A brief history of extremism – from ancient Rome to al Qaeda

From wars in ancient Rome and medieval crusades to al Qaeda and ISIS, examples of extremist behaviour can be found almost as far back as our written histories extend. Here, expert JM Berger charts the history of extremism, and asks whether it’s right to think the problem is today worse than ever…

One of the earliest and most famous examples of extremism comes from ancient Rome. Starting in 264 BC and continuing for more than a century, Rome engaged in a series of wars with neighbouring Carthage. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When did extremism begin?

Before we can begin to answer that question, we have to agree on what extremism means. Some argue that extremists are simply people whose beliefs are far outside the mainstream of society. While this definition ensures that extremists can be found throughout history, it’s not consistent, because mainstream beliefs have changed so much over the centuries.

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An easy and somewhat controversial example is the practice of racial slavery in America. Some scholars argue that slavery is not comparable to modern white racial extremism because it was the accepted norm in American society for so many years. Yet the English word “extremist” was first popularised during the debate over slavery, most famously used by Daniel Webster in reference to slavery’s most ardent defenders and detractors. More significantly, slavery was justified through an ideological belief in white supremacy, including both religious and ‘scientific’ justifications for racism, some of which still have adherents among today’s very modern white nationalists.

If the ideology that justified slavery is thus related to modern white supremacist beliefs, which most people agree are extremist, then isn’t slavery also a form of extremism? Shouldn’t we study both as part of a single category? In my book, Extremism, I argue that this phenomenon is better understood as a product of group dynamics – the belief that one’s own group cannot succeed or survive unless it is constantly and unconditionally set in opposition to another group.

What are extremism’s defining characteristics?

The unconditional nature of the opposition is key to this definition; most normal conflicts (even violent ones) can be resolved in some manner that accommodates both parties, such as a fight that ends with a handshake, or a war that ends with a treaty. In contrast, extremists believe the ‘other’ must always be opposed, controlled or destroyed because its intrinsic nature and existence is inimical to the success of the extremists’ own group. For extremists, there can be no end to the opposition, except the destruction of the other group within the jurisdiction the extremists’ control. Under this definition, if an extremist movement abandons its commitment to hostile action against the other, it ceases to be extremist (although it may still be unproductive or unpleasant).

Examples in the history of extremism

Using this framework, examples of extremist behaviour can be found almost as far back as our written histories extend. One of the earliest and most famous examples comes from ancient Rome. Starting in 264 BC and continuing for more than a century, Rome engaged in a series of wars with neighbouring Carthage. By the end of this period, the advantage finally shifted to Rome.

But some believed victory was not enough, asserting that the continued existence of Carthage was an affront to Roman identity. The Roman Senator Cato the Elder was one of them, fabled to have ended every speech he gave – no matter what the topic – with the injunction “Carthage must be destroyed”, remembered today as the Latin phrase, “Carthago delenda est”. Cato’s viewpoint won out; Rome razed Carthage to the ground in 146 BC after an extended siege, killing an estimated 150,000 residents and selling the survivors into slavery, in what Yale scholar Ben Kiernan calls “the first genocide”.

Others would soon follow this extremist path. One of the most infamous examples in the ancient world was a Jewish group known as the Sicarii, who violently opposed Roman rule and killed fellow Jews they saw as collaborators. They were reputed to have committed mass suicide under siege at the mountain redoubt of Masada in 73 CE.

In 657 CE, the new religion of Islam experienced its first outbreak of extremism, a sect known as the Kharijites, who are remembered for their zealous beliefs and brutal violence against Muslims who they believed had strayed from the true path.

Christianity was not immune to these dynamics either, at times launching crusades and inquisitions to violently root out sectarians and unbelievers they viewed as “infidels”. One of these, the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century, wiped out a deviant Christian sect in France known as the Cathars. Legend (possibly apocryphal) holds that the commander of the Roman Catholic forces uttered a Latin phrase that is remembered today, somewhat altered in translation, as “Kill them all and let God sort them out”. Whether the words were said or not, the massacre of Beziers in 1209 killed 20,000 Cathars, and by the end of the Crusade the entire sect had been slaughtered.

Extremism came to the new world with the Spanish conquistadors who colonised the Americas starting in the 16th century. As some Spaniards expressed horror at the enslavement and extermination of indigenous people in the Americas, intellectuals of the day crafted racial and ideological arguments to excuse and even justify these horrors, arguing that the natural superiority of Spaniards justified the enslavement of the continent’s indigenous residents, “in whom you will scarcely find any vestiges of humanness”. These justifications were understood by 19th-century thinkers as one link in the chain that led to the American adoption of racial slavery – one of history’s most egregious and shameful extremist practices, which victimised millions of people of African descent over the course of hundreds of years.

At the end of the 19th century and into 20th, more familiar, modern examples begin to emerge, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the Reconstruction South, and its resurrection in a new form during the 1910s and 1920s. The group continues today, although with only a shadow of its former strength: about 3,000 adherents in 2016 compared to perhaps 4 million members in 1925.

Consequentially, the early 20th century also saw the rise of new and more virulent forms of anti-Semitic extremism. Although anti-Semitism has a long history, it reached genocidal heights in Nazi Germany, another movement we understand as extremist even though, for a time, it occupied the mainstream of German society. The Nazis killed six million Jewish people during their time in power, and millions of others, including disabled people, LGBTQ people and Soviet, Serbian, Roma and Polish civilians. Although the Nazis were defeated, their legacy lives on today in the form of (at least) dozens of neo-Nazi groups around the world.

