3. Public understandings of extremism
This section covers findings relating to the first research theme, public understandings of extremism. The specific research questions explored in this section include:
- How does the public in Scotland define and understand extremism?
- What are the public's views on the boundaries of extremism? For example, when does an act or behaviour cross the threshold into extremism?
- Do members of the public with different demographic characteristics diverge in how they perceive extremism?
The findings are based on the results of the survey and the qualitative research, which provided an opportunity for participants to articulate their understandings in greater depth. For example, scenarios were presented to focus group participants to encourage them to consider their perceptions of extremism in more detail.
The section begins by exploring how confident the public feel in their understanding of extremism. Subsequent sections explore various dimensions of the public's understanding, such as their views on what constitutes extremist views and actions.
3.2 Confidence in understanding of extremism
The survey opened with a question to elicit levels of confidence in understanding of the term 'extremism'. Nearly three quarters (74%) of survey respondents were at least 'fairly confident' that they understood what the term meant (see Figure 3.1).
Q2. How confident, if at all, are you that you know what is meant by the term 'extremism'?
Base: All respondents, n=2071.
Male respondents (81%) were more likely to be confident in their understanding than females (67%).
Meanwhile, a third of those in the youngest age group (31% of those aged 16-34) were not confident in their understanding, which was a significantly higher proportion than all other age groups (22% of those aged 35-44, 20% of those aged 45-54, 18% of those aged 55-64, and 18% of those aged over 65 years).
In contrast, respondents with Higher Education qualifications (84%) were more likely to be confident than respondents with lower levels of education (60% of those with one to four Standard Grades, 71% of those with five or more Standard Grades and 69% of those with two or more Advanced Highers).
Finally, respondents from South Scotland parliamentary region (81%) were more likely to be confident than respondents from Glasgow (69%) and North East Scotland (71%).
The qualitative research was designed to explore the nuances in the public's understandings of extremism. Within the focus groups and interviews participants often used conditional tenses such as 'I would say' before sharing their understanding. The framing of responses in this way suggested a degree of uncertainty, openness to changing their understanding and respect for other opinions.
Participants often discussed the subjectivity of the term extremism. The more this was discussed, the more participants also came to a realisation that they did not necessarily understand fully what the term meant. One participant explained towards the end of their focus group:
'I am confident I am not clear about exactly what extremism means.' (16; FG)
3.3 Public perceptions of extremism as views and actions
The qualitative research sought to ascertain whether participants understood extremism as views (e.g., opinions held and shared), actions (e.g., behaviours undertaken including, but not limited to, violence), or both views and actions.
Below a range of perspectives are presented, including how extremism may take the form of views, views which are imposed on others, and actions. There is also discussion of how participants defined extremism in relation to societal norms.
Extremism as views
Some participants understood extremism as holding uncompromising and intractable views. This is reflected in academic literature, with Ford (2017: 145) explaining a tendency to ascribe extremism 'not to the views themselves, but to the way in which they are held, namely, in an absolutist sense'.
Furthermore, participants described extremism as attempting to impose these views on other people, for example:
'[Extremism is] to have strong beliefs and to believe in a certain thing and try and put that upon other people.' (24; I)
'For me I think extremism comes down to more of a forced opinion… It's pushed down somebody's throat… It's when its being forced upon others, that's when it would be extremism for me.' (11; FG)
Participants also explained that they understood extremism as the refusal on the part of an individual or community to hear other points of view:
'Disregarding all the other viewpoints, not considering it, not thinking anyone who should have any say on it, not considering any arguments against it, that to my mind would fall into extremism.' (22; FG)
These understandings of extremism emphasise interpersonal interactions. For many, views at least had to be shared with, or imposed upon others, for them to consider this to be extremism.
Extremism was also understood as a process in which a set of beliefs or views 'develop' and come to shape what an individual or group hopes to achieve, or how they would act:
'When I think of extremism, I tend to think more of somebody who has a developed set of beliefs and something they are trying to achieve.' (25; FG)
Many participants saw the adoption of extremist views as an early stage in a process that could later manifest itself as behaviours, although participants did not go into detail of the possible causes of development from views to actions.
