere – the locus of negotiation and thus conflict resolution.
Processes of Othering diminish tolerance across cultures generally. When Othering is reciprocated, communities can become trapped within a spiralling feedback loop of intolerance. When this happens a break with the status quo is required to transcend the vicious cycle. This may take the form of skilled and empathic leadership. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu exemplified good leadership in South Africa by re-framing the violent narrative of resistance against apartheid into one of non-violence. Their approach, which is revisited in later paragraphs, garnered international support and contributed to the demise of apartheid rule.
Group narratives are powerful and intelligent leadership can generate unifying narratives that foster social cohesion. Great leadership acknowledges conflict and difference and consciously strives toward integration and solidarity, opposed to assimilation or segregation. All public entities – especially governments, policymakers and the media – have a leadership responsibility to prevent ethnocentric notions of “them” and “us.” This is particularly pertinent in the current right wing/populist leaning political climate.
Messaging by IS of its Western hatred far outstrips its geographical range and speaks more to the group’s determination to manufacture fear and division than its strength of physical force. Far-right wing groups in Australia, Europe and the Americas have been quick to validate the effectiveness of IS’ divide and conquer strategy; their xenophobia and Othering of ‘moderate’ Muslims has played directly into IS’ hands. In 2014 Australia’s first Islamophobia Register was created to report, record and analyse the increasing incidences of hate and to raise awareness of the problem. This demonstrates the tightening of group norms – Muslim exclusion ought to be recognised as the symptom of public sphere malaise.
The Destructive Group Dynamics of Islamic State
Spheres of association are powerful; they can lead to polarisation, parallel discourse and radical violence. IS’ supporter network is a good example. By conflating individual identity and “collective memory” in foreign recruitment strategies, IS has shown that defending group honour shapes people in powerful ways. Despite the fact that they are not all homogenous, many alienated Muslims share a collective “sense of injustice” at the hands of the “West.” Islamist groups who seek to recruit younger members for their ideological crusade – like IS – have capitalised on an existing collective grievance at the “mistreatment of Muslims across the world.” Youth testimonies tell of anger at the West’s support of injustices against Muslim populations and its double standards in places like Gaza and Syria. By targeting individuals whose sympathies are already anti-Western and focussing on three main narratives – persecution, utopianism, and brutality – in their online recruitment and propaganda videos, IS has been able to persuade an estimated “31,000 foreign fighters” to travel to Syria and Iraq and take up arms.
Analysis of IS recruitment suggests it operates through tightly integrated spheres of association. However, IS’ process of radicalisation stems “not from an existential vacuum, but from resentment born of the humiliation suffered by a group to which the young people in question feel close.” To elaborate, the identity disjunct between IS recruits and so-called “mainstream” Western society ripened conditions for polarisation. When existing ideological divisions are increasingly pried open – at the extreme end of the spectrum – groups like IS no longer recognise any moral obligation toward the rest of society.
In 2014 IS spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, took advantage of the moral disconnect felt by IS supporters around the world. He called on them to kill Westerners in “any manner or way… [s]mash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.” Since this call to arms several brutal attacks against Westerners have been carried out in IS’ name. Determining the degree of affiliation between individual perpetrators and IS has proved difficult and complicated, yet the strong influence of IS incitement should not be underestimated. The broader point to be drawn from this phenomenon is that the social context of radicalisation and Othering reveals the causes of violent extremism to be multidimensional.
In the case of younger Muslims who are receptive to ideology, it is a convergence of group trauma and individual circumstance that ignites follow-through behaviour in response to radicalised thinking. In other words, violent extremism does not simply arise from the existence of a tightly bound association, rather, is shaped by other pressures on the ground. Radicalisation expert, Peter Neumann, notes that IS jihadists are often socially deprived in their nation of origin, that they often have criminal records or feel humiliated by the West in some way, and that in the “heroic foreign fighter they see an idealized version of themselves.” Thus, some individuals who perceive liberal societal norms as hostile may harbour feelings of grievance and trauma that make them vulnerable to manipulation by recruiters who construct exploitative group narratives and appeal specifically to their disaffection.
IS has established predatory online networks to target and recruit disaffected Muslim youth internationally. By constructing narratives that depict alternate lifestyles, which are rife with adventure and meaning, IS’ extreme jihadist online communities (echo-chambers) take “ownership” of members’ grievances. Captivated by group narratives that offer a sense of belonging, purpose and power, such members come to believe that no one beyond the group can understand their plight eventually succumbing to the problem of radicalisation. These dynamics illustrate how polarisation can encourage segregation and disuse, or total collapse, of cross-cultural discursive pathways – precluding inter-group dialogue and giving rise to “parallel discursive arenas.”
