Rightwing Terrorism in Context

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by Neil Godfrey

Jason Burke

We have posted on Jason Burke’s books on Islamist terrorism (The New Threat: The Past, Present and Future of Islamic Militancy and Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror) so I was interested in read what Jason had to say about the recent terrorist attack in The Guardian, “What does Christchurch attack tell us about rightwing extremism?

What stood out most for me was his reminder that terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1980s took far more lives in Europe than have modern Islamist attacks. I have copied the relevant section from Wikipedia:

Burke observes similarities between the current rightwing terrorists and the Islamists:

Though there are substantial differences, rightwing and Islamist extremism, and extremists, share a great deal. The basic mechanics of the process of radicalisation – by peers, through the Internet or otherwise – are very similar. As is the way both forms of violent activism are on the fringe of a much broader movement, much of which has bled into the mainstream in different parts of the world. There are no “lone wolves”, at least not in the sense of a solitary actor without links, whether virtual or real, to others.

In a “manifesto” published online by the suspect in the Christchurch attack, for instance, he said he was not a “direct member” of any group or Organisation but had interacted with, or donated to, many.

(bolding in all quotations is my own)

That reminds me of Denis Rohan who attempted to burn down the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem way back in 1969. The news media said he claimed to be a member of the Worldwide Church of God but also that he found himself prophesied in the Bible (Rohan = biblical Nahor backwards) but in fact he was never a member, though he was what the church called a “coworker” — that is, one who does not join but takes an interest as an outsider and donates financially from time to time. So the outsider status is not unique to the days of the internet.

Another shared element is the belief that “resistance” to tyranny is not just acceptable but an obligation. Islamist militant thinkers say rulers or regimes should be overthrown if they stand in the way of the rule of the enlightened and faithful. Rightwing extremists also see the government as the oppressor of their imagined community, defined by “race” and sometimes faith, the authority of which should be rejected and sometimes fought.

Both Islamists and rightwing extremists believe their communities are facing an existential threat, placing an obligation on the individual to fight back. For the Islamists, the belief that a belligerent west has been set on the humiliation and exploitation of the world’s Muslims for the best part of 1,000 years is axiomatic.

Add to the above the glorification of respective historical narratives:

Islamist militants invoke the battles of the earliest Muslim generations, the crusades and then the decline of great Islamic empires that for much of the past 1,300 years were infinitely richer, more powerful and more sophisticated than their western counterparts.

The Christchurch suspect invokes the battle of Tours, a defeat of a Muslim raiding army in 732, and the Siege of Vienna in 1683.

We spoke of the demonizing historical narratives of each side in the previous post.

Burke was particularly addressing the common trajectories of both Islamist and rightwing terrorism.

Waves of terrorism follow a pattern:

a long, unnoticed buildup

followed by a massive and spectacular strike that often inflicts significant damage and casualties but focuses minds and eventually resources.

Counterterrorism agencies, driven by public outrage and concerned officials, struggle for a time to gain the upper hand

until, with better funding and understanding, they begin to win the battle to keep us safe.

The cycle can take many years, even decades.

(my formatting)

Regrettably Burke notes that “many specialists” fear we are not yet at that final turnaround point where authorities begin to get the upper hand on rightwing terrorism. The necessary “resources and attention” have yet to be applied to that threat.

Last year, the former head of the Metropolitan police’s counterterrorism unit said the UK had not “woken up” to the threat posed by the far right. In the US, experts at the Soufan Centre, founded by the former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, described a “long-running US double Standard with concerns over crime and terrorism that are inspired by the narrative of Bin Ladenism versus crime and terrorism inspired by right-wing ideology”.

Burke, Jason. 2019. “What Does Christchurch Attack Tell Us about Rightwing Extremism?” The Guardian, March 15, 2019, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/15/what-does-christchurch-attack-tell-us-about-rightwing-extremism.

