Extremism is part of being human

4 November 2010
Extremism is part of being human

Extremism is part of being human


Extremism is an aspect of humanity common to all of us, and is not necessarily a negative trait, a University of Cambridge researcher will argue at a presentation of his work tomorrow.

Shahzad Shafqat (pictured) worked as a psychologist in his native Pakistan and spent five years with the Pakistan Air Force, before coming to Cambridge to study for an MPhil and PhD on the Psychology of Extremism at the Department of Social and Developmental Psychology.

His research aims to establish an understanding of the psychology of extremism by looking at the deep-seated tendencies that exist within all of us. The idea is to investigate whether extremism is a condition or a judgement on a condition.

"Since 9/11, a huge amount of research - a lot of it pretty useless - has tried to explain extremism, leading to a proliferation of so-called experts who are far-removed from the actual people or issues that they claim to study," said Shafqat.

"Much of it has focused on studies of particular individuals or groups. The stereotypical image of an extremist is an angry young man from a deprived socio-economic background, radicalised on grounds of ideology or religion, and wants to take revenge on the ’rest of the world’ for the hardships that he and his people have experienced."

Shafqat argues that this is a misguided and narrow perception of a much more complex phenomenon. To get a deeper understanding of the dynamics of extremism, he carried out an extensive survey of ’ordinary’ people, across nations, cultures and languages, to find out what they consider to be extreme.

His finding - that extremism is an innate human attribute and thus cannot be eradicated - has led him to being invited to give seminars at military academies in Europe. In speaking to those directly involved in conflict situations, he hopes to increase understanding of the nature of extremism and foster confidence in their own ability and capacity to increase acceptance and tolerance.

Tomorrow Shafqat will argue that the human traits that drive us to work hard and to achieve great things are also those responsible for pushing us to carry out acts of violence.

"We might like to think that the people we call terrorists are nothing like us but actually they are not much different," he said. "And a greater public understanding of psychology and extremism will help us take a more rational view of human behaviour and how it has been part of our social world since recorded history," he said.

"Terrorism has terrible human consequences and can’t be condoned in any way. But we do need to take a more measured and holistic view of where it comes from within the human psyche and how the response to it, from governments and society at large, helps to shape what happens."

Part of the problem lies with terminology and how labelling shapes our responses, suggests Shafqat. "The word "extremism" has been adopted by the media and has become synonymous with terrorism - and that leads us to believe that all extremists are terrorists," he said.

"In many instances extreme behaviour is positive and has led, for example, to scientific breakthroughs and acts of heroism. You just have to think of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and even Mother Teresa - they are all extremists in that they are prepared to stand up for, and even die for, what they believe."

As human beings, all of us have capacity for extremism, whether it’s in our work, our hobbies or our relationships, argues Shafqat. In denying this aspect of ourselves and labelling others as extremists we are ignoring an inherent part of our own nature," he says.

An international study led by Shafqat, based on a series of psychological studies, showed that people around the world considered extremism to be a negative word, which they instantaneously linked to politics and religion.

However, after an exploration of what the word really meant, some 44 % said that they considered themselves to be extremists in some aspect of their lives and 61% thought that they could become extremists given the appropriate motivation. These self-disclosures dramatically alter our existing understanding of extremism, suggests Shafqat.

Born in Dubai and brought up in Pakistan, Shafqat studied Psychology, Chemistry and Zoology at Government College University Lahore, Pakistan, for his first degree, followed by a Masters in Psychology at the same institution.

Shafqat has a background in aviation, military, criminal and clinical domains of psychology, where those he worked with included people who had committed and suffered terrible crimes. He also served as a Flight Lieutenant in the Pakistan Air Force. His return to academia was prompted by a desire to look not just at the psychology of extreme behaviour but also our perceptions of it.

He explained: "My work as a psychologist in clinical and criminal settings and my job in the military brought me in contact with people showing all kinds of extreme behaviours as well as people who have experienced extreme situations. What I observed was they were not too different from ’ordinary’ people; they were mostly victims of the situation they happened to find themselves in."

Understanding the distinction between extremism and terrorism is not simply a matter of semantics, says Shafqat. It is a serious issue that clouds our understanding of human behaviour and leads to a greater polarisation between communities - the "them and us" factor. Additionally, it can also result in punitive measures, which can range from social exclusion to capital punishment.

"We have to accept that extremism - positive and negative - is part of the human condition, just as stress and anger are also part of being human. You can’t eradicate these things but, by understanding them, you can learn to manage them," said Shafqat.

Shahzad Shafqat will present his work at a talk called Towards a Psychological Understanding of Extremism tomorrow at 1-2 pm in the PPSIS Seminar Room, Free School Lane, University of Cambridge. All welcome.

 
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