The Inconsistent Usage of the Terms “Extremism” and “Terrorism” Around the Christchurch Mosque Attacks

Authors: Vandenberg, H. & Hoverd, W.
Published in National Security Journal, 12 June 2020

  1. There has been inconsistent usage of the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’.
  2. Usage of the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ evolved in 2019.
  3. There remains a need to consistently define the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’.
  4. Consistency of definitions will enhance national security.
  5. The 2020 DPMC’s ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy’ is a positive start, but it has not disseminated the definitional distinction between ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’.

Definitions and Official Usage of the Terms ‘Extremism’ and ‘Terrorism’

This section begins by assessing how ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ have been defined globally and locally. It then turns to assess how the Prime Minister, NZ Police, NZSIS and GCSB used the two terms prior to and after the 15 March 2019 attack. It shows that the terms were inconsistently defined and spoken across New Zealand’s key agencies. The lack of consistent working definitions for both ‘extremism’3 and ‘terrorism’,4 in New Zealand5 and globally, goes someway to contribute to the lack of consistency in their use. Moreover, it has been noted that globally, the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ have often been conflated by policy makers.6 Neither of the terms have agreed upon global legal definitions, both terms have some associated implicit, institutional, and/or systemic bias within them, and both terms are often used interchangeably with other associated terms. Lastly, this section assesses how the 2020 DPMC ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy’7 has attempted to rectify these 2019 definitional challenges around these two terms. We turn now to investigate each term individually.

‘Extremism’ is the term we expect to find national security policy and spokespeople to be less familiar with and therefore we expect they will be less consistent in its usage. An early and comprehensive discussion of the global literature’s lack of definition and motivating factors for ‘extremism’ was compiled by Imran Awan.8 Awan noted that there are several interpretations of ‘extremism’, and what might lead to ‘extremist’ behavior, and these have resulted in confusion, mis-use of the term, and problematic bias.9 In New Zealand, Senior Psychologist for the Department of Corrections, Jayde Walker, describes ‘extremism’ as “any (generally political or religious) theory that holds to uncompromising and rigid policies or ideology.”10 In addition, both Awan and Walker note there are problems with the term being used interchangeably with terms such as terrorism, radicalisation, violent extremism, and fundamentalism. In 2017, Bötticher defined ‘extremism’ as an “an ideological position embraced by those anti-establishment movements, which understand politics as struggle for supremacy rather than as peaceful competition between parties with different interests seeking popular support for advancing the common good.11 ” Bötticher’s work goes on to define where ‘extremism’ might exist within a society, how ‘extremism’ breeds, and