5. Public experiences of extremism
This section includes findings relating to public experiences of extremism. The specific research questions explored include:
- To what extent have the public observed or experienced extremism in Scotland?
- How do the public perceive extremism in Scotland to manifest as views, behaviours, and actions, particularly in the communities they live in?
In the survey, respondents were asked whether they had observed (including having experienced) extremism in the last five years, and if so what they had observed. They were also asked whether they had observed related phenomena including terrorism, hate crime and violence.
Experiences of extremism were then explored in more detail during the qualitative research. Questions on experiences were included in the interviews rather than the focus groups due to potential sensitivities involved in describing these experiences around others. However, some experiences of extremism were also discussed unprompted in the focus groups. In all cases, participants were provided with information and resources before and after their participation to mitigate any potential distress that might result from discussing or hearing about such experiences. Throughout the interviews participants were reassured that they did not have to answer questions or elaborate on any points should they not feel comfortable with this.
This section begins by looking at the survey findings in relation to the prevalence of experiences of extremism at the general population level, before looking at differences in experiences by population groups. The last section focuses on examples of experiences given by qualitative research participants.
As noted in the earlier chapter on public understandings of extremism, interpretations of the term 'extremism' varied among those who took part in this research and did not always align with the definitions used by governments or academics. This should be borne in mind when considering the findings in this section. In other words, individuals may have a similar experience, but one person may regard this as an example of extremism, and another not.
5.2 The prevalence of experiences of extremism
The survey asked respondents if they had observed extremism in Scotland in the last five years, including experiencing it themselves (see Figure 5.1).
Q10. Have you observed extremism in Scotland in the past 5 years? This can include experiencing extremism yourself.
Base: All respondents, n=2071.
A third (33%) of respondents indicated they had observed or experienced extremism online or in person in Scotland in the past five years. This included 13% who had experienced or observed extremism online, 12% who had experienced or observed extremism online and in person, and 8% who had experienced or observed extremism in person. Based on the variety of different interpretations of extremism identified earlier in this report, this figure likely includes those who had observed or experienced views or attitudes that they consider to be extremist, as well as those who had observed or experienced acts or behaviours that they would define as such. Around six in ten (59%) respondents had not experienced or observed extremism.
Levels of confidence in knowing what is meant by the term extremism had no significant effect on whether people said they had observed extremism in the last five years in Scotland, meaning that people who were more confident in knowing what is meant by the term were not more or less likely to report observing extremism.
Respondents who said that they had observed or experienced extremism in the past five years were then asked to describe what happened. The results again highlighted respondents' wide-ranging and diverse interpretations of the term 'extremism', as at times examples were cited that would not be captured by many conventional understandings of the term. The broad range of examples given suggest that the ways in which the public understand and define extremism are more varied than formal definitions and categorisations.
The ten words used most frequently by respondents to this open question are displayed in Figure 5.2. The most common words used included 'racism', 'extremism', 'religious', 'sectarianism', 'terrorism' and 'political'.
Q8. What have you observed?
Base: Those with experiences of extremism, n=653
5.3 Differences in experience of extremism by population groups
Notable differences emerged in experiences of extremism by demographic group. Firstly, people in younger age groups were more likely to report having observed extremism in Scotland in the past five years than older respondents, and the oldest age group were least likely to have observed extremism. Among those aged 16-34, 45% said that they had observed or experienced extremism in the past five years, which fell to 34% of those aged 35-64, and 18% of those aged 65 or older. This trend was consistent for both online and offline extremism, meaning that it cannot be explained by respondents being more likely to observe or experience extremism online.
Respondents from the Glasgow parliamentary region were most likely to report having observed or experienced extremism in the past five years (39%), followed by those in Lothian and Central Scotland (36%). In contrast, respondents in the North East (25%) were the least likely to say they had observed or experienced extremism.
Half of BAME respondents (49%) reported having observed extremism in the past five years, compared with one third (32%) of non-BAME respondents. Within the follow up question asking for more detail, BAME respondents discussed having experienced discrimination and racism. Furthermore, parliamentary region variations might offer some explanation as to why BAME respondents were significantly more likely than non-BAME respondents to say they had observed or experienced extremism in the past five years, given over half of BAME respondents lived in Glasgow, Lothian or Central Scotland (i.e., the areas in which respondents were most likely to report being exposed to extremism).
Males (36%) were more likely to say they had observed extremism in Scotland in the past five years than females (30%).
Those whose household income was between £20,000-£39,999 (35%) and over £40,000 (41%) were more likely to say they had observed extremism in Scotland in the past five years than respondents whose annual household income was less than £20,000 (29%).
Finally, respondents with five or more Standard Grades (35%) were more likely to have observed extremism in Scotland in the past five years than respondents with one to four Standard Grades (25%).
5.4 Examples of experiences related to extremism in Scotland
Respondents were asked if they had observed a range of phenomena related to extremism in Scotland in the past five years (see Figure 5.3). These included: terrorism, hate crime, violence, racism, discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, sectarianism, and community tension.