“Terrorism in Europe.” 2019. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Terrorism_in_Europe&oldid=880293117.



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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Rightwing Terrorism in Context”

  1. The current problem and difference perhaps rather than the similarity is the role of the media in the misinformation and magnification of the Islamist threat.

    For some reason there is a move to create an extreme and violent right-wing, either that or there is a side-effect of media sensation of the likes being incubated resulting from a myopic view that is probably focused on sales. They don’t seem to realise the ramifications of their distortions.

    I understand that media gets involved when certain campaigns for acquiring oil and gas using war as a mechanism is needed. So a threat is needed to justify the war. However, the fallout of doing this is inevitable – it justifies and nurtures a right-wing.

    Even this is all amazingly small so I am glad that the majority of people are just normal humans wiling to live brotherly amicable lives with one another.

  2. I have two problems with many discussions of ‘terrorism.’ I will make a comment for each.

    #1: What is the definition of ‘terrorism’? It seems to shift out of expedience of perspective. I think it originally referred to the works of 19th century Russian revolutionaries who thought they could inspire major change by murdering this or that tsar or other autocrat. Now it is applied to groups who do other sorts of bad stuff to ‘terrorize’ populations. There are said to be ‘terrorist states’. People who are probably clinically psychotic but able to write down some rants echoing this or that ideology sometimes are ‘terrorists.’ The term is rather conveniently applied.

    In the era of the putative Jesus would the various Jewish rebels have been ‘terrorists’? The putative Peter allegedly cutting off a soldier’s ear, or some group that did not immediately denounce such an alleged crime of apparently gratuitous violence? A stray psychotic or two who perhaps stabbed a Roman official while shouting something against Roman control or Roman religion? The Romans trying to terrorize populations with mass crucifixions? Demoralizing a population by destroying its temple or executing religious leaders? Perhaps taxing to the point where children might die from diseases of poverty?

    Would spreading stories in favor of whipping temple money changers count?

    Does the term apply only to non-state actors? Only to small groups? To people who are totally nuts but can express some ideological words? To states one does not like? To enforced economic systems?

    It has become a sloppy emotionally charged word in many contexts more elsewhere than here. (The terms ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing also are also both highly imprecise and evocative. However I have perhaps overly belabored my points on ‘terrorist.’)

  3. Problem #2: Relying on news reports.

    I don’t know about any of you, but I have routinely found errors in news reports about just about anything I know first hand. It can be the size of demonstrations I’ve seen. It can be a summary of discussions at a meeting. It definitely can be a given area of science or other specialized knowledge. If for no other reason than that journalists may not be experts yet have to get news out, they routinely get lots of things wrong. Additionally, they may know what works well with their bosses and what doesn’t. Then there is the question of devious misattributions. I believe that in czarist Russia the authorities encouraged and allowed violent ‘terroristic’ acts in order to discredit those questioning the established order. They were, if I recall my readings correctly, quite successful at times. I believe that in various jurisdictions in recent decades there is reasonable indication similar sorts of clandestinely officially-enabled provocations, as well as, of course, an immense amount of ridiculously untrue speculation postulating that authorities were actually secretly behind this or that horrible occurrence. Wild speculation unfortunately is only encouraged when primary evidence (such as the video here) is suppressed, although suppression arguably may have a great benefit of not prejudicing juries, and tending to discourage copycats. (Perhaps there will now be suppression of violent video games as well?)

    In any case, whether it’s a news report of the local bake sale, traffic accident, move in the financial market, fashion trend, or an ideologically and religiously charged mass murder, I personally tend to try to tell myself that what I am given is probably largely true, possibly almost ideal contemporaneous historical reporting, but not certain and at least in theory open to question. I do not know many things, and I do not know that I can fully trust others even if they present themselves as knowing.

  4. This may seem like a naive question, but isn’t Islamist thought in and of itself right-wing? If so, why wouldn’t there be similarities? Indeed, we should not be surprised about the overlap.

