In 2017, when Maajid Nawaz appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time, he openly discussed his past membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that calls for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate. Back then, he enjoyed some renown as a “counter-terrorism expert”. Today, he enjoys a different kind of renown as a purveyor of dangerous truths or falsehoods, depending on your perspective.
Nawaz’s story of radical self-transformation from extremist to counter-extremist is a classic tale of personal redemption. But it’s also an unmistakable product of our current moment: an age of extremism that demands not only that there must be extremists but, equally, that there must be a whole cadre of experts to monitor, evaluate and police them.
Whenever extremists do or say anything of note, experts are invariably called on to “unpack” it, duly appearing on TV, radio or a podcast to disseminate their expert-takes. Many of these “researchers” are contractually obliged to do these appearances by the organisations they work for, and it’s with some reluctance that they trudge off to the studio, racking their brains for something interesting to say. But quite a few clearly relish the opportunity, especially if it’s on TV, excitedly sending missives from the green room to mark the occasion. For the extremism expert, TV affords the chance to reach a wider audience; above all, it confers legitimacy on them.
Extremism experts now command such prominence that they’re not only breathlessly quoted in news stories on extremism but often drive the coverage itself. Earlier this year, for example, USA Today ran a report headlined: “’Fringe ideas’ are going mainstream in US politics. That’s a danger to democracy, extremism experts say.” More recently, ABC News ran a story titled: “After Buffalo shooting, experts question whether America can face its far-Right extremism problem.” Last week, Voice of America published a piece with the headline: “Anti-LGBTQ Rhetoric Could Galvanize Extremists, Experts Say.”
Indeed, the phrase “experts say” seems to have become a standard reportorial convention in news stories on radicalisation. And more often than not what the experts have to say is a veritable counsel of doom: “I think we’re truly in free fall, and don’t have any sense of how to grasp this,” one prominent scholar told Slate, referring to the threat of the far-Right in America. Almost always, the alarmist rhetoric of the expert quoted mirrors and legitimises the alarmist political concerns of the progressive media platforms which petition them for comment.
The epistemic authority of extremism experts used to derive from a period of sustained academic research carried out under the patronage of an academic institution or think-tank, or from direct experience of policing extremists. That’s now changed, chiefly because epistemic authority everywhere has become atomised. You don’t need to be a scholar or former counter-terrorism cop to be an extremism expert anymore: you just need the right kind of “lived experience”.
Up until recently, the kind of “lived experience” required to be an extremism expert came from former membership of an extremist group. Who better to educate us on the dynamics and perils of extremism than those now repentant “formers” who have directly participated in them first-hand?
Before the extremism expert, there was the terrorism expert: these were typically middle-class white men whose specialist knowledge came from extensive foreign travel or prior military service. Their main focus was sub-state terrorist groups and the threat they posed to Western democracies. These people still exist, but they have become less relevant in a political climate in which the more nebulous category of extremism has come to displace terrorism as the primary frame of analysis. They have also fallen victim to the politics of democratisation that “centres” lived experience, because theirs are clearly not the right kind: they are too white, too male, too privileged.
It is no accident that the extremism expert came to prominence just as the threat of terrorism began to wane in Western countries following the final collapse of the Isis caliphate in March 2019. Jihadi attacks haven’t stopped happening since then, but they are considerably fewer in number, more amateurish and less lethal. At the same time, the threat of far-Right terrorism has increased, particularly in America, though it’s still rare and has yet to match the lethality of jihadi terrorist attacks when Isis was in the ascendant in 2015.
With a finite number of terrorist groups to map and study, the experts needed to branch out: so they heartily embraced the concept of extremism, a category so capacious and permissively malleable that it encompasses not only behaviour and thought but conceivably anything that the expert in question deems politically undesirable or “problematic”. This made the field acutely vulnerable to exploitation by political activists whose interest is less to study extremists than to manufacture them in an effort to stigmatise and silence their political opponents.
