4. Public views on existing definitions of extremism
This section includes findings relating to public views on existing definitions of extremism. The specific research questions explored include:
- How does the public in Scotland define and understand extremism?
- How far does the public's understanding of extremism in Scotland align with definitions and categorisations adopted in other contexts?
Participants' views on existing definitions of extremism were explored during the qualitative research, specifically the interviews. During the interviews, participants were shown three definitions. The first was the UK Government's definition of extremism (Home Office, 2011), the second was based on the Australian Government's (2022) definition of violent extremism, and the third was based on the Swedish Government's (2015) definition of violent extremism:
1. 'vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs' (UK Government definition).
2. 'a willingness to use unlawful violence, or support the use of violence by others, to promote a political, ideological or religious goal' (Australian Government definition).
3. 'engagement with ideologies that accept and legitimise violence as a means of realising extreme ideological opinions and ideas' (Swedish Government definition).
These definitions were identified as part of a review carried out by the Scottish Government (2023d) which explored how extremism is defined in other countries and contexts. Notably the term 'engagement with' is not included in the original definition of extremism outlined by the Swedish Government but was included in the definition presented to participants so that its structure aligned with the Australian and UK definitions.
The interviews also explored participants' views on an approach to defining extremism recently adopted in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, where broad categories of types of extremism are the focus, rather than specific ideologies. Views on the use of three categories were explored: 'religiously-motivated extremism', 'politically-motivated extremism', and 'ideologically-' or 'identity-motivated extremism'. Participants were prompted to consider whether they felt these categories were comprehensive, if they could provide examples of types of extremism which fit within each category, and if they thought the categories were helpful or unhelpful in understanding and defining extremism.
4.2 Public alignment with existing definitions
In the interviews, participants were shown the three definitions in a randomised order. They were asked to reflect on whether the definitions aligned with their personal understanding of extremism; whether they would change anything about the definitions; which definition they felt was closest and furthest from their own understanding; and whether they thought each definition could apply to Scotland.
Most participants thought that all definitions could apply to Scotland. There was a preference for the definition adopted in Australia, with most feeling that this was closest to their own understanding. The reasons presented for this, as well as other key themes that emerged in the discussions about existing definitions of extremism, are covered below.
4.3 Public views on what to include and exclude in formal definitions
The inclusion of the 'fundamental British values' element of the UK Government's definition of extremism was critically examined by scholars and media commentators following its introduction (see for example Richardson, 2015; Lander, 2016; Vincent, 2019).
Without prompting, interview participants questioned the inclusion of the term 'fundamental British values' in the UK Government definition, but for different reasons. Participants queried whether these values were specific to the UK or were more widely held, and felt that specifically making reference to 'British' values limited the international relevance of the definition. One participant noted:
'I do not like it just focusing on British values. That makes it really very specific, just to focus on the UK, which I don't agree with.' (22; I)
It was felt that if values were to be mentioned, more neutral language should be used, with no mention of a specific country or culture. This illustrates that the participants who raised these concerns had a preference for a definition of extremism that would be widely applicable and, potentially, widely accepted. Reflecting this, one participant claimed:
'If you took out British and put in societal values, you could probably take that to any country in the world… I think if that word [British] was taken out of there, or it was societal, or another word… more neutral, then I don't think anyone could disagree with that.' (9; I)
Although one participant suggested that the phrase 'Scottish values' could be used instead of the phrase 'British values', others took issue with this:
'Even if it said Scottish values my first thought would be that they're more universal rather than [that]… it seems like it's meant to be patriotic or make me feel a certain way and that's not really what I'm looking for.' (8; I)
This suggests that participants were not critical of the inclusion of 'British values' on the basis of party political or constitutional preferences, but instead because it potentially limited the applicability of the term.
Some participants also felt that the 'British values' referred to in the definition, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs, had been eroded in recent years. For instance, one participant shared:
'I think a lot of people think that there isn't much democracy or individual liberty, so I don't think there is much left of that in this country.' (18; I)
Comments such as these reflected participants' views about the state of British politics. Some contrasted the notion of 'British values' and behaviours or decisions taken by then members of the UK Government. For example, participants referenced the 'partygate' scandal that was reported in the media during the fieldwork period.