Finally, participants also expressed the notion of extremism as views and opinions that can be harmful:
'When I think of using the word extremism, for me it means extreme views yes, but those that are potentially harmful to others.' (1; I)
This idea highlights a common theme that emerged in the qualitative research centred around the notion of 'harm' and the various forms that this takes.
Extremism as actions
Whereas several participants saw extremism as encompassing the process of developing beliefs before acting upon them, others felt that an individual (or group) does not cross the threshold into extremism until they act upon these views.
Some participants reflected on behaviours or actions quite broadly:
'When I'm talking about my understanding of extremism, I feel like I associate [it] with the actions more than I do the views.' (8; FG)
For some participants their understanding of extremism was specifically predicated on violent actions, for example:
'I think we tip into extremism where law breaking and violence become, especially violence, become part of the mix to achieve some sort of objective.' (4; FG)
These participants framed their understanding of extremism around the notion of violence: whether that be violent behaviour or the incitement or encouragement of violence towards another. This represents the narrowest understanding of extremism encountered in this research. However, while most agreed that extremism can (and often does) take the form of violence, many saw it as broader than just violence. This is an important distinction and will be discussed further in the next section.
Although some participants conceptualised extremism exclusively in relation to views or behaviours, many saw extremism as both views and behaviours, and suggested a variety of different combinations of these as examples.
'I think there are extremist views and I think there are extremist actions. So, I think they could both be described as extremist. Extremism maybe you have taken those views to the next level where they are controversial at least, harmful at worst. […] I suppose the short answer is yes. I think you can have extremist views that you don't act on but nonetheless they are extremist views. And certainly if you act upon them…' (1; I)
Extremism in relation to norms
Participants also described extremism as views or behaviours outwith societal or democratic norms. This relates to a broad tendency described by Ford (2017: 145) that situates 'extremist views on the horizons of legitimate political attitudes'. A range of perspectives from participants in this study highlighted this broad tendency:
'At a basic level [extremism] means any extreme view, anything outwith the norm, anything at the edges.' (1; FG)
'I'd probably understand [extremism]… as views and actions that are typically seen as extreme in comparison to the social norm or the moral norm.' (20; FG)
Central to this approach is the notion that established societal and democratic norms exist with regards to acceptable behaviour within a given society, and that extremism represents the deliberate contravention of these norms. Berger (2018: 2) identified this as a common approach in scholarly examinations of extremism: 'often, scholars define extremism relative to the "centre" or "norms" of any given society'.
The notion of extremism as defined in relation to societal norms is echoed in the extent to which many participants considered the term as highly contextual and subjective. When reflecting on the idea that extremism can take the form of views held, participants had concerns about the policing of thought:
'To me someone can hold an opinion, they can write something, they can say something, there's no crime there. It's really in an action. So, [the] definition for me is, is there an action there? If there's no action, then it's not really a hate crime and it's not really extremism. It's really thought crime. [...] yeah it comes down to the act, absolutely.' (12; FG)
3.4 Public understanding of extremism as relating to violence
Approximately two thirds (67%) of survey respondents agreed with the statement 'you can be an extremist without supporting the use of physical violence' and almost three quarters (73%) agreed with the statement that 'you can be an extremist without being physically violent' (see Figure 3.2).
The vast majority (85%) of people who strongly agreed with the statement 'you can be an extremist without supporting the use of physical violence' also strongly agreed that 'you can be an extremist without being physically violent'.
Meanwhile, over half (52%) of those who strongly disagreed with the statement 'you can be an extremist without supporting the use of physical violence' also strongly disagreed with the statement 'you can be an extremist without being physically violent'. These findings suggest that most respondents feel that extremism does not necessarily involve violence.
Q4. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
Base: All respondents, n=2071.
Male respondents were more likely to agree that someone can be an extremist without supporting the use of physical violence (71%) than female respondents (65%).
Likewise, respondents with Higher Education qualifications were also more likely to agree that you can be an extremist without supporting the use of physical violence than respondents with lower levels of education (75% compared with 57% of those with one to four Standard Grades, 70% of those with five or more Standard Grades, and 64% of those with two or more Advanced Highers). This group were also more likely to agree that you can be an extremist without using physical violence than respondents with lower education levels (81% compared with 64% of those with one to five Standard Grades, 73% of those with five or more Standard Grades, and 71% of those with two or more Advanced Highers).