Over the last few years, as my colleague Liam Duffy has documented, the study of extremism has ballooned exponentially: there are now experts on gaming and extremism, climate-change and extremism, sport and extremism, gender and extremism, fashion and extremism, music and extremism, neo-Nazi accelerationists, incels, femcels, jihadi poetry, and far-Right speech-codes. One expert has even written an article on “LOL extremism”.
Whereas terrorism experts used to venture off to foreign locales to do research on terrorist groups, the typical extremism expert doesn’t even need to leave their flat to retrieve data: they just need to go online, where they can access terabytes of extremist “chatter”, postings and propaganda. Consequently, many extremism experts have never even met or spoken with an actual extremist.
Unsurprisingly, the role of the extremism expert lends itself to the kind of person who thrives on secrecy, dissimulation and drama. Julia Ebner, for example, spent two years cultivating five fake online identities in order to spy on the online activities of extremists for her book Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists. On one of the rare occasions when she met a far-Right activist in real life, she put on a blonde wig to disguise herself. Ebner insists that the social utility of her findings justified the ethical breach of lying to her research subjects. Similarly, Talia Lavin, a far-left writer and activist who is often quoted by journalists as an authority on the far-Right, adopted numerous fake identities, which included posing as a white nationalist huntress from Iowa, for the purpose of researching her book Culture Warlords.
Before the rise of the extremism expert, an extremist was someone who occupied the margins: which is to say that they were at a distance from the mainstream, if not in direct contention with it. Now, it seems, an extremist is anyone who comes from or embodies the mainstream. He is the “normie” next door. He is your brother, father, husband or son. He is you, whether you know it or not. The Extreme Gone Mainstream, as the title of one recent book puts it.
This was a particularly insistent theme in much expert commentary on the racially motivated mass-shooting in Buffalo last month, where 18-year-old Payton Gendron murdered 10 people at a supermarket. The LA Times, for example, published an op-ed by Colin P. Clarke on how the “Buffalo gunman emerged from a far-Right ecosystem that’s gone mainstream”. Clarke noted, referring to the hate-filled manifesto that Gendron posted online before carrying out his atrocity, that the “great replacement” idea at the heart of the manifesto “is not merely in the dark, conspiratorial corners of the internet”, but “has been mainstreamed on cable news shows, including by Tucker Carlson, who routinely regurgitates far-Right talking points…” Rolling Stone published an even more polemically strident op-ed by Talia Lavin, titled “The Buffalo Shooter Isn’t a ‘Lone Wolf.’ He’s a Mainstream Republican.”
The notion that the extreme has gone mainstream is, of course, a wild exaggeration. The extreme still lurks where it always has: at the extreme. What has instead happened is that extremism experts have been ideologically captured by progressive politics, believing that anything that challenges elite dogmas — such as the belief that a woman can become a man or that masking mandates are effective — are forms of extremism that must be somehow explained and then silenced in the interests of online “safety”.
While it’s true that Trump and his hardcore supporters believe that the last US election was stolen from them and that there are broad parallels between their thinking and that of the tiny few who have wreaked far-Right murderous violence both in America and beyond, there are, as Graeme Wood has put it, “countless shades of difference between, say, supporting a border wall and wanting to snipe at Mexicans along the Rio Grande”. Anyone who can’t distinguish between the two is not only morally and intellectually unserious, but also singularly undeserving of the title “expert”.
The rise of the extremism expert did not happen independently of the rise of the intensely politicised age in which we now live. It is, in fact, a symptom of that politicisation. Extremism experts are the new clergy, telling us what to affirm and revere and what to fear and banish. Some of them even claim to have special healing powers, advising governments and communities on how to build “resilience” in the face of extremist temptation and seduction. No doubt many feel that they are on a social mission to make the world a better place. But they are no more to be trusted as the objective arbiters of truth than the religious clergy before them.