Government and governance, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

13 December 2019

One of the major challenges with addressing any form of terrorism is correctly describing it. A new categorisation, racially and ethnically motivated terrorism, may provide a more workable starting point when considering extremist acts, Isaac Kfir writes.

Labelling terrorists can be challenging. It is often difficult to link the action of hate groups or individuals inspired by them directly to an act of terrorism.

The increase in far-right violent extremism has led the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law (IIJ), which operates as part of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, to develop the concept of ‘racially and ethnically motivated terrorism’ (REMT).

The IIJ was driven by a desire to promote a term that was more specific and useful than such terms as ‘right-wing extremism’, ‘far-right terrorism’, and ‘far-right extremism’, which are often used interchangeably.

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One reason for a lack of specificity when it comes to describing this kind of far-right extremism is that perpetrators come from an array of communities. The Anti-Defamation League’s report The Internationalization of White Supremacy shows that white supremacists, incels, sovereign citizens, neo-Nazis, and other communities are producing terrorists that tend to strike alone, but are usually part of a larger international network of like-minded people.

It is worth noting that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a robust debate emerged on how to describe al-Qaeda and the type of Islam it advocated. Initially, there were references to ‘radical’ or ‘fundamental’ Islam, which often belittled Islam and Muslims, and were used by people such as Sebastian Gorka and Robert Spencer.

Nevertheless, with time, this gave way to a more nuanced, precise, and scholarly approach. Studies on Salafism and jihad appeared, encouraging the use of the term Salafi-jihadism when discussing the theological and ideological roots of al-Qaeda.

There is clear evidence that right-wing extremism is increasing. For example, between 2014 and 2019, the total number of extreme-right incidents had risen 320 per cent compared to the previous five years. This trend has continued into 2019, as by September 2019 77 deaths were attributed to far-right terrorists. Conversely, support for Salafi-jihadism, at least in many western states, is diminishing.

There are several problems associated with the terms ‘right-wing extremism’ and ‘far-right extremism’