Perhaps the most over-used word of our time is the word ‘extremist’. The term is deployed for a multiplicity of uses, from slandering those who adhere to ancient Christian values to labelling BNP activists to deriding Islamists.
Ed West, in his blog for today for the Telegraph newspaper, asserts that we should take care over the use of the term. He quotes Andrew Gilligan’s interrogation of the Policy International definition of ‘extremist’; someone who
– support[s] or condone[s] the deliberate targeting for attack of civilians (as defined by the Geneva Conventions) anywhere in the world.
– call[s] for, or condone[s], attacks on British service personnel and their allies anywhere in the world or against any forces acting under a UN mandate.
– call[s] for or condone[s] the destruction of UN member states.
– give[s] a platform to deniers of, or apologists for, crimes against humanity, including genocide.
– support[s] or condone[s] terrorism anywhere in the world.
– discriminate[s] or advocate[s] discrimination on the basis of religion, religious sect,race, sexual orientation or gender in any aspect of public life or public policy.
– oppose[s] armed forces’ recruitment.
West and Gilligan are quick to establish problems with such a definition that stretches far beyond the worrying findings of last night’s Panorama, notably that huge organisations would struggle to meet such criteria.
There are also internal ideological confusions in the aforementioned definition. For example, if in the case of point two, wherein the person calling for said attacks is British him/herself, that person is an enemy of the state. It is not an extremist view- the word is negated, as it fails to distinguish between someone holding a viewpoint that is extreme in nature (a passive belief) and someone who implores or organises violence (an active statement)- it is an act of war.
The most erudite expression of this viewpoint comes from Enoch Powell, who made the distinction almost forty years ago.
“One of the most dangerous words is ‘extremist’. A person who commits acts of violence is not an ‘extremist’; he is a criminal. If he commits those acts of violence with the object of detaching part of the territory of the United Kingdom and attaching it to a foreign country, he is an enemy under arms. There is the world of difference between a citizen who commits a crime, in the belief, however mistaken, that he is thereby helping to preserve the integrity of his country and his right to remain a subject of his sovereign, and a person, be he citizen or alien, who commits a crime with the intention of destroying that integrity and rendering impossible that allegiance. The former breaches the peace; the latter is executing an act of war. The use of the word ‘extremist’ of either or both conveys a dangerous untruth: it implies that both hold acceptable opinions and seek permissible ends, only that they carry them to ‘extremes’. Not so: the one is a lawbreaker; the other is an enemy.”
- Speech to the South Buckinghamshire Conservative Women’s Annual Luncheon (Beaconsfield, 19 March 1971)
While it has been some time since either democratically elected leaders or politicians generally were concerned about dismantling the United Kingdom (see: Tony Blair), this definition more accurately makes a distinction that the Policy International definition fails to make clear. It still does not discriminate: it applies to anyone who actively seeks to bring about change, peaceably or by violent means, that undermines the nation according to its constitution.
We should use our words very carefully indeed: important distinctions must be made.