Meanwhile, those aged 16-34 (21%) were more likely to disagree that you can be an extremist without being physically violent than those aged 35-44 (14%) and 45-54 (14%), while respondents aged over 65 years (24%) were more likely to disagree with the statement than those aged 35-44 (14%) and 45-54 (14%).
Respondents from South Scotland parliamentary region (27%) were also more likely to disagree that you can be extremist without being physically violent than respondents from the Highlands and Islands (15%), Mid Scotland and Fife (16%), North East Scotland (17%), and Glasgow (13%).
Extremism, violence, and terrorism
During the qualitative research, a number of participants stated that, in their view, extremism does not always involve violence, echoing the survey findings and mirroring the views of scholars such as Berger (2018: 28). For example, when participants were asked about the differences between their understandings of the terms terrorism and extremism, many felt that terrorism by definition always involves violence, but that extremism does not:
'For me terrorism is just extremism with the violence tacked on.' (9; FG)
'I'd distinguish them as the terrorism is more an act of violence and the extremism is the reasons why.' (17; FG)
In these examples, participants made reference to extremism as a potential precursor stage in an individual's, or group's, path toward committing an act of terrorism. This demonstrates that participants consider there to be a connection between the terms extremism and terrorism, with terrorism conceptualised as a violent expression of extremism. This is explored further in section 3.6.
Although a number of participants felt that extremism does not always involve violence, encouraging or inciting violence was a behaviour that some participants considered to constitute extremism:
'If people are encouraging violence against other people, that's kind of almost the definition of extremist behaviour.' (4; FG)
However, others did not agree. When asked if 'encouraging a violent act would constitute extremism', some participants argued that it could be in certain contexts, but without further information it would be wrong to consider this to always represent extremism:
'I'm not a pacifist. If there is an invading army, I will take it upon myself to be violent towards them. I don't need a leaflet to encourage me to do so. I don't think it would be extreme for a sovereign nation to do that.' (12; FG)
For some participants, therefore, the advocacy of violence regardless of the motivation or context is extremist. Other participants would not consider encouraging or inciting violence as extremist per se and would require further information to determine whether they would consider this extremism. This is further evidence of the breadth of understandings of extremism shared by qualitative participants, and highlights the subjective and contextual nature of these understandings.
To further explore participants' views on extremist behaviour, a series of examples of different types of behaviour and actions were shared by the researchers in the focus groups (see Appendix D for a summary of the focus group discussion guide). Participants were asked to reflect on whether or not they felt each example constituted extremism. The examples chosen were deliberately contentious to encourage debate and, where possible, explore how similar events could be interpreted in different ways by participants. The examples were not chosen because they are interpreted as extremist by the researchers or the Scottish Government, but because they represent examples that have received significant media attention or social debate.
One example presented was holding a sit-down protest on a busy street at rush hour. Participants expressed a wide range of perspectives in response to this example. Some participants reflected on their personal experiences:
'I watched something yesterday, you probably saw it yourself, there was the case where they blocked the ambulances. There was one yesterday where a guy who was going to see a parole officer, and if he was late he was going back to jail. And the guy was in tears, and you really felt for him, but they would not move. And that to me is very extreme, that someone could go to jail because you have blocked the motorway or someone that is waiting on an operation is blocked in an ambulance, I cannae get my head around how somebody would do that.' (9; FG)
In this instance, the participant's response to the example was shaped by their concern that road blockages could directly impact on the work of the emergency services, or disproportionately impact an individual's life. It was because of these factors that the participant understood this example as extremist. For other participants, in all cases this type of behaviour was understood as extremism:
'I feel like in terms of blocking the road, that has to be extremism.' (23; FG)
Both of the participants quoted here therefore considered disruption of this kind as a behaviour that could be extremist under certain circumstances. However, there was variation in the level of detail required for participants to determine whether they would consider this to constitute extremism. One participant felt that the act of blocking a road was extremist regardless of motivations and impact, whilst another was only prepared to label this behaviour as extremism because of the specific consequences it had. They highlighted it would only be extremist if it caused harm to people, for example an ambulance being blocked from getting to a hospital. This once again highlights how context matters to members of the public in forming their understandings of extremism.
