Extremism and Ideology

11/08/2015 15:43 BST | Updated 08/08/2016 10:59 BST

Debates about the appeal of extremism in Muslim contexts are divided on the question of ideology. On one side are those who believe that ideology itself is the root cause of the attraction to extremism. Let us call this explanation, ideology thesis. On the other side are those who claim that alienation and exploitation caused by social and political conditions, largely the result of foreign and domestic policies of western establishments and their allies in Muslim countries, and not ideology, are the main factors promoting extremism. Let us call this social condition thesis. Despite contest over the role of ideology, it is not clear what the proponents of these positions mean by the term as it is often invoked but rarely explained.

Perhaps the meaning of ideology is taken to be self-evident since in everyday parlance it is often understood to be a system of ideas that distorts reality and creates false consciousness. The term was coined in 1796 by Destutt de Tracey. Though ideology as false consciousness has a long pedigree, over the course of the twentieth century through the work of thinkers such as Ernst Bloch, Karl Mannheim, Antonio Gramsci, Terry Eagleton and others a more complex understanding of the nature and function of ideologies has emerged. It will do us well to pay attention to their insights.

First, the notion that ideology is simply a false belief generated for the purposes of control and legitimacy of power has been challenged. That people can be badly mistaken about their needs and interests - a key assumption underpinning the notion of false consciousness - not only takes them to be passive receiver of ideas but also, if true, would have broken down everyday communication. Second, it has been argued that people cannot be attracted to an ideology unless it conforms, even minimally, to their experiences and feelings, and provides diagnoses for their sense of resentment and exploitation. In other words, ideology is not outright false rather it is able to give voice to emotions and aspirations slumbering in the souls of those who are attracted to it.

Third, building upon the diagnosis, an ideology can also move people to action by providing them with a prescription to transform their conditions. Even ideologies with prescriptions that are destructive and out rightly wrong evolve and sustain because they offer a diagnosis which resonates with individuals' felt realities. Fourth, and perhaps, most important insight is that ideologies rarely die but can be contained. But, to do that we need to understand what makes them attractive in the first place.

What are the implications of the above insights for understanding the appeal of extremist ideology in Muslim context? To begin with, we should make a distinction between extremist ideology's diagnostic and prescriptive elements. Before extremist ideology prescribes Islam as a solution to modern problems, it seeks to make individuals identify with its diagnosis of social and political conditions and plays upon any sense of resentment and alienation people may have. When extremists point to political failures of the West and the resulting human sufferings, it rings true to some. One does not have to be among the victims to connect with the sufferings of others. When ideology proclaims that advocates of liberal and humane values have many times failed to practise them, it rings true to some. Further, when ideology weaves together selected texts from Islamic sources and anecdotes from Muslim history to justify violence, this can appeal to people who have grown up with uncritical emotional attachment to their tradition - sadly, there is no shortage of such individuals. Again, one does not need to master theology to be inspired by the promises made in its name. In short, it is when individuals identify with the diagnosis of an ideology that they become attracted to its prescriptions, no matter how destructive it may be. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are few, if any, alternative ideologies today promising hope and change.

Both the ideology and the social condition theses noted above have limitations. The ideology thesis focuses mainly on the prescriptive side and not enough on the diagnostic part. The advocates of this thesis need to open up to the possibility that individuals may identify with the criticisms of social and political conditions offered by extremists. It will not do to dismiss this identification as false consciousness. At the same time, the proponents of social condition thesis fail to see the potency of scared prescriptions and emotional appeal of religiously imbued narratives. It will help to acknowledge that there are elements in religious texts, Islamic and others, that can be put to many uses, including that of extremist ideologies.

Going forward, insights from both the ideology and social condition theses need to be brought together. This will require moral courage and political will to rethink socio-political practices and theologies. It is only by acknowledging what may be attractive in extremist ideology that we will be in a better position to confront what is repugnant in it.