Balancing the categories of moderation and extremism in academic and lay discourse nick hopkins
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Balancing the categories of "moderation" and "extremism" in academic and lay discourse Nick Hopkins. Identity and interest: Rational Actor Theory. Actor’s desires and external environment minimalist psychological assumptions

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Identity and interest: Rational Actor Theory

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Balancing the categories of "moderation" and "extremism" in academic and lay discourseNick Hopkins

Identity and interest: Rational Actor Theory

  • Actor’s desires and external environment

    • minimalist psychological assumptions

    • focuses on environmental contingency of cost/benefit ratios associated with particular courses of action

  • RAT’s attraction?

    • ‘in spite of its asocial and individualistic orientation [it] directs our attention away from the domain of psychology and towards the structures of the social world’ (Crossley, 2002).

Applicability to religious identities?

  • Euben (1995): Islam’s language of ‘moral imperatives’ implicates qualitatively different concerns from those implicated in the language of ‘interests’.

    • ‘the relevant unit of analysis is not the individual actor. Nor is it the actor's perceived self-interest. Instead, it is the soul, destiny and moral condition of an entire community’

  • She concludes RAT’s inapplicability to Islamist politics

    • ‘must be seen as an expression of a deeper clash of world views, a clash between a world defined by divine sovereignty, and a world defined by human knowledge and power’ (Euben, 1995).


  • Echoes ‘clash of civilization’ thesis?

  • Reproduces problematic assumptions about ‘conventional’ politics in West.

    • gives RAT more credit than is warranted.

  • Alternative

    • social identity (multiple, variable, collective)

    • self-interest depends upon one’s ‘social identity’

    • interest: not just material: expression of identity also a good

    • construction of identity and interest central to all politics

The politics of identity construction

  • Symbolic reserves

  • National identities

    • ‘a man’s a man for ‘a that’

  • Consider how talk of moderation and extremism may feature in category construction and identity definition

    • Entails viewing as a category of practice, not of analysis

Extremism and moderation

  • Popular images

    • Aristotle: “It is better to rise from life as from a banquet – neither thirsty or drunken”.

    • Lord David Cecil: “All extremes are error. The reverse of error is not truth, but error still. Truth lies between these extremes.”

  • Psychology uses these categories to theorise behaviour

    • Psychology assumes extremists are people who fail “to see moderation for what it is: truth and virtue” (Haslam and Turner, 1998).

Extremism and Moderation as categories of analysis: problems ?

  • Value-laden: who / what exemplifies categories?

  • Get in way of what we should explore:

    • social actors’ understandings of their situation and the terms of reference relevant for their deliberation.

  • Rather than imposing terms of reference, we should

    • consider how social actors themselves construct / communicate understandings of social reality

    • attend to communicative contexts in which understandings of social reality are constructed

Extremism and Moderation as categories of practice

  • King depicted by local church as ‘extremist’

  • Replied in ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

  • Construed visionaries and moral entrepreneurs as ‘extremists’

    • Jesus: extremist for love

    • Amos: extremist for justice

    • Lincoln and Jefferson: extremists for liberty and equality

    • “the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice - or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

  • Reshaped terms of reference: all right-thinking must identify with the project of mass activism.

Extremism and Moderation as categories of practice: Muslim identity construction

  • The Qur’an (2:143) describes the Muslim community as the Ummatan wasatan

    • “We have made you a temperate people”

    • “Thus have We made of you an Ummah justly balanced”.

  • Often used to represent certain positions as unacceptable

    • Denies Islamic credentials, excludes from community

  • But use can be contested

    • Can be used to include in community

    • Speech at memorial event for Kalim Siddiqui

Moderation and extremism contested

  • Engaging with dominant usage:

    “Western discourses tend to regard anything Islamic as being somewhat alien, and therefore extremist almost by definition: those who are moderate are merely those who are not as extremist as other Muslims. In other words, the more Muslim you are the more extremist you are. For Muslims, of course, this does not (or should not) apply. Being Muslim is the norm, not an extreme by any definition.”

Moderation and extremism contested

  • Redefining the extremes:

    “At risk of seeming flippant, one might suggest from this perspective that being properly Muslim is moderate, while we have two extremes [ ] In terms of a political understanding of the Islamic movement, therefore, extremists could be either those whose understanding of Islam is entirely apolitical, who have accepted the Western idea of a separation of religion and politics, and reduced Islam simply to a religion: or those whose understanding of Islam has become entirely political, focusing entirely on the ‘Islamic state’ or the khilafah without a broader understanding of Islam as a personal, spiritual, communal, moral, social and cultural phenomenon.”

Moderation and extremism contested

  • Invoking Ummatan wasatan

    “The Qur’anic ayah “We have willed you to be a community of the middle way…” (2:143) is often quoted to justify any and every understanding of Islam; perhaps it should be understood not as referring to any one understanding as to an approach to finding the correct path (or the best of possible correct paths) through the myriad of different understandings put forward, a path somewhere between the many possible extremes.”

Overview: 2:143

  • Often used to undermine some actors’ Muslim credentials

  • Here allows their inclusion within community of debate

  • Does not mean prototypical (in fact condemned)

  • Rather, construction of:

    • 1. contrasting forms of extremism (spiritual vs statist)

    • 2. moderation (finding a path through such diverse extremes through debate)

    • 1 & 2 are significant for the work that they do in characterising the ummah

    • ummah should be community of social and political debate (even with those with whom disagree)

    • implies such debates should count in Muslims’ everyday deliberations


  • Question RAT

  • Avoid dichotomisation proposed by Euben

  • Alternative: Identity construction central to interest and social action (wherever it takes place)

  • View categories of extremism and moderation as categories of practice

  • Whether useful as categories of analysis to identify the ‘irrational’ is unclear:

    • to understand people’s beliefs and behaviour we must understand the terms of reference within which they derive their meaning

    • analysts’ commitment to a taxonomy rooted in their own assumptions about what constitutes reality and deviance gets in the way

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