However, other participants rejected the notion that disruption or inconvenience was extremist:
'It's not an extreme thing to block the road. Obviously, it disrupts a lot of people in their work and their day but I don't think it's an extremist view for me.' (13; FG)
3.5 Public views on the thresholds for extremist activity
Similar to the focus groups, survey respondents were presented with seven types of activity and asked whether they considered any of them to represent extremism (see Figure 3.3). The answer options contained two opposite conclusions, never and always. Other answer options were provided which could indicate a more conditional association, including: often, sometimes and rarely. Respondents could select don't know, and under 10% did in all cases.
Attending a non-violent protest for political, religious or ideological reasons was seen as 'never' representing extremism by 14% of respondents. This compares with 8% regarding this as 'always' extremism. This was the only instance where never was a more prevalent answer than always. For the six remaining statements more respondents selected that the activities always represented extremism than that they never represented extremism.
Over half (53%) of respondents considered 'causing physical harm to a large number of people for political, religious or ideological reasons' to always represent extremism, the highest proportion across all of the statements.
Notable differences in responses by age and gender are discussed below.
People over 65 years were more likely than other age groups to say that they 'never' regarded the following activities as extremism (albeit those with this view were still in a minority, even in this older age group):
- Collecting money for a group known to use violence for political, religious, or ideological reasons (15% compared with 6% of those aged 16-34, 2% of those aged 35-44, 5% of those aged 45-54, and 4% of those aged 55-64).
- Attending a non-violent protest for political, religious or ideological reasons (22% compared with 13% of those aged 16-34, 9% of those aged 35-44, and 10% of those aged 45-54 years).
- Making derogatory remarks about someone for political, religious, or ideological reasons (13% compared with 4% of those aged 16-34; 2% of those aged 35-44; 4% of those aged 45-54, and 4% of those aged 55-64 years).
- Sharing material (online or in person) promoting a group known to use violence for political, religious, or ideological reasons (13% compared with 5% of those aged 16-34, 2% of those aged 35-44, 3% of those aged 45-54, and 3% of those aged 55-64).
- Causing criminal damage for political, religious, or ideological reasons (11% compared with 5% of those aged 16-34, 3% of those aged 35-44, 2% of those aged 45-54, and 3% of those aged 55-64).
- Assaulting someone for political, religious or ideological reasons (11% compared with 5% of those aged 16-34, 2% of those aged 35-44, 2% of those aged 45-54, and 2% of those aged 55-64).
Q5. Do you consider any of the following to represent extremism?
A. Attending a non-violent protest for political, religious or ideological reasons
B. Making derogatory remarks about someone for political, religious or ideological reasons
C. Causing criminal damage for political, religious or ideological reasons
D. Sharing material (online or in person) promoting a group known to use violence for political, religious or ideological reasons
E. Collecting money for a group known to use violence for political, religious or ideological reasons
F. Assaulting someone for political, religious or ideological reasons
G. Causing physical harm to a large number of people for political, religious or ideological reasons
Base: All respondents, n=2071.
This could indicate the oldest age group (over 65 years) had a higher threshold for considering actions as extremist than younger groups.
Analysis by gender showed that males were more likely to regard these actions as 'never' or 'always' extremism than females. That is, they were more likely to select an exclusionary option at either end of the opinion scale than females, who were more likely to select conditional options. For example, 40% of male respondents considered collecting money for a group known to use violence for political, religious or ideological reasons to always represent extremism, compared with 33% of female respondents. Additionally, 8% of male respondents believed that making derogatory remarks about someone for political, religious, or ideological reasons never represented extremism, compared with 5% of female respondents.
Females had significantly higher instances of 'don't know' responses to the statements than males. This could indicate a desire for more context and detail in order to determine whether an action constitutes extremism.
Participants also discussed their views on the threshold at which behaviours or views can be considered extremism in the qualitative research. Participants often offered thoughts on this topic spontaneously but were also asked directly to reflect on the matter.