Parallel discursive arenas play host to the counter discourses of subordinated social groups – even if the participants come from a range of different backgrounds. These arenas allow individuals to align their self-identity with a collective identity in a process of reciprocal recognition – otherwise known as inter-subjectivity. As Calhoun suggests, “the feeling of belonging confirms each one in its existence which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.”
In the case of IS recruits, the process of inter-subjectivity has fostered violent extremism. Individuals, like 20-year-old Frenchman Jean Edouard, have been drawn into IS membership by the promise of identity, of community, power and of feelings of masculinity. Belonging is a psychological necessity, the foundations of which seemed unattainable to Edouard in his birthplace of France. When individuals and groups slip though society’s safety net or are inadvertently or deliberately excluded by structural inequalities, it is reasonable to assume that they will take their search for belonging to the fringes of society. This separation from the mainstream can lead to polarisation, “at least if group members start with a sense of grievance or a level of concern.” To reiterate, there is no single determinant of extremism, but good policy mitigates the structural inequalities that make people vulnerable to pernicious ideologies.
While tight associational networks are necessary, IS members have felt compelled to live up to violent group narratives and/or reproduce them to express solidarity and common identity with their global Islamic community, despite their relatively diverse backgrounds. Islam has increasingly been targeted as a source of terror in mainstream western societies, limiting space in the public sphere for the expression of Muslim identity. The following quote is among many similar expressions of fear submitted to the Australian Islamophobia Register by Muslims targeted on religious grounds: “I’m afraid of leaving my house with my young children because I don’t know how to protect both if [sic] them if someone attacked us.” This statement hints at the psychological and life-limiting toll that Othering can take. It also underscores the importance of robust and integrative social policies that foster belonging and pluralism and avoid the structural imbalances that give rise to outlier identities.
The risk of group homogeneity is that the group in question becomes both the subject and object of misrecognition, and that its illegitimate position relative to broader society is perceived as fixed and eternal. ‘Extremist’ labels wield significant discursive power by stigmatising, stereotyping and locking groups into limited narratives. While some groups may not immediately identify with their ‘extremist’ label, they can come to frame themselves within extremist terms. As discussed earlier in relation to IS group dynamics, extremist framing and a desire for group belonging can result in the need to live up to prescribed group narratives. For this reason, societies ought to avoid prematurely labelling minority groups ‘extreme,’ or risk pushing moderate outlying groups toward self-identifying as extremist. This can lead to the reproduction of group cleavages, reduced space for novel and regenerative approaches to cross-cultural dialogue, and increased risk of harmful behaviours due to radicalisation.
Not all instances of parallel discourse are inevitably limiting. Newly found alienation from the majority group can spark “revolutionary commitment and political activism.” The nature of such ‘revolutionary commitment and political activism’ is determined by context: how the group is composed, the structure or hierarchy of the group, the personalities of group leaders and members, the way the group perceives itself and is perceived by others, and so on. Thus, it is important to note that different social dynamics arise within different groups and that no single theory of discourse applies to all contexts.
Political philosopher, Nancy Fraser, presents a positive reading of group dynamics when she writes about minority communities making their own political space. This is valuable when society’s broader norms are exclusionary; in which case, an extremist oppositional group can renegotiate its position in society. In South Africa, the African National Council’s (ANC) formation under conditions of apartheid, makes for a good example of this, as Moderate leaders Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela had the profile and agency to peacefully affect broader norms. This shows that integrative networks, even ones that spur violence, can also promote counter-narratives of understanding.
Fraser argued that in stratified societies a homogenous sphere of association could provide minority communities with the necessary space to develop a constructive criticism of exclusionary norms. On one hand, homogenous spheres of association may be used for respite and re-groupment, while they can also function as “bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics. It is precisely in the dialectic between these two functions that their emancipatory potential resides.”
There are many instances of marginalised groups developing associational ties and strengthening their power to demand a proper hearing. Returning briefly to the case of South Africa’s ANC – the legitimate political body behind South Africa’s revolutionary Black Power movement – the ANC was branded “extremist” by the white supremacist government of the day, yet that label reflected the prejudices in Apartheid-society more so than the illegitimacy of the ANC’s political agenda. The tension in liberal democratic theory is that the term ‘extremism’ is a relative judgement: it often reveals as much about the values and identity of the judge as it does about the trajectory of the group to which the term is applied. In the case of the ANC, the same associational structure that characterises IS recruitment enabled a historic shift in norms, and a peaceful settlement of Apartheid racial division.