    1. • Was Hassan al-Banna an “Islamist”?

      Rooted in Islam, Al-Banna’s message tackled issues including colonialism, public health, educational policy, natural resources management, social inequalities, pan-Islamism, nationalism, Arab nationalism, the weakness of the Islamic world on the international scene, and the growing conflict in Palestine.

      See “Arab Political Thought 1870–1970YouTube.

      1. db – That is an interesting question. Hassan al-Banna certainly is followed by all of the brotherhood range of expressions in the Muslim world to various degrees of politicisation. However, he was never considered by traditional Muslims as an authority in the sense of the religious sciences.

        His drivers were restoring a past prestige that the Muslim world once had and he postulated a path for its active recovery and interpreted by his adherents in a strange Marxist sort of way.

        The idea of ‘active’ recovery of prestige can have several angles, the lines becomes blurred when active recovery means infiltration to power vs to power by force – but another type of a recovery of prestige involves allowing circumstance and piety and Divine ordainment to say – let the cards fall in that way. Prophet Muhammad didn’t take power in Madinah, it was given to him. They loved him.

        So likewise, groups such as Neturei Karta agree with Zionists that they should be in control of the Holy Land, but they believe that it is an honour and will be given to Jews through Divine ordainment and should not be sought by force. Personally – I follow the very traditional opinion that worldly power is an afterthought and our efforts should only be arranged to prevent injustices and restore power to whoever that may be. Not to usurp and take it for ourselves. That would muddy our intentions for justice. If there are Muslim lands then Muslim leaders should be supported and guided, but not toppled by other eager Muslim groups who believe they have a better way to rule. This does not mean traditional Islam is anti-government and it does not mean also that Islam does not have a point of view for the global community – it does. The fact that is does may seem to many that being Islamic is inherently the same as being Islamist, but to others that is not really the case. Having rival systems in the world is not unhealthy. The fact that modern political systems entertain oppositions and shadow governments is because they compensate for each other’s blindspots and that is the sort of way I think most Muslims tend to view their religion. Like a litmus test for justice when legal systems are created.

  5. Because this is an academic site – I think I can afford a detailed response to J. Quinton’s query.

    I don’t know where Neil’s response has gone, but it said that Muslims tend not to follow an Islamist mindset and there is a difference between that and being Islamic. I think this in a simple response kind of way is true – in a general sense.

    However, please note:

    There is a propagation element in Islam
    There is an ethical framework element in Islam around statecraft.

    Islamists tend to conflate these areas in the most toxic manner. Fundamentally failing in ethics in general. In Islam we are not supposed to look for ‘interests’ between other nations like most modern world countries do. But rather we should look for common ‘values’ – which means our angle veers away from capitalism towards meritocracy, care and philanthropism. The propagation element is itself purely intended to be through ‘invitation’ – as the word suggests in Arabic ‘dawah’ – is to invite not to coerce or force. At a human level we invite guests who are friends to our houses and we treat them like royalty. This is the mode in which invitation ‘dawah’ ought to take place. We look to see which people we are compassionate towards and invite their people, leaders, or pious members to consider Islam. Rejection would only lead to focusing on common values nonetheless. It is not about taking over territories or resrouces but hearts if not in faith then in values, leaving the thing of the world – similar to Essenes and Ebionites in the world.

    The politicisation and militarisation is a septic interpetation that also leads to dire actions such as oppression of minorities and genocide as in the ex-state ISIS and such a manifestation of people is known to us and we have been warned against them. They leave the holistic and essence and create views based on the isolated and decontextualised. Puritanical but in a hellish manner finding the most zealous and stringent positions – not unlike the Sicarii.

    This can get in to further details too, but I’ll leave it here I think.

    1. I removed my comment after thinking I responded too hastily. J. Quinton did speak of “Islamist” and not “Islamic” — so I concluded he was indeed pointing to the difference and my comment was probably misdirected.

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