In summary, for the whole group of participants three main reasons emerged for taking issue with the inclusion of the term 'British values' in the UK Government definition. Firstly, that the values described were not solely 'British'. Secondly, because the use of the term 'British' narrowed the applicability of this definition of extremism. Thirdly, because of their negative assessment of members of the UK Government, which they viewed as having diminished these 'values'. On this basis, there appeared to be preference for a definition of extremism that does not include explicit reference to a particular country.
The definition that most participants preferred was the Australian Government's definition of violent extremism. Many participants chose this definition because of the explicit reference to violence. This illustrates that whilst (as discussed in section 3.3) there were a mix of understandings on whether extremism is view-based or action-based, there was a preference for definitions that explicitly refer to violent behaviours. At least one participant, however, took the opposite view, suggesting that this inclusion narrowed the term too much.
When considering that a number of participants understood extremism as constituting a broader range of harms than just physical violence, it is possible that a definition that makes reference to a broader range of harms could be even more widely accepted.
A final point made on the definitions was with regard to language. Whilst participants were less supportive of the UK Government's definition of extremism than those of the Australian and Swedish Governments, it was noted that all three definitions could be presented in more simple language:
'Maybe I'm disrespectful but to the working man you've got to make it look and feel a lot easier to read and understand.' (2; I)
This suggests that it is important to ensure that definitions of extremism are accessible and can be widely understood.
4.4 Public views on categorising types of extremism
As noted above, interviewees were presented with the categories 'religiously-motivated extremism', 'politically-motivated extremism', and 'ideologically-' or 'identity-motivated extremism'. They were asked to consider whether they found the categories helpful and comprehensive, and if they could think of examples of extremism that could be categorised as such.
On first reaction, participants found the categories to be a helpful way of thinking about what the term 'extremism' can cover.
For participants closely associating intra-Christian sectarianism with extremism, they felt that seeing the three categories helped them to think beyond 'religiously-motivated extremism' and to also consider extremism related to political and other identity or ideological motivations.
However, one participant disagreed with using the categorisations on the basis that they focus on the motivation rather than the act itself:
'I think you're trying to section people into groups when you should just call it what it is. If you are trying to, say, blow up a plane or [commit] a targeted act on such and such, it should not really be this political party, or this cultural group is the cause.' (18; I)
Participants found the categories sufficiently broad to cover a range of extremist groups. When challenged to consider groups that would fall outside the categories, some participants said that they felt that some forms of environmental protest, that they considered to be extreme, may not be covered by these categories.
Overlap across the categories was also noted by participants, with some struggling to distinguish 'ideologically-' or 'identity-motivated extremism' from the other categories. Indeed, one participant felt that 'ideologically-motivated' could be a catch all term for religiously- and politically-motivated.
'The word ideological I like the most, because even if you didn't use the term religion or political, ideological could cover that potentially. Because having a particular political idea, which is ideology, or a particular religious idea, which is ideology, you have the capacity to cover all that in together.' (22; I)
Although participants expressed broadly positive views on the categorisation approach in theory, they found this harder in practice. Several interviewees mentioned the Capitol riot in Washington DC, USA in January 2021 as a clear example of politically-motivated extremism. However, anti-abortion vigils outside clinics were also discussed by several participants. Those who felt that this constituted a form of extremism had mixed views on how this should be categorised, with some considering this to be an example of religiously-motivated extremism, and others categorising this as politically-motivated extremism.
As such, the categorisations seemed to spark thought and discussion, but did not necessarily lead to more clarity or consensus about what was understood as extremism.
How far does the public's understanding of extremism in Scotland align with definitions and categorisations adopted in other contexts?
Of the three definitions discussed in the interviews, the Australian definition was most popular within this small sample, partly because it makes explicit reference to violence. Challenges were raised with the UK Government's definition of extremism, which largely related to the use of the term 'British values'. It was felt that if values were to be mentioned, more neutral language should be used, with no mention of a specific country or culture. Participants who raised this issue seemed to be concerned with ensuring definitions of extremism would be widely applicable and, potentially, widely accepted.
Some interview participants struggled with the accessibility of the definitions of extremism presented, suggesting that it is important to ensure definitions are accessible, clear and expressed in plain English.
Splitting extremism into 'religiously-motivated', 'politically-motivated', and 'ideologically-' or 'identity-motivated' encouraged more thought and discussion on what would constitute extremism. However, utilising the three categories did not lead to more clarity or more consensus in what was understood as extremism. Participants struggled to think of examples to 'fit' into each category, and the 'ideologically-' or 'identity-motivated' category was seen by several to encapsulate all motivations.
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