This paper is the first in a series of policy papers on emerging
themes in extremism and terrorism by Demos. These papers focus on under-researched dimensions of extremism, and do not present an exhaustive answer, but suggest new avenues of study. Future papers include the role of women and gender in extremist movements, and methods to de-glamorise al-Qaeda.
This paper examines the role of conspiracy theories in extremist groups. Numerous studies have considered a variety of factors that encourage extremism: ideology, grievance, poverty, religion, and social networks. The role of conspiracy theories, defined as accounts of events as the deliberate yet concealed product of a powerful few, regardless of the evidence, has been ignored. This study is the first attempt, as far as we are aware, to research this subject and should be viewed as such.
We have conducted new analysis of the literature, ideology and propaganda of over fifty extremist groups from across the spectrum: religious, far-right and left, eco, anarchic, and cult-based. The groups are or were active over the past 30 years, and are drawn mainly from the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. We have focused primarily on extremist groups that have become violent1 although we have included a small number of extreme groups that hold socially problematic views, such as those based on racial supremacy.
Our analysis shows that conspiracy theories are widely prevalent across this extremist spectrum, despite the vast differences in the extremist ideologies themselves. For far right groups, the concept of Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) – that a small cabal of Jews controls world governments – is central to both ideology and propaganda. For al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups, the conspiracy tends to be a generalised Judeo-Christian-Capitalist quest to destroy Islam. Far left and anarchist groups propagate a Marxist-inspired bourgeois conspiracy of ‘international financiers’,or ‘global elites’, which they sometimes believe is leading toward a ‘New World Order’ of a unitary, totalitarian world government.
Cults, on the other hand, tend to believe in conspiracies that are….
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