Far-right terrorism and Islamic extremism are two sides of the same coin
Despite their appearance of holding polar opposite views and mutual hatred, far-right extremists and jihadists are little more than two sides of the same coin.
While ideologically they may seem as far apart as is conceivably possible, they are uncannily similar in that they both prey on people’s fears. What’s more, without one, the other couldn’t flourish or maintain a high public profile. These insular, nativist ideologies feed off each other and, when one side or the other commits an atrocity, the other gains popularity and traction.
Both sides look to attract followers from working-class backgrounds, from disillusioned second-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe as is often the case in Islamic fundamentalism, to American white supremacists and ultranationalists in Europe. What’s more, both sides often rely on — and mostly misinterpret — ancient religious texts to justify their positions and manipulate followers.
For the most part, it is young men seeking greater purpose in their lives who are attracted to the far right and jihadist thought. They are often outcasts in their respective communities, economically, socially or ideologically.
In her 2017 book “The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism,” Julia Ebner points out that “because victimisation and demonisation work well together, extremists are in a mutually beneficial relationship. To tell a coherent story, the victim needs a perpetrator as much as the perpetrator needs a victim.”
Ebner refers to this phenomenon as “reciprocal radicalisation,” in which one side simultaneously feeds off and fuels the other.
This binary relationship and victim-perpetrator dynamic has spread beyond extremist circles. Mainstream media outlets are far more tribal and divisive than five or ten years ago. The likes of Fox News and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar are relatively new to the television scene. In Britain, the Daily Express and the British National Party have existed for decades exactly because they elevate a perceived threat presented by radical jihadism.
While dealing with violent Islamist-related ideals is a major challenge for governments in Muslim-majority countries and the West alike, when one consults with the data, that pales in comparison to the threat to peace and security posed by far-right extremism.
“In 2018, far-right terrorist attacks accounted for 17.2% of terrorist incidents in the West,” the Institute for Economic Peace, a think-tank in Sydney, Australia, said. “By contrast, attacks by Islamist groups accounted for 6.8% of attacks and attacks not attributed to any group accounted for 62.8% of incidents in the West.”
It also found that while over the past 40 years one in every five mass shootings in the United States has been classified as a terrorist attack, in the last decade, that number has risen to one in three.
Ebner points out that both the far right and jihadist ideologues are unhappy with the status quo. That can be tied to the damaging and enduring effects of the 2008 global economic crisis, which hit the poor in the suburbs of Cairo, Birmingham and Baltimore alike the hardest and which has been slow to lift.
The crisis fuelled dissatisfaction with moderate heads of state in power at that time — Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and the recently deceased Hosni Mubarak to name three — that led to people walking away from the political centre ground and into the arms of the far-right, the far left and extremist Islamism.
So, since these forms of extremism have so much in common, is there a single solution out there to reduce their respective appeals? Since they’re of the same ilk, can’t the same medicine be used to treat both wounds?
It’s clear that when the centre ground fails to hold, both in the political and socio-economic sense, extremists flourish. What should be obvious is that in the same way that US President Donald Trump and his extremist views and actions are not the answer to America’s economic and security ills, neither is his potential Democratic opponent for president, Bernie Sanders. In the Middle East, neither Syrian President Bashar Assad nor the Islamic State — themselves two sides of the same extremist coin — offer maps to futures that put civilians first.
The symbiotic relationship between the far right and fundamentalist Islamism means that if you take away one, the other quickly falls into decline and irrelevance. However, since the extremist leaders at the helm in many countries are more into populism than a policy that creates jobs and infrastructure, moderates remain largely shut out.
Putting opportunities and money back into the pockets of the working class is not something current administrations in France, the United Kingdom, Egypt or Lebanon look like doing anytime soon. And, as a result, we can expect the far right and jihadist extremists to stick around.