In medicalising ‘extremism’, we remove the political element of violence, we make it something exceptional and, at the same time, we sanitise the context in which it occurs. Actions or thoughts that are anti-establishment or pro-violence are no longer understood as the result of political factors – an unequal status quo, political injustice or structural racism, for instance. Instead, they become the result of a malign mutation of an otherwise healthy body or cell in society.
Frantz Fanon offers some important guidance on the medicalisation of violence. In his work, The Wretched of the Earth, he explores the European state’s use of physical and mental disorders as a means of replicating and embedding colonial violence and structural inequality. In French Algeria, for instance, the colonialists were framed as ‘building’, ‘revitalising’ and ‘caring’ for Algerians and Algeria, whilst the ‘terrorist’ acted out in psychosis to ‘kill’ and ‘destroy’ the individual body and the corpus of wider society. In linking COVID-19 to extremism, recent articles have articulated these same colonial tendencies.
Thus, the problems of counter-extremism are replicated because we fail to hold the political context accountable. The rise of the far-right is not the result of a cancerous malformation – it is the impact of years of austerity politics, the mainstreaming of anti-migrant and anti-minority policies, and of governments that have used (and continue to use) incendiary populist-style rhetoric to secure their own democratic fortunes. Similar regional politics and instability have led to the rise of groups such as Islamic State. But by making the spreading of ideas the focus of concern and avoiding critically addressing the context in which violence happens, we exacerbate existing problems.Print