April 2019 Pulse
On 15 March, terrorist attacks on two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, left 50 dead and dozens injured. The attacks were carried out by Australian-born Brenton Tarrant, 28, who was later arrested by police. Describing it as one of New Zealand’s ‘darkest days’ at a press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said that the attack was perpetrated by a suspect with ‘extreme views’ that had no place in the country or the wider world.
Brenton Tarrant is a ‘lone-wolf’ far-right extremist who has no qualms about resorting to violence to achieve his twisted nationalistic ideals. In his online ‘manifesto’ Tarrant admits that he has interacted with many right-wing groups and organisations, but denies being a ‘direct member’ of any. Their profound influence on him is all too evident in these horrific acts.
The Christchurch mosque massacres have highlighted once again the rise of far-right extremism and white supremacism not only in Europe and America, but also in Australia and New Zealand.
Scholars note that right-wing terrorism has been on the rise since the 2000s. The most spectacular instance of this brand of terrorism is the massacre of 77 young people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. Since then, there have been numerous reported cases of right-wing violence: the killing of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, attacks on mosques in London and Quebec and the murder of British MP Jo Cox.
According to research by the Anti-Defamation League, over the last decade 73.3% of all extremist-related fatalities in the US could possibly be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4% were attributed to Islamist extremists.
What does the term far-right extremism refer to?
Scholars warn that the descriptor ‘far-right’ is extremely slippery because it often suggests a wide spectrum of non-mainstream ideologies and attitudes. This ranges from radical, populist and anti-establishment organised parties that are non-violent to clandestine terrorist individuals and groups that see violence as a means of realising their vision of society.
In similar vein, it is notoriously difficult to arrive at a clear definition of far-right extremism. Although the word has been bandied about by politicians, the press and in social media, there is no consensus as to what extremism entails or who gets to define it.
In his book Radical Right, Pippa Norris points out that there are many different labels for far-right political parties and social groups – ‘Far’, ‘extreme’, ‘radical’, ‘new right’, ‘ultra-nationalist’, etc. He suggests that it is best to see these groups as a cluster or family of parties instead of a single category.
Be that as it may, many scholars agree that far-right extremist groups of whatever stripe may be said to be in some ways opposed to the foundations of liberal democracy. These include ideas about national identity, citizenship and political pluralism well as liberal policies concerning minority groups.
These concerns are intertwined in a profound way in the mind of far-right extremists, especially those who espouse a more militant agenda. One obvious example is how perceived ‘enemies’ are constructed based on the way in which national identity and citizenship are construed by these extremists. When identity and citizenship are primarily, even if not exclusively, defined in purely ethnic (i.e., white supremacist) terms, ethnic minorities are invariably seen as threats.
It is therefore not difficult to see the relationship between far-right extremism and migration. A number of important studies have shown a correlation between the emergence and growth of far-rights groups in Western Europe and the United States and the increase level of migration from Muslim nations and the incidence of Islamic terrorism. Thus, it is not uncommon to find Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes targeted at the Muslim community after a terrorist incident perpetrated by Islamists, even if the attack occurred elsewhere.
Douglas Pratt uses the concept of co-radicalisation to describe this phenomenon. Co-Radicalisation, Pratt explains, is:
… the phenomenon whereby the awareness or presumption by one party that another is fomenting a threatening extremism then precipitates, within the first party, a reactive move in the direction of a like radicalisation even though, paradoxically, the perceived initial extremism of the second party is eschewed and denounced.
Seen in this way, Islamist militancy and far-right extremist violence may be said to serve as catalysts and impetuses for each other, the one group motivating the other to greater acts of violence.
But far-right xenophobia extends beyond the Muslim community. As Sophie Gaston notes, ‘a broader cultural disenfranchisement from particularly white working class communities in parts of Western Europe and the United States has fostered a more focused expression of far-right rhetoric and hate crimes towards more traditional minority targets, such as the Jewish, African American or Roma communities.’
Populism and Extremism
There is also a correlation between the advent of far-right populism, fuelled by the erosion of public trust in institutions, to the rise of right-wing extremism. As Gaston explains: ‘As citizens’ trust in institutions has reached historical lows, the proliferation of a widespread anti-establishment sentiment, propagated by the far-right but also far-left, has goaded appetite for disruptive political forces and “radical” perspectives.’
Consequently, even the more extreme sentiments and attitudes emanating from the far-right crusaders might become less radical sounding and more acceptable to the malcontent general public. Describing this shift, Gaston writes: ‘… it certainly is the case that the proliferation and open visibility of previously “fringe” perspectives on racial superiority, exclusionary language regarding migrant populations, nationalistic rhetoric and ethnically based conceptions of national identity and border policies, are contributing to a more favourable and normalised public environment for far-right extremism that has been the case for decades.’
