New Meanings Of Extremism

We hear a lot about extremism these days, perhaps as a preferred word for fundamentalism. But who is extreme; are people being labelled ‘extreme’ by a non-extreme majority? A lot of this new labelling is driven by understandable fear. Post ‘9/11’ the world has watched radical new movements bent on western domination. In comparison, the medieval nation-states of Europe that, five or six hundred years ago were set on conquests to enhance their world-power status, appear as toothless old lions.


In the present context there is politico-religious extremism, where radical religious beliefs fuel and foment violent political engagement. As conceived by non-extremists these radical movements are threatening to subvert the prevailing social order in the west by radical interventions that constitute a grave threat – hence the term ‘extremism’.

In its most basic form radical extremism seeks territorial advance and conquest of existing political powers. Some extremists use explosives to strike widespread panic and maximum carnage. Non-extremists anxiously see these movements as threatening to overthrow their long-established and hard-won tolerant and liberal democracies.

Such threats are viewed with foreboding as the ultimate goal is the imposition of a whole new set of social values and religious beliefs amounting to forced mass ‘conversion’. Such goals offer no freedom to dissent as they spread fanaticism, from which dissent means death.


How western democracies are responding to these invasive extremes is significant. Responses speak much of one’s own strengths and vulnerabilities. Some responses are on the level of heightened national security and intelligence alerts; some involve granting greater powers to police, and strategic counter-measures to forestall the covert plans of terrorists.

One alarming feature is how the rise of liberal humanism understands, on its own terms, what it conceives to be a wider form of extremism. I say ‘alarming’, because for many Christians, who in earlier generations were respected for their patriotism, hard work and social compassion, are now feeling ostracised and stigmatised, and some made to feel that they too are involved in extreme activities. Why is this when Christians are profoundly opposed to fanatical violence in every shape and form?

One basic reason should not surprise us; Christ’s people in this fallen world have invariably been despised and persecuted for their beliefs, as they separated themselves from a close association with non-Christian life-styles, excessive pleasures and entertainments. And then, Bible-centred Christians have been censured in the past for holding such views as a penal, substitutionary view of Christ’s death, or to his true deity, and for their view of sin and eternal, conscious punishment of those who preferred to reject Christ. Many non-Christians have a strong aversion to such beliefs which they consider extreme. This is no surprise; the Bible teaches that the ‘word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing’ (1 Corinthians 1:18). And people are fully entitled to think such beliefs are extreme if they wish.


But what is taking some by surprise is how the right to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience to hold various religious beliefs or none; rights and freedoms that grew under the wholesome Christian influences on post-Reformation societies, are now being turned against Christians and taken from them.

So deep is this irony that to speak now against homosexuality or same-sex marriage or abortion is taken by some secularists as being socially offensive and extreme. A huge reversal has occurred in which the new secular consensus rules. Biblical morality has largely been jettisoned, but western neo-paganism is finding it is no match for radicalised Islam. Once, in Christianised societies, some behaviours were marginalised because they were contrary to the word of God. It is granted that some past sanctions were extreme, but this in no way warrants pay-back time upon contemporary Christians.

Now, the older Christianised understanding of civil and social rights and freedoms to citizens, including minority religious beliefs, are being given new secular and post-Christian meanings, which from a Christian viewpoint, represent the loss of genuine rights and freedoms – witness the loss of right to life of millions of aborted infants. A new secular totalitarianism is stalking our western democracies, and it is time to note the profound irony that permits the “lawful” slaying of innocents by abortion on demand, in light of the legislator’s wish to be spared before the onslaught of other forms of radical violence!

But what is very disconcerting for Bible-centred Christians is the current level of confusion in how their own beliefs are becoming associated and confused with radical, violent religious extremists.


Such a confused association needs urgent redress by an acknowledgement that violent terrorism and anarchy represent specific types of extremism towards which appropriate counter-measures must be sustained and even improved. But that Christ-centred Christianity is by no means extreme in the modern use of this secular term. It is high time to gain greater clarity on what constitutes extremism, lest legislators using secular sociological assumptions fail to understand the roots of their own reactions and finish up taking measures to prohibit time-honoured freedoms and cause unwarrantable trouble to those who are not extremists.

Michael J. S. Austin, Ph.D.


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