Book review: Encountering extremism. Theoretical issues and local challenges

by Alice Martini, Kieran Ford and Richard Jackson (Eds) Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2020. 328 pp. ISBN: 978-1-5261-3660-2.

What is the difference between terrorism and extremism? The book Encountering extremism. Theoretical issues and local challenges, edited by Alice Martini, Kieran Ford and Richard Jackson, jumps in this debate by charting the linguistic shift from terrorism to extremism. After 9/11, the category of ‘terrorism’ quickly turned into the overarching frame to define the constellations of groups and individuals committing crimes in the name of radical narratives (e.g. jihadism). The proliferation of articles occurred despite the contested definitions of terrorism. As Toros argued, even critical scholars reproduced the same construction of 9/11 as a critical juncture. While abundant literature is available on terrorism and radicalization (often associated with Islamism), non-violent extremism and counter violent extremism (CVE) programs have yet to receive the same amount of attention.  

The main argument supported by Martini, Ford and Jackson is that the semantic conversion to ‘extremism’ fulfils the crisis of legitimacy that the language of terrorism went through after the failures of Western ‘war on terror’ (p.4). Their key objectives are to interpret how extremism gained momentum, to deconstruct its muddled definition, and to bring to the surface the concealed and racialized logics of discrimination. This is indeed a much-needed contribution to conventional scholarship on terrorism, who mostly embraced the translation to counter-extremism without questioning its dangerous outcomes upon human and civil rights.

The book is made up of fourteen chapters, distributed into one theoretical and one empirical part. The originality lies in mixing theoretical rigour, normative commitments, and empirical sophistication to approaches as urgent an issue as the reflection on extremism. In so doing, Martini, Ford and Jackson select five common themes as a red thread underpinning the chapters (p.12). Besides the unjustified shift from the discourse on terrorism to extremism, much emphasis is put on how mainstream scholars neglected the political element lurking in the debates on terrorism. Another relevant aspect is the racialised and gendered understanding of violence retraced in counter-extremism, that targets the everyday life of subaltern categories (Muslims, BIPOC, etc.) artificially divided into moderate and extremist subjects.  

Encountering extremism‘ represents a substantial contribution to the field of terrorism studies because it provides one of the first attempts to demystify the ill-defined concept of extremism.

Two final aspects, the standardisation of the practices and the counter-productivity of the measures, are the main features discussed by the empirical chapters, that illustrate the frequent mismatch between homogeneous CVE’s vocabulary and little resonance with the local socio-political context (see Zia, p.267, on Pakistan). Among the cases selected, the authors map how CVE practices travelled to countries that were insufficiently covered by the literature (Bosnia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Spain, Tunisia) and how the United States under Obama (Tsui p.23) and the United Nations Security Council are significant cases for a genealogy of violent extremism.

The theoretical part of the book aims at defining the concepts and situating the volume into the pertinent academic literature. In terms of definition, the authors concur that both terrorism and extremism belong to the ‘essentially contested concepts‘ (Lindahl, p.40) that have driven much speculation in critical security studies. As their main purpose is to debunk the current mythology surrounding discourses and practices on extremism (ex. the putative causal relationship between extreme ideologies and adoption of political violence, p.2), the authors follow the ontological, epistemological, and normative commitments of ‘Critical Terrorism Studies’, pioneered among others by Richard Jackson (2009). In a sharp critique against the objectivist understanding of extremism as a fact, the authors invite us to consider the social production of knowledge that crafts our definition of the moderate/extremist dyad, as well as the power asymmetries that drive the identification of threatening subjects (Cuadro p.55). This Foucauldian perspective inspires the methodology privileged by the authors, who adhere to genealogy and critical discourse analysis to decipher how language and power are tightly embedded in the production of norms. This is well exemplified by Martini’s analysis of the UNSC’s imposition of best practices to discipline CVE’s programs on a global scale (p.162).

By using this interpretive lens, it is possible to retrace the contextual grounding that justifies the adoption of extremism. On one hand, the conceptual fuzziness enables law-enforcement agencies to label as ‘extremism’ allogenous beliefs and ideas that, albeit being non-violent, are deemed to jeopardize national values (see the definition of British PREVENT program, p.2). On the other, extremism is a legal loophole used to avoid severe penalties to white Far-Right terrorists, as several chapters focusing on the US show (Breen-Smyth, p.87; Dixit, p.221). Double standards and racialization are inherent practices in the implementation of CVE. On top of that, the new language of extremism had led to pervasive social engineering in local communities and the private sphere. Authors also draw on a feminist perspective to show that CVE programs brought to ‘securitizing the home’ as it is the first site of radicalization, presumably to mask the social and political grievances that intervene in the production of extremism. In this vein, CVE’s gendered logic emerges as techniques that may simultaneously empower women – employed in countering extreme narratives – and minimize their agency – in the case of female recruits (Archer p.99; Zia p.268).    

In conclusion, ‘Encountering extremism‘ represents a substantial contribution to the field of terrorism studies because it provides one of the first attempts to demystify the ill-defined concept of extremism. The volume has wider implications for IR because it aligns with existing trends – postcolonialism, feminism – that fight against the epistemic hegemony of Western-centred approaches. Besides, it contributes to flourishing research on the entanglement between terrorism and critical race theory, which is particularly needed after the spike in white supremacist and Far-Right violence at the end of the 2010s.The volume also offers a space of resistance against the exclusionary practices of counter-extremism. By aiming so, the authors choose to cross-fertilize a series of theoretical views and empirical findings that give voice to powerless subjects, often obscured by mainstream literature. Their normative commitment is brilliantly achieved as readers are left with the impression that CVE programs are the continuation of the war on terror through more docile means. 


Jackson R. (2009). Knowledge, Power and Politics in the Study of Political Terrorism. In: Jackson R., Gunning J., Breen Smyth M. Critical Terrorism Studies. A New Research Agenda. Routledge. London: New York.

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