This question was asked after the question on whether they had observed extremism in Scotland in the last five years to mitigate confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret a new piece of information as confirmation of something you already think (in this case a different question order could have primed respondents to state that they have observed extremism).
Over half of participants had observed discrimination (53%) and exactly half had observed racism (50%), which were the most common options selected. Terrorism was observed by the lowest number of respondents (15%). This finding is explored in more detail in the section on terrorism below.
Q12. Have you observed any of these in Scotland in the past 5 years, either online or in person? This can include experiencing these yourself.
Base: All respondents, n=2071.
The focus group discussions and interviews provided an opportunity to explore participants' accounts of observing or experiencing views, behaviours or actions that they would define as extremism in greater detail. As is the nature of qualitative research, participants were able to offer their views in their own words, which did not necessarily align with the opinions of the research team or the Scottish Government.
As noted above, questions on experiences were included in the interviews rather than the focus groups due to potential sensitivities involved in describing these experiences around others, but during the focus groups, several participants shared examples of their own experiences of extremism unprompted. The focus group facilitators were alert to the possibility that the participants sharing these experiences might become distressed by recounting them, and that other participants might be affected by hearing about others' experiences. However, no concerns of this type emerged during the fieldwork. Similarly, whilst the research team would have intervened in the event that discussions around these experiences risked offending other participants, this was not necessary.
The interviews explicitly asked participants if they had experienced extremism personally. To avoid causing any unnecessary distress, the researchers asked participants if they were happy to discuss their experiences before proceeding, and none of the participants raised any concerns about recounting these.
At the interview stage, participants mentioned sectarianism when discussing their own experiences with extremism. On elaboration they were referring to intra-Christian sectarianism (for further research on intra-Christian sectarianism in Scotland see Scottish Government, 2015). Sectarianism and extremism were perceived as intertwined by some participants even though there remains some debate about the overlap between these two issues in academic literature (Baker, 2017). Some participants discussed specific experiences that had impacted them personally, but family conflicts linked to sectarianism were also highlighted. One participant discussed an acquaintance of theirs being subjected to a football-related sectarian attack – an act that this participant understood as being driven by an 'extreme' view:
'I know my friend's partner was literally walking home and he had a Celtic top on, and someone pulled up in the car and he got battered for having a Celtic top on. So that's an extreme view and that's just somebody who thinks that anyone that wears that colour shouldn't be allowed to think like that.' (24; I)
Violence and abuse
A number of participants discussed specific incidents involving violence and abuse. These incidents related to witnessing or experiencing acts of racial abuse, discrimination motivated by a religious belief, and an example of a homophobic assault. Their consideration of racial and homophobic abuse as a form of extremism rather than hate crime indicates a broad understanding of extremism.
Whilst personal experiences of violence and abuse were rare, the fact that several experiences cited reflected incidents affecting friends or family members illustrated how individuals might be vicariously affected by other people's experiences, even when they are not directly impacted (Paterson, Brown & Waters, 2019).
A broad range of other examples of 'extremism' were shared by focus group and interview participants. The examples given were notable for the diversity of beliefs and actions that participants considered to be extremist, and for the different criteria that participants used to determine that these incidents were examples of extremism.
In some instances, examples related solely to individuals sharing beliefs that they considered to be extremist, with one participant discussing having had contact with individuals who appeared to believe conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine, for example. In other cases, participants considered individuals to be extreme based on both their beliefs, and their actions. This included one participant who discussed a family member being subjected to anti-abortion protests on a regular basis whilst working in a hospital, and another who discussed a friend having cut them out of their lives based on them holding a different political viewpoint.
The potential presence of extremist content online was discussed in several interviews and focus groups, but only one participant discussed being directly exposed to this content personally:
'I do see the occasional thing on TikTok. But it's usually just people screen sharing a video and saying, "what's this guy doing?" and it's removed by this point. And it's not frequent. And I don't think it's even Scotland, but from elsewhere in the world.' (18; I)
There was a general perception from participants that extremist content is likely to be online, but they had not come into contact with it themselves, and were unsure of the form and the scale of such content. Some participants in the focus groups and interviews speculated that most people were unlikely to stumble across extremist content online without searching for it. That observation is somewhat challenged by research which has suggested that a significant proportion of young people may be exposed to such content unwittingly (for example see Cottee & Cunliffe, 2020).
5.5 Experiencing and observing terrorism in Scotland
Scotland's recent history of terrorist activity appears limited when compared with the rest of the UK. Information on terrorist events is available from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which details all discoverable terrorist attacks which have taken place worldwide between 1970-2020. The GTD has a broad definition of terrorism, covering 'the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation'.
According to the most recent data available, there were 13 terrorist incidents in Scotland in the decade 2010-2020, accounting for 1.3% of the incidents recorded in the UK as a whole over the same period (figures correct as of 02/10/2022). Since 2020, a small number of terrorist incidents in Scotland have been reported in the media. For example, a 24-year-old man threatened to set fire to an Islamic centre in Glenrothes and was convicted of terrorism and other offences (see Police Scotland). However, terrorist activity in the country appears to remain comparatively low.