A number of different thresholds were highlighted but they tended to coalesce around harmful interpersonal interaction. That is, causing harm to others was widely held as 'crossing the line' into extremism:
'Hurting someone else, when you're harming other people that's where the line is drawn for me anyway.' (10; I)
'I think [it] only tips into extremism where they actually take action and do something to you that actually causes harm.' (4; FG)
Some participants had a broad interpretation of harm, suggesting that behaviours that impact on another's human rights reached the threshold to be considered extremism:
'I would say anything that's having a purposefully negative effect on somebody [is extremist].' (18; I)
Another perspective was that any attempt to impose one's point of views on another would represent extremism:
'It certainly crosses the line if you impose your views on others.' (1; I)
For other participants there was a more specific interpretation of harm as involving violence. These participants viewed the act of moving from non-violent to violent behaviour as representing 'crossing the line' into extremism:
'I would say they are being able to demonstrate your right to protest but I think if it then descends into destruction and violence at that point, it could then be construed as extremism.' (19; FG)
There was therefore a clear pattern that harming another person is seen as a threshold at which an act can be considered extremism.
Participants also discussed the importance of context in determining whether an act crosses a threshold into extremism. A number of participants highlighted at various stages how context heavily shapes their understanding of the concept:
'I don't know [if] you could draw that line, it 100% depends on the situation.' (8; FG)
Participants raised the importance of time and place in their determination of an act as extremism. In relation to geography, participants highlighted variance among legal systems internationally as one factor that contributes to there being different thresholds for extremism. Some saw extremism as varying between different countries with unique legal systems:
'It becomes very tricky and then different governments come into the picture, so that means different laws in different countries, […] so what is by law in one country might be okay in one country and not be okay in the other.' (22; I)
A number of participants also highlighted the importance of physical location, for example:
'Now some of their points you might be able to understand, say if it was people arguing against war or against the arms trade, it could be lying on the border of extremism if they're protesting people's funerals, cause it's not an appropriate situation for it, whereas they could be making the same points and arguments in a different environment, maybe outside a place of business or outside a government building and that might be less extremist I suppose.' (8; I)
In relation to time, some discussed how behaviour that may have been seen as extremism historically would not be considered as such today:
'Twenty years ago, I would say yes, that would be extremist, now, no.' (20; FG)
Participants therefore saw extremism as understood in relation to the norms of a particular political state and a particular time period, further emphasising the extent to which many understood extremism as inherently bound to societal limits of acceptable behaviour through norms and existing legal and democratic frameworks.
Participants also highlighted that determining whether an act was extremist was only possible when they fully understood the motivations of an individual or group. For example, when asked whether travelling overseas to fight for a religious cause would constitute extremism one participant reflected:
'People actually did go from the UK to help the Yazidis repel attacks by ISIS. Defending a non-aggressive group. That seems to me to be heroic and not extremist.' (4; FG)
Some participants felt unable to label particular views and actions in positive or negative terms without understanding context. The term extremism itself, was seen by some as a wholly negative term. One participant reflected:
'[Extremism] is viewed in a very negative light. The word has a very negative connotation, because you have extremism and then on maybe the opposite end which has more of a positive light to it you have activism.' (5; FG)
One interesting notion that came from this, and other contributions, was regarding extremism as a form of 'negative activism'. As discussed previously, many participants framed their understanding of extremism in relation to societal norms, and this particular approach would place the term activism as views or behaviours that do not transgress these norms in support of a particular cause of ideology. In contrast, negative activism is when these norms are transgressed in support of a particular cause or ideology.
There was also discussion of how individual opinion shapes understandings of extremism, and how supporters of a particular ideology might not conceive of this as extremist due to their support of that cause.
Indeed, on occasion, when presented with examples of behaviour and asked to reflect on whether they could be considered extremism, participants highlighted that their own opinion would heavily shape their answer, illustrating that some participants would not label a view or behaviour extremism if the cause was something they agreed with, for instance taking part in protests for climate action. A key finding, therefore, is that participants acknowledge that their understanding of extremism may not correspond with how others see the term.
