Reframing Extremism


Terminological note: I realize that drawing generalities about cultures and religion (e.g. “Islam” or “the West”) is perilous business and many distinctions and semantic nuances are either exaggerated or ignored. But peacemaking and problem resolution is called for nonetheless. I continue with this Islam-West distinction because it is characteristic of how the public formulates the conflict. Some will surely be critical of this supposedly simplistic distinction but it does represent the level at which the conflict is talked about. Funk and Said’s discussion of competing narratives categorizes the conflict as between “Islam” and “the West” and uses these categories as the level at which dispute in consciousness operate. It is also a better capture of the conflict then phrases such as “civilizational conflicts,” a terminology probably worth avoiding.

There is no escaping requirement that any genuine and diligent effort to resolve Islam- West differences must confront extremism and violence. The first step, and this will be difficult for many, is not to view extremism as confined to Islam but to view it as a genuine relational term that is a reaction to economic and cultural issues. Defining a problem relationally implies similarity dialectic; it forces the two parties to interpret differences as similarities or at least the recognition of mutuality of the problem. The current cultural insularity means that each side establishes meaning and interpretations about the other independently and separate from broader political and historical frameworks. If there is going to be a compatibility perspective rather than a rivalry perspective, which is an initial crucial step toward ameliorating conflicts, then extremism must be confronted by each group and also avoid insularity. The current conflict is a clash of symbols (including headscarves, religious symbols, and clothing) that act like a clash of stereotypes. They represent simplistic belief systems that reduce the other side to essentialist practices and end up rendering everyone uninformed. This process results in an intergroup pathology where both sides reduce their beliefs to a small subset of meanings which are difficult to communicate about. When this small subset is politicized the result is fundamentalism as each side works to seal off their beliefs and maintain control. For Muslims the fundamentalism gravitates toward puritanical religious ideology that defines offenses and outsiders. For Westerners fundamentalism equates liberal democracies with the natural flow of history and market economies as beyond criticism.

Intergroup images of the other must be replaced and counteracted. Consistent with a long literature on intergroup contact both ingroup and outgroup images must be modified. Dialogue is the mechanism for uncovering the existential reality of the other. In addition, a compatibility framework must appreciate similarities and differences in order to avoid militants and fundamentalist. If a provocation is responded to in a narrow and mechanical manner then fundamentalism is reproduced. Another simple truth is that we are surrounded by media messages pertaining to violence when it comes to news and information about Islam and the West. The availability heuristic would predict that we use and overemphasize information that is easily available to us. Since we can imagine images of violence easier than ones of peace and reconciliation, simply because these images are more available, we tend to think that such images and relationships are more characteristic of the conflict. And certainly the same is true of the negativity bias, which holds that negative information is more easily attended to and brought to mind than positive information. So when we think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we think of negative things such as violence, religious differences, and a whole host of tragedies that cause us to remember those more than anything else. These heuristics of negativity and availability can fundamentally define an intergroup conflict and contribute significantly to its intractability.

Still, there is a reason conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are called intractable. They are particularly resistant to resolution because an appeal to shared values and aspirations may not be sufficient. In fact, it would be naïve to think otherwise. The conventional discourse of the West and Islam is filled with assumptions that reinforce ingroup and outgroup mentalities. Security is not a private good but one that is achieved by developing consensus, and cooperation, and interdependence – all relational terms. Justice cannot be imposed by one side but must be a concept that binds the two sides into a just relationship. But neither the West nor Islam can thrive in the midst of extreme antagonism. They need a bigger story, another narrative that continues to develop the narrative of complementarity and compatibility. Neither Islam nor the West can drift into deep bounded subjectivity that fixates on fundamentalism but must discover the active process of dialogue and deliberation capable of generating new forms of communication.


About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 26, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “Defining a problem relationally implies similarity dialectic;…”

    A very good point. A good place to start with the “similarity dialectic” is at the beginning, of what we all have in common. See the book, “Scientific Proof of Our Unalienable Rights, a Road to Utopia.”

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