Understanding terrorism and violent extremism

Whether it’s happened overseas or closer to home, it can be really frightening to hear about terrorism or violent extremism. The constant media coverage and discussions on social media don’t help, since this usually fuels fear around why the act has happened.

Being knowledgeable about what terrorism and violent extremism is, and why it happens, can help to ease some of this worry and fear. Read on to understand what causes terrorism and violent extremism, and how to cope when you hear about or witness these acts.

Image of a girl sitting on a lounge, looking at her phone. She has a concerned look on her face.

What does terrorism mean?

Terrorism is the threat or use of unlawful acts to advance a political, ideological or religious cause. A terrorist act is done with the aim of forcefully influencing a government body, or intimidating and frightening the general population. 

Understanding what is and isn’t terrorism can be a bit confusing, because the meaning of terrorism is vague and the term is often misused. People might refer to an act of violence as terrorism, when they really mean violent extremism. 

What is violent extremism?

Violent extremism refers to supporting the use of violence, or carrying out violent acts, to promote or achieve a political, ideological or religious goal. It is often perpetrated by someone who has been radicalised by a particular ideology or belief.

While this sounds very similar to terrorism, violent extremism can include random acts of violence fuelled by someone’s personal beliefs. Terrorism is a strategic activity, usually intended to force a response from people in power.

Violent extremism also describes a broader range of violent activity. Sending violent threats to the head of an organisation in protest of their company, donating money to known terrorist organisations, or disrupting a peaceful protest by inciting violence are all examples of violent extremist acts.

What causes terrorism and violent extremism?

There are a variety of motivations for terrorism and violent extremism. These acts are often violent responses to political events or social movements that the offender disagrees with, based on their ideological, political or religious beliefs.

Ideology refers to the set of ideals that shape how a society functions. Laws and policies are created based on a society's ideology. Ideology can be influenced by religion, history, war, civil unrest, and more.

For example, in Australia we promote a ‘fair go for all’ mentality where people of all identities, cultures and backgrounds can create a home. One way that ideology is reflected in our politics is through anti-discrimination laws.

White supremacist groups disagree with the ‘fair go for all’ ideology and believe that Australia should only be home to white, Anglo-saxon people. They believe this opinion is so justified that they are prepared to take violent and unlawful acts to defend it. This is an example of violent extremism that is motivated by ideological beliefs.

Is terrorism and violent extremism common?

In Australia acts of terrorism are quite rare. Terrorism is more common overseas, especially in places experiencing civil conflict and war. However, terrorism is still a very rare cause of death globally and the number of terrorist attacks across the globe has declined in recent years.

The threat of violent extremism in Australia is also small, but it does still exist. Some Australians may align themselves with global extremists movements based on shared ideologies, cultural backgrounds, or shared interpretations of religious texts.

Coping with news of terrorism and violent extremism

Terrorist acts are designed to shock, scare and intimidate the community. It’s completely normal to feel upset, afraid, angry or confused after seeing news of a terrorism. Allow yourself to feel however you feel.

Witnessing any acts of terrorism or violent extremism can be a lot to cope with. Our phones and the internet make it too easy to stay in the bad-news loop, even when we don’t want to be. Read up on how to cope when you see disturbing videos, and how to deal with bad world news.

It can be especially hard when a violent act occurs somewhere in the world where you have family, or a special connection. Get some tips on how to manage when something happens outside of your control overseas.

Dealing with discrimination and violence

People may incorrectly assume that certain religious and ethnic groups are more likely to enact terrorism or violent extremism. Because of this, people who belong to those groups often face discrimination and stigma, even though they are just as likely to condemn terrorist actions.

What’s important to remember is that the actions of one person, or group of people, do not represent an entire population, ethnic or religious group.

If you’re experiencing discrimination after news of a terrorist or violent extremist act, remember that you’re not to blame and it’s not okay to be treated that way. If you’re worried about a friend experiencing discrimination, learn how to support them here.

If you’ve been finding it especially tough to cope with the news of terrorism or violent extremism, try speaking about it with someone you trust or getting professional help. You can also book in to speak with a ReachOut Peer Worker using our PeerChat service.

What can I do now?