Finally, participants also naturally raised the difficulties with drawing the line between extremism and activism, and highlighted the importance of maintaining freedoms of speech and protest, whilst protecting people from harm:
'Certainly, sit down protests in the middle of George Square would be perfectly… that's a legitimate action that isn't extremism, even if these people have what I would call extreme right-wing views. If they are having a sit-down protest and doing nobody any harm, although I think they might have extremist views I don't view that as extremist action.' (1; I)
3.6 Word associations with extremism
Survey respondents were presented with a list of words and asked to select which they would most strongly associate with extremism, up to a maximum of three words. The most prevalent association was with the term terrorism, with almost half (47%) selecting this option (see Figure 3.4). Around 30% of respondents associated extremism with the words racism (32%), religion (30%), violence (28%) and hate crime (27%).
Q3. Which of the following words do you most strongly associate with extremism? Please select up to three options.
Base: All respondents, n=2071.
Those aged over 65 were the only age group with higher instances of associating racism with extremism (47%), than associating terrorism with extremism (39%). Only 8% of those aged 16-34 listed sectarianism as associated with extremism, compared with 26% of those aged 55-64.
The most common association among BAME respondents was racism (31%).
Males (21%) were more likely to associate sectarianism with extremism than females (12%). Males were also more likely to associate politics with extremism (18%) than females (15%). Meanwhile, females were more likely to associate homophobia with extremism (12%) than males (7%).
Respondents who did not identify with a religion (54%) were more likely than those who did to associate terrorism with extremism (42%). Respondents who did not identify with a religion (30%) were more likely to associate violence with extremism than people who identified with a religion (26%).
Focus group participants were asked to consider the links between extremism and three related concepts: terrorism, sectarianism and hate crime. This section provides more detail on participants' views on the relationship between extremism and terrorism and hate crime (particularly that relating to racism) specifically. Views on the relationship between extremism and sectarianism are explored in later sections (see sections 5.2 and 5.4).
Research has shown that extremism is often conflated with terrorism, as well as radicalisation (Nasser-Eddine et al., 2011; Onursal & Kirkpatrick, 2019). As with the survey results on associations, qualitative participants perceived the most pronounced overlap to be between extremism and terrorism, with many participants drawing a strong connection between the two concepts:
'I think extremism and terrorism are interlinked. You can't have one without the other, or it seems to be that way.' (2; FG)
For some, terrorism was a 'subset' of extremism. For others it was a 'branch'. Some participants visualised the relationship between extremism and terrorism in terms of a ladder, where one (usually extremism) can lead to the other (terrorism). Yet, it is important to highlight that progression from one to the other was not seen as inevitable:
'It's that all terrorism is the extreme end of extremism […] all extremists aren't terrorists, but terrorists are extremists.' (6; FG)
'I would probably go along [with] the view that all terrorists are extremists but not all extremists are terrorists.' (15; FG)
A significant number of participants therefore saw a clear relationship between extremism and terrorism, regardless of the exact nature of the relationship. For these participants, extremism was viewed as broader than terrorism.
Whilst many participants found terrorism and extremism to be strongly related, the term 'hate crime' was seen as similar but somewhat more distinct:
'I think hate crime is more of a targeted thing, whereas extremism is quite a blanket attitude.' (19; FG)
Many participants felt that hate crime was specifically aimed at certain groups or communities within society, whereas extremism was less discriminate in target or focus. Hate crime was seen as related to extremism, with similar analogies as were used to explain the relationship between extremism and terrorism. Some participants saw hate crime as the root of extremism, and others continued the analogy by suggesting that extremism and hate crime are branches of the same tree.
Taken together, the qualitative findings suggest that participants saw significant overlap, but subtle differences, between extremism, terrorism and hate crime.
Notably, at times participants naturally lapsed into using other terms when referring to extremism, in particular when making reference to terrorism or radicalisation, demonstrating that they viewed these concepts as closely linked.
How does the public in Scotland define and understand extremism?
The majority (74%) of survey respondents were at least 'fairly confident' that they understood what is meant by the term extremism. Males were more confident than females, and those with Higher Education qualifications were more confident than those without. Almost a third (31%) of those aged 16-34 were not confident, significantly more than all older age groups.