It was therefore notable that 15% of survey respondents reported having observed terrorism in Scotland in the past five years (see Figure 5.3). Although this represents a minority of survey respondents, this figure stood out given the limited terrorist activity in the country.
There are four potential explanations that should be taken into consideration when interpreting this finding. The first is that this notable minority had in fact observed what they would define as terrorism in Scotland, but that this was based on a much broader understanding of the term than traditionally understood. Such an interpretation would be feasible given that academics and governments continue to disagree on how to define 'terrorism' (Schmid, 2012), although it is not possible to conclusively determine how respondents understood the term based on the data available.
The second is that terrorism in Scotland is underreported, and that a significant minority of the population had observed terrorist activity. However, given the seemingly low incidence of terrorism in Scotland even when a relatively broad definition of terrorism is adopted, as is the case in the GTD, it seems unlikely that this would be the case.
The third is that significant proportions of the population might have observed terrorist content online, particularly given that younger respondents aged 16-34 – who would be expected to be most likely to regularly use social media – were over twice as likely to report having experienced or observed terrorism (27%) than respondents aged 35 or older (11%). However, given that only one participant in the qualitative research reported having been personally exposed to extremist content online, online experiences alone are unlikely to account for this finding.
Lastly, misinterpretation of the question could have led to experiences or observations of terrorism being overreported. In particular, even though Scotland was specified in the question, the terrorism observed could have related to events outside Scotland, or outside of the UK. For example, given that a number of high-profile terrorist incidents have occurred elsewhere in the UK in recent years – such as the 2017 London Bridge attack; the 2019 Fishmonger's Hall attack; and the 2021 murder of David Amess MP – it is possible that participants were referencing terrorist activity that occurred in other parts of the UK which they learned of through offline or online media channels consumed in Scotland. Additionally, it is possible that participants could have misunderstood the specified timescale, and be considering events in Scotland that took place longer than five years ago. It is also possible that respondents had a broad interpretation of what was meant by 'observing' and could have included seeing media reports or news about terrorism worldwide.
None of the participants in the interviews and focus groups had observed or experienced terrorism in Scotland in the past five years. In the few instances where specific examples of terrorist activity were discussed, participants tended to focus on examples from outside of Scotland, including attacks in London and Manchester, and the activities of individuals linked to the Islamic State. When participants mentioned the attempted attack on Glasgow airport in 2007, they then reflected that this had not taken place within the last five years.
However, topics relating to terrorism and the related issue of radicalisation were discussed by some participants. A small number of participants cited examples of radicalisation that had occurred in Scotland, thereby pointing to a broader awareness of the potential risk of people in Scotland becoming involved in terrorism. For example, a participant referenced the aforementioned case of the planned attack on an Islamic centre in Glenrothes, whilst others referenced young people from Scotland travelling to Syria in support of the Islamic State. One of these participants, a retired teacher, discussed a specific example of teenage girls who had travelled to Syria:
'So, within the last five years, those girls that left… I am told by my colleagues normal students one minute or appearing to have normal behaviour, normal views as far as they could tell. Going to that extreme course of action. That's the one that springs to mind, I am sure there are lots of others.' (1; I)
The observation that 'I am sure there are lots of others' reflected a broader recognition amongst many of the participants that they would be unlikely to know the true extent of radicalisation in Scotland. However, the fact that radicalisation was mentioned so infrequently in the focus groups and interviews would suggest that concerns of this type were low.
To what extent have the public observed or experienced extremism in Scotland?
A third (33%) of survey respondents considered themselves to have experienced or observed extremism in Scotland in the past five years. However, this finding should be read in the context of the broader finding that members of the public have different understandings of the term 'extremism'. The majority (59%) had not experienced or observed extremism in Scotland, either online or in person, during this time period.
In the survey, 15% of respondents reported having observed or experienced terrorism in Scotland in the past five years, despite figures for terrorist incidents suggesting a relative lack of terrorist activity in the country over this period when compared with the rest of the UK. In contrast with the survey findings, no participants in the qualitative research reported having observed or experienced terrorism in Scotland in the past five years. Indeed, some participants started to talk about examples of terrorism, before clarifying that these did not take place either in Scotland or in the past five years.
How do the public perceive extremism in Scotland to manifest as views, behaviours, and actions, particularly in the communities they live in?
Around half of respondents reported having experienced or observed discrimination (53%), racism (50%) sectarianism (48%), violence (45%), or hate crime (38%) in Scotland. Although some may have regarded these other forms of harm as equating to extremism, the fact that these figures were higher than the equivalent figure for extremism (33%) shows that a proportion of people do not necessarily identify these forms of harm as extremism. The qualitative research highlighted that context was important for people to consider different examples as constituting extremism or not constituting extremism.
Some groups within the population, including younger people and those from BAME communities, were more likely to say they had experienced or observed extremism than others. BAME communities also had higher instances of experiencing or observing discrimination, violence or hate crime.
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