The strong integrative dynamics of associations do not always promote violent groupthink. There are circumstances when group deliberation allows for a change in group strategy and norms. In cases of deep polarisation, George Vasilev argues, that:
[T]ransformative deliberation must begin inside the group, as this is where one finds the psychological and communicative infrastructure to facilitate the kinds of identity shifts that presuppose iterated across group deliberations and lead to the institutionalisation of an overarching public sphere.
This is exemplified by the testimonies of IS defectors, which can be highly persuasive in preventing the radicalisation and recruitment of alienated Muslim youth. IS defectors are able to give a realistic impression of the group from the perspective of an insider, with whom the potential recruit shares a collective narrative of grievance. As such, a defector’s challenge of IS’ totalitarian ideology is likely to make a greater impression than would that of someone belonging to “Western mainstream” society. Like the ANC, some groups can play host to transformative group deliberation, helping to bridge polarisation, thus – transcending the misrecognition that groups like IS create and depend upon. Good leadership recognises the nuances and uniqueness of different groups, refrains from reactionary labelling and capitalises on existing integrative potentials within groups by first listening to and recognising their more tolerant elements.
However, in both popular and scholarly discourse arguments tend to favour the idea that in-group deliberation within homogenous groups fosters extremism. Given that people are often “motivated to accept accounts that fit with their pre-existing convictions,” this claim is plausible. Homogeneity can quickly descend into ‘groupthink,’ where the maintenance of unity is prioritised above all other aims, resulting in poor quality, unchallenged decision making. However, groupthink is influenced not only by the degree of homogeneity, but by other issues of context also. It is when parallel discourses and strong group bonds encourage an uncritical groupthink that violent extremism is more likely to arise from communities of grievance.
Lessons in policymaking can be drawn from international experiences with extremism. For instance, the Obama Administration’s attempt to compete with IS messaging was counter productive. Instead of generating an effective counter-discourse, engaging directly with IS gave the group a wider international platform for recruitment and unintentionally lent credence to its message. Further:
[IS’] status as an object of U.S. ire proves that they are the legitimate opposition to countless Western-supported injustices and double standards across the Muslim world […] when U.S. counter-messaging centres on religious ideology, it effectively confirms a second assertion from the Islamic State: that it is a genuine mouthpiece for Islam. U.S. engagement, in other words provides fuel for the Islamic State’s “spin machine.”
This policy failure serves to inform other governments of what not to do and underscores that defector and more tolerant group members are often best placed to change group norms.
The central point of this article is that homogenous associations can propagate messages that set the rules for their members. This can be problematic due to the inherent contradiction between individual rights and group rights in liberal democratic theory and practice. Ongoing discursive evaluation of the role of groups in society is required, as group and individual identities change. Additionally, imperfect knowledge leaves groups vulnerable to misrecognition. The difficulty of juggling such complex social dilemmas in the current era of rapid communications growth and globalisation was illustrated in an assessment of IS recruitment strategies. However, skilful leadership can help overcome and prevent the societal ills associated with an ideologically polarised populace. Essentialising groups by branding them ‘extremist’ risks locking people into oppressive narratives that delegitimise tolerant behaviours, and legitimise violence. This erodes freedom in the public sphere and undermines the stabilising purpose of democratic systems. Polarisation and radical violence should always be deterred, while decisions to encourage or discourage enclave deliberation must be made with a holistic contextual awareness.
Contextual factors discussed in this essay include, group composition, group identity/narrative, leadership action, degree of homogenisation, intensity of radicalisation, depth of misrecognition, structural inequality and globalisation. Equitable policies should be taken to support individual and group integration in contexts characterised by trepidation of cultural change and the ‘Other’. Policymakers must seek to partner with more tolerant in-group members and defectors to foster a dialogue of cross-cultural understanding, while so-called ‘mainstream’ community leaders who are invested in a robust liberal democracy must raise their own voices above divisive populist rhetoric. Using their privileged positions they can also make space for marginalised voices and pluralist discourses, to hold accountable those who promulgate Othering, racist and/or violent messages. Furthermore, policies should incorporate hard won lessons provided by efforts to mitigate extremism globally. Group associations are powerful and homogeneity can generate a parallel discourse, but this is not always bad – when communities unite they can transcend their marginalised position and find emancipation.
Monica Keily is in her final year of a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in International Relations and International Development, at La Trobe University.