A group of children behind a barbed wire fence at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although anti-Semitism has a long history, it reached genocidal heights in Nazi Germany. (Photo by Alexander Vorontsov/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A group of children behind a barbed wire fence at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although anti-Semitism has a long history, it reached genocidal heights in Nazi Germany. (Photo by Alexander Vorontsov/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Modern extremism

The 1980s gave rise to modern jihadist extremism: the mobile, transnational movement significantly spearheaded by al Qaeda which raised the issue of violent extremism to a global priority in 2001 on September 11; it was elevated still further by the rise of ISIS in the 2010s. Today, thousands of jihadist extremists take part in violent activities all over the globe, from terrorism to insurgency.

The same period has seen a resurgence of white nationalism and white supremacy in the United States and Europe, many of whom focus on Muslims as their chief enemy, pointing to the depravities of jihadism as part of their justification for their hate. But it’s not only white extremists who are targeting Muslims. In Myanmar, a new breed of Buddhist extremists seeks to exterminate Muslim Rohingya communities. In China, ethnic Uighurs who practice Islam are being incarcerated and ‘re-educated’ in concentration camps, a fact that too rarely features in discussions of extremism.

Violent extremism was raised to a global priority by the 11 September 2001 attack on New York's World Trade Center; it was elevated still further by the rise of ISIS in the 2010s. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Violent extremism was raised to a global priority by the 11 September 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center; it was elevated still further by the rise of ISIS in the 2010s. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Today, it feels like the problem of extremism is worse than ever. There is some truth in that perception, although it is not the whole story. We don’t always frame our collective memory as a history of extremism; maybe if we did, it would place current events in context. Anarchists assassinated French and American presidents; a Russian tsar; an Italian king and an Austrian empress (among others) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Terrorists of every stripe, many representing left-wing causes, killed 184 people in the United States alone during the 1970s, and many more in Europe. A Serbian nationalist fired the shot that is commonly perceived to have started the First World War (by assassinating Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand). Serbian extremists emerged again with disastrous strength in the 1990s, committing acts of genocide against Bosnian Muslims. In 2019, the Christchurch, New Zealand, terrorist mass murder was inspired in part by Serbian nationalism.

A Serbian nationalist fired the shot that is commonly perceived to have started the First World War (by assassinating Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand). (Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A Serbian nationalist fired the shot that is commonly perceived to have started the First World War (by assassinating Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand). (Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the pervasive role extremism has played in history, some elements of modern life can fairly be understood as making things uniquely worse. Chief among these is the rise of globally interconnected social media networks. Extremism is defined by its ideology – which stipulates identities and what sort of hostile action must be taken against the ‘other’ – and ideology must be transmitted in order to spread. Technologies that turbo-charge the transmission of ideology have a disproportionate effect on the spread of extremist ideas. Extremist movements can enjoy significant success by mobilising relatively small numbers of people; when extremist ideologues or groups can reach millions on social media, instantly and at no cost, they only have to convert a fraction of a per cent of that audience in order to have a major global impact. That’s a significant factor in what happened with ISIS, and it’s a significant factor with white nationalism now.

In addition to helping the supply-side of extremism, social media and other online technologies also empower demand. Before the internet, it was harder for curious people and potential recruits to find information about extremist groups and make contact with their members. Now, anyone with a keyboard can quickly seek out extremist texts and even make contact with extremist recruiters, from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

British daily newspapers from 2015 display headlines and stories regarding the identification of the masked Islamic State group militant dubbed 'Jihadi John'. Social media and other online technologies enable anyone with a keyboard to seek out extremist texts, says JM Berger. (Photo by DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)
British daily newspapers from 2015 display headlines and stories regarding the identification of the masked Islamic State group militant dubbed ‘Jihadi John’. Social media and other online technologies enable anyone with a keyboard to seek out extremist texts, says JM Berger. (Photo by DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)

How can we stop and prevent extremism?

Ultimately, the fight against extremism is embedded in our history, just as significantly as extremism itself. Although the march of progress is slow, the long arc of history bends toward justice – admittedly with one step back for every two forward.

The common thread among the movements discussed in this article is that almost all of them are history. Some have long tails – groups like the KKK and the Nazis continue to have adherents long past their sell-by dates. But their ability to influence world events recedes, even as new and different challenges arise. Extremist movements eventually fall, even if it takes hundreds of years.

We can’t take that for granted, however. Like violent crime, extremism is a problem that must be met with vigilance and policing. It is one of the perennial challenges of society; left unchecked, it has resulted in unparalleled historical atrocities with death counts in the millions. We should learn the lessons of that history and prioritise accordingly, but we should not succumb to despair. We may never banish extremism from the human experience, but we can save lives and preserve societies by managing and understanding it.

JM Berger is the author of Extremism (MIT Press, 2018). He is a research fellow with VOX-Pol, an academic research network focused on researching Violent Online Political Extremism, and a PhD candidate at Swansea University’s School of Law, where he studies extremist ideologies. To find out more, visit www.jmberger.com

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This article was first published by History Extra in May 2019