The internet and social media have been widely and effectively harnessed by far-right populists and extremists as a source of political information and networking tool. Extremists take advantage not only of the ease with which the internet makes the formation of new communities and sharing of ideological material possible, but also the anonymity that it guarantees.
For example, in its 2016 research on far-right activities on Facebook, Demos discovered scores of dedicated pages across four European countries – UK, France, Italy, and Hungary – with hundreds of thousands of posts within the period of two months, contributed by tens of thousands of unique users.
Scholars have also noted the striking family resemblances between far-right extremism and Islamist militancy.
Just like their Islamist counterparts, far-right extremists sometimes use religion – in this case, mostly Christianity – to justify their violent acts of terrorism. For example, the members of Christian Identity often claim that their campaign of violence and criminal activities are sanctioned by religion. Sovereign Citizens, a white nationalist group, believes that its doctrines and programmes are inspired and sanctioned by God. And violent anti-abortion extremists in America believe that they are acting in concert with the teachings of the Bible and their online propaganda is often inundated with Scriptural references.
Like the Islamist jihadists, these far-right extremists often use religion to support their own political ideologies and to inspire imagination of some utopian social order that they feel called to bring about. Some employ apocalyptic imageries gleaned from the Book of Revelation to sacralise their political agendas, while others see themselves and their work as the fulfilment of biblical prophecies.
Still others imagine that they are a part of an ancient military order that has been defending Christianity since the time of the Crusades. For example, the Norwegian white nationalist Anders Breivik believes that he stands in continuity with the 12th century Catholic military order called the Knight’s Templar (Order of Solomon’s Temple). In his manifesto, Breivik maintains that Christianity is ‘the only cultural platform that can unite all Europeans, which will be needed in the coming period during the third expulsion of the Muslims.’ Yet he laments that the Church he has in mind ‘does not exist anymore because it has been deconstructed.’
Finally, right-wing extremists and Islamists alike think that their respective communities are being perpetually threatened. For example, Jason Burk notes that ‘For Islamists, the belief that a belligerent west has set on the humiliation and exploitation of the world’s Muslims for the best part of 1,000 years is axiomatic.’
Consequently, both fair-right extremists and Islamists are resolved to resist the ‘tyrannies’ that oppress their respective peoples and communities. The former see the government as their primarily oppressor that must be challenged and fought until their imagined community – often defined by ethnicity or race, as we have seen – is no longer under siege. The latter believe that apostate rulers and regimes should be toppled so that true Islam can flourish.
Needless to say, Christians should have no truck with the extremism and violence of these far-right activists.
The use of Christianity to undergird their ideologies or sanction their (violent) campaigns should be rejected together with their radical politics of difference, ethnocentricity, racism, xenophobia, and their venomous rhetoric of hate and intolerance. The politics of exclusion embodied by these extremists cannot be more antithetical to the command that Jesus gave to his disciples to love not just the neighbour (Mark 12:30-31), but also the enemy (Matthew 5:44).
Let me conclude this article with a word of caution by returning to a point alluded to earlier to underscore its importance in public discourse. It has to do with the word that is often bandied about in various quarters but is notoriously difficult to define, and therefore potentially dangerous. I am referring to that vexingly problematic word ‘extremism’.
What constitutes religious ‘extremism’? Who is the religious extremist? The Oxford Dictionary defines an extremist as ‘a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.’ An attempt to define ‘extremist’ by using the word extreme twice could hardly be described as successful or even helpful.
Be that as it may, arriving at some kind of consensus and clarity about what religious extremism entails cannot be more important in our day. As Jonathan Merritt has rightly observed: ‘In an age of religious terrorism, “extremist” is too damaging a word to be tossed around with such little discretion. When society slaps the E-word on something, it marks it for marginalisation.’
For the secular and uninformed public, certain orthodox religious beliefs and practices may be deemed to be extreme.
For example, in a study conducted in the United States, 60 per cent of Americans would label a person who tries to convert others to their faith as extreme. Forty-two per cent would apply this label to anyone who would ‘quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country.’ And a quarter of those who participate in the study would accord that moniker to a teenage girl who is determined to abstain from sex until marriage.
In other words, a conservative Christian who wishes to be obedient to the Bible and a faithful Muslim who seeks to follow the Koran may be deemed as extreme because their worldviews and actions are at odds with what secular and liberal culture consider as the norm.
When religious extremism is not properly defined, a new kind of intolerance emerges that often leads to the exclusion of those whose views and behaviours the majority deems to be anti-social or simply odd. As Merritt put it: ‘Carelessly painting such wide swaths with a caustic descriptor is its own form of intolerance.’ When there is no clarity as to what constitutes religious extremism, the term can be used to condemn, marginalise and alienate.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.