Participants in the focus groups and interviews had more opportunity to discuss their understanding of the term extremism, which highlighted nuanced interpretations of the concept, and the subjectivity of the term. The qualitative discussions revealed that a diverse range of understandings of extremism exist within Scotland, and indicate that members of the public are not necessarily either confident or fixed in their understandings.
Indeed, in the qualitative discussions participants explained that their opinions on whether and how views and actions constitute extremism were highly dependent on the context.
For example, when presented with examples of behaviour and asked to reflect on whether they could be considered extremism, participants highlighted that their own opinion on the cause would heavily shape their answer. Participants openly explained that they would be less likely to label a view or behaviour extremism if the cause was something they agreed with, such as taking part in disruptive protests for climate action. Participants also acknowledged that their understanding of extremism may not correspond with how others see the term.
Further, extremism was often understood as acting outwith societal norms or existing legal and democratic frameworks, but participants were conscious of the difficulties with using a threshold of outwith societal norms for extremism. They explained that in their view societal norms change over time and differ between places, such that behaviour that may have been seen as extremism historically would not be considered as such today. They felt that using such a threshold could therefore risk impinging on freedom of speech or rights to protest.
Linked to other concepts
The most prevalent association with extremism was with the term terrorism, with almost half of survey respondents (47%) selecting this option. Around 30% of respondents associated extremism with racism (32%), religion (30%), violence (28%) and hate crime (27%).
Focus group participants were asked to consider three terms in particular: terrorism, sectarianism and hate crime. Participants saw significant overlap, but subtle differences, between these three terms and their understanding of extremism.
For example, terrorism was often viewed as the severest form of extremism, with extremism seen as a precursor stage towards a path of committing an act of terrorism. Meanwhile, hate crime was viewed as being specifically aimed at certain groups or communities in society, whereas extremism was less discriminate in target or focus.
Notably, at times participants naturally lapsed into using other terms when referring to extremism, in particular referring to terrorism or radicalisation, demonstrating that they view these concepts as closely linked.
What are the public's views on the boundaries of extremism? For example, when does an act or behaviour cross the threshold into extremism?
Views and actions
Extremism was not solely seen as either views or actions, and many participants suggested it could be both.
However, actions, including violence and other forms of harm, were considered to more clearly represent extremism, while opinion was more divided as to whether views alone that did not translate into harm or violence can be considered as extremism.
A number of different thresholds for when an act or behaviour crosses the threshold into extremism were highlighted by qualitative participants. These tended to coalesce around harmful interpersonal interaction. That is, causing harm to others was widely held as 'crossing the line' into extremism. For example, over half (53%) of survey respondents considered 'causing physical harm to a large number of people for political, religious or ideological reasons' to always represent extremism.
However, views were mixed as to whether this harm had to be intentional. While some felt that it did, others felt that even unintentional harm impacting on another's human rights reached the threshold to be considered extremism.
Meanwhile, others framed any attempt to impose views on another as the minimum criterion for an act to be considered extremist.
How likely does the public think it is that extremism will translate into actual violence?
There was agreement that extremism was broader than just physical violence across both the quantitative and qualitative research. For example, the majority (75%) of survey respondents agreed that 'you can be an extremist without being physically violent'. In the qualitative research, other forms of harm beyond physical violence were considered extremism, such as inciting or encouraging violence, and disruption more broadly.
Participants could not give a sense of what proportion of extremist views translated into violent action.
Do members of the public with different demographic characteristics diverge in how they perceive extremism?
The oldest age group (those aged over 65) were less likely than younger people to categorise given actions as extremist, meaning they appear to have a higher threshold for considering an action as extremist than younger age groups.
Males were more likely to regard a list of actions provided as 'never' or 'always' extremism than females. Moreover, females had significantly higher instances of 'don't know' responses to the examples than males. This could indicate a desire for context and detail in order to make a determination of whether an action constitutes extremism by females, and more polarized views among males.
Males were more likely to associate sectarianism and politics with extremism than females, while females were more likely to associate homophobia with extremism than males.
For BAME respondents, the most common association with extremism was racism (31%).
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