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Do tolerant people become terrorists?

  • Published at 09:25 pm May 18th, 2018
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Tolerance is not good or bad but a tool to combat extremism  

Several studies have been conducted in order to understand what is radicalization leading to extremism, but with no universal agreement. However, there are certain triggers or drivers that are evident in situations leading to extremism. One common driver at both the individual and collective level is intolerance - radicalism leading to extremism rarely occurs in a tolerant space. 

Some think that radicalism/extremism is a concept that is applicable to all sectors, not just politics. Others think that it is a political identity marker of any ideology in action. A review of various forms of violent extremism or terrorism finds that whether it’s an individual , a cluster, a group or an organization, the extremist no longer has confidence in negotiation or tolerance.   

Terrorism or violent extremism generally begins when tolerance is seriously ailing. This could be at various levels and kinds but the extremist believes at varying degrees that nothing can be gained with negotiations or conflict resolution. The opportunity cost of  practicing tolerance or the negotiation process is too high, so it has to be discarded.  

The individual–collective framework is useful to determine this process. An individual may become a radical first and then a terrorist and commit acts of crime, but he can’t overthrow society or the state. For that, an alternative institution is required that is capable of such violence. Hence, understanding intolerant institutions is critical to the overall understanding of a society which breeds even the lone wolf terrorist. 

Terrorism in action means sudden onset, armed violent acts but the low intensity, sustained institutional violence common in any time can destroy tolerance institutions more effectively.  So, measurement of institutional intolerance that breeds radicalism leading to extremism is needed. 

Focus is on identifying symptoms not process 

Most anti-radicalization efforts are symptom-based so the strategies are focused on neutralizing symptoms rather than the process. A clinical analysis of radicalism as the ‘problem’ rather than a symptomatic manifestation of  an ideology could be useful to understand its multiple manifestations.     

If countering radicalism that leads to terroism is an objective, the focus should be on tracing the links of intolerance from the micro to the macro and multi-sectorally. Higher intolerance means fewer negotiations so societal attitude to this process is key for understanding.     

Tolerance is not good or bad but a tool to combat extremism. In our country there is no formal or informal restriction on intolerance but a lot of emphasis  on countering extremism. The end product of such a strategy has been a weak social response to radicalism but a high level of  counter terrorism success.    

But radicalization is a social problem which can only be countered by increasing  tolerance as a deliberate strategic input. Tolerance can prevent radicalism but the opportunity cost of tolerance is high. Given the pattern of socio-political governance that has emerged in Bangladesh, investment in intolerance as a tool for socio-economic gains is high. Few may therefore be interested to promote tolerance, making radicalism our possible long haul companion.


Afsan Chowdhury is a reseacher, journalist and political commentator