Alienation leads to extremism

While it is true that poverty alone does not create extremists, it is not always true that extremism is conjured by intentional misapplication or distortion of religious thought ("Poverty not the reason for extremism" by Mr Lim Ang Yong; Feb 9).

Maoism and Stalinism are key examples of anti-religious thought that led to extremism in China and the former Soviet Union.

Religious thought has many levels.

A person not trained in theological hermeneutics - and that includes many people - would take the shade of meaning that most resonates with him.

That would be misapplication or distortion, but it is non-intentional.

People naturally gravitate towards community.

Extremism arises when there is a trigger for alienation.

In Afghanistan, the alienation came about when the Americans left the Afghans at the mercy of the Soviets.

In the Middle East, the Arabs felt alienated when the territorial boundaries of Israel were seemingly forced upon them without consultation.

These created the Islamic radicalism we see today.

Likewise, members of minority groups who felt alienated by the election of Mr Donald Trump as president of the United States took to the streets and smashed shop windows - this is also extremism, and non-religious at that.

The supporters of Mr Trump too have extreme sentiments because their poverty was a signal to them that their concerns were being alienated from the Democratic Party's platform of identity politics.

Alienation triggers a fight-or-flight response, which results in a more hardened defensive posture and an obsession with purity of one form or another.

In short, poverty alone does not cause extremism; but poverty that is seen as evidence of alienation does cause extremism to take root.

Clement Wee Hong En

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Alienation leads to extremism'. Print Edition | Subscribe