Applied CT


We cannot avoid all the news and talk around terrorism and radicalization, and we are instinctively drawn to associate these words with Muslim fundamentalism. The intensity of recent news focusing on aggression towards citizens induces the general publics to blame those who embrace Islamism as the source of all evil. But let us think rationally? What about the others?  Did we forget the IRA in Northern Ireland ? The ETA in Spain?  The Brigada Rossa in Italy? Nazism in Germany? The Crusaders in the Middle east? What about those who offer their lives for good causes? Could we call them extremists? It seems that we need to define some words that are often associated in very sloppy fashion before we start pointing our finger to a particular group.

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An objective definition of fanaticism would present it as a behaviour characterised by an uncritical attitude and dedication to some social political or religious cause. This may also an obsessive enthusiasm for a particular sports team,  or even a hobby. The fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions. By convention the difference between a fanatic and a fan’s behaviour is that the first violates the prevailing social norms. Though the fan's behavior may be judged as odd or eccentric, it does not violate such norms. A fanatic differs from a peculiar person, in that the latter is defined as a person who holds a position or opinion which is so far from the norm as to appear ludicrous and/or probably wrong, such as a belief in a Flat Earth.

In contrast, the subject of the fanatic's obsession may be "normal", such as an interest in religion or politics, except that the scale of the person's involvement, devotion, or obsession with the activity or cause is abnormal or disproportionate.

Religious fanaticism is a particular type of fanatical behaviour by a person or a group characterized by the devotion to a particular  religion, though the extent of the fanaticism may vary according to subjective evaluation or the cultural context. What constitutes fanaticism in another's behaviour or belief is determined by the core assumptions of the one doing the evaluation.

As such, there is currently no constant academic standard for what defines a fanatical religious position. Fanaticism is usually recognised in acts of violence against the social status quo, due to a strong belief in the motives that justify such acts. If these acts included the use of inadequate force or destruction of innocent victims, this is classified as extremism.
In summary, fanaticism is usually described as extreme enthusiasm or zeal for something beyond normal limits. This dedication is usually perceived as irrational and often associated with strong intolerance. 


When the object of fanaticism are theological or political doctrines, this is often described as fundamentalism.

Origin of the term "fundamentalism":

The term "fundamentalism" was originally coined by its supporters to describe a specific package of theological beliefs that developed into a movement within the Protestant community of the United States in the early part of the 20th century, and that had its roots in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of that time. The term has since been generalized to mean strong adherence to any set of beliefs and retained religious connotations. Historically, for some constituencies fundamentalism connotes an attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs.

A fundamentalis is a person who aides by the fundaments of its ideology. For example a Christian fundamentalist would literally follow the Bible, whereas a Communist fundamentalist would strictly follow the naratives of his chosen communist "bible" or "prophet" such as for example the Littel Red Book by Mao Zedong or Das Kapital by Karl Marx.

In neurobiological terms, fanatical fundamentalism is the manifestation of strong passions characterised by love-hate relationships. Usuallya fanatic is a person who has a psychological profile of group compliance, without much thinking or analysis of the ideologies embraced by the group.


Extremism is a term used to describe the actions or ideologies of individuals or groups outside the perceived normality or what is seen as the political center of a society. The word extremism is also used  to describe those  practices that violate common moral standards.

In democratic societies, individuals or groups that advocate the replacement of democracy with a authoritarian regime are usually branded extremists, in authoritarian societies the opposite applies.

The term is invariably, or almost invariably, used pejoratively. Extremism is usually contrasted with moderation, and extremists with moderates. For example, in contemporary discussions in Western countries of Islam, or of Islamic political movements, it is common for there to be a heavy stress on the distinction between extremist and moderate Muslims. It is also not uncommon to necessarily define distinctions regarding extremist Christians as opposed to moderate Christians, as in countries such as the United States.

Political agendas perceived as extremist often include those from the far left or far right as well as fundamentalism or, as a more general term, fanaticism.


Radicalization if the process that  produces  extremists changing individuals from activism into a revolutionary or militant extremist.


Terrorism is the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion. Because the word terrorism is politically and emotionally charged it makes it difficult to provide a concise definition. In many cases, terrorism is the only way for oppressed peoples to make their voice heard. Depending on which side the commentator finds himself, terrorists can also be seen as freedom fighters. In the words of Robespierre (1794), “ Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, secure and inflexible” .

These definitions leave us with  some conceptual problems. If a group  of individuals  following a particular ideology characterized by strict rules and odd beliefs, lives peacefully in a community and does not get involved in acts of violence against the mainstream society, would they be considered fanatics or extremists? It seems like the common perception of fanatical or extremist involves a certain level of violence and an ideology against the social context where it is practiced. In a totalitarian government, the torture actions practiced by the secret police would not be defined as fanatical, while the actions of freedom fighters would be promptly identified as dangerous extremist movements.  We reach a impasse where it seems impossible to reach objective definitions of fanaticism and extremism, since the perception of  such behaviours is in the eye of the beholder. The only certainty is that extremism is a deviation from the mean that defines a social context and fanaticism is a one track mind dedication to a limited numbers of issues.
One cannot understand fanaticism unless we analyse all the mechanisms  involved in the genesis of fanaticism. These mechanism can be categorised as

  • The psychology and neurobiology of fanaticism
  • The social contingencies that produce the fanatic
  • The motivation of fanatics (Extremism and Terrorism)
  • The consequences of the fanatic’s actions

In summary, none of these words represent a specific definition of a partciular ideological current. They simply define states of mind and actions.

There is a current debate on the direction of causation; does the ideology makes the fundamentalist or is it the psychological profile of individuals that are suitable to house particular ideological streams?

[to be continued]


In face of recent events attributed to Islamic fundamentalism, there is a considerable discussion on the media on how to prevent terrorism. The discussion often varies between prevention of radicalism, fundamentalism, extremism and they are all put in the same bag as if each word meant the same. These discussions often fail because they don’t take into consideration the fact that each one of these concepts has different origins. While fundamentalism is a social issue as it relates to the contents of the ideology, fanaticism is a function of individual psychology. Fanaticism could even be considered a mental pathology similar to OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder ). Some people can be fanatical about cleanliness, or stamp collection; this doesn’t necessarily make them fundamentalists. To be a fanatical fundamentalist one needs to be fanatic about an ideology and embrace it as an unchallengeable dogma.

From this follows that the prevention of fanaticism and extremism requires some sort of mental health approach, whereas the prevention of fundamentalism and radicalization requires a social approach which starts with appropriate provision of education in critical thinking skills.

The fact that in the UK, the schools are bound by law to pray every day when school starts, says a lot about the subjection of children to state approved beliefs. It is true that children can opt out of daily prayer, but this doesn’t solve the issue since teenagers are in a developmental state where they want to be popular and included in groups. Opting out only brings stigmatization of those children who have the courage to oppose the status quo and be singled out as weird or eventually leading to bullying. So if the State aims to prevent extremism it could perhaps start by removing its own religious indulgence. If the State is so concerned with religious fundamentalism and intolerance, maybe they should start by ending religious schools. The place of religion is in the religious temples, not in schools, which ought to adopt a neutral and secular approach to education.

[to be continued]


In 2010, the Department of Education published a reseacrh repport on prevention of extremism in schools. The pdf can be downloaded here:

Teaching Approaches That Help To Build Resilience to Extremism Among Young People

Note that the first page of the report claims that "The views expressed in this report are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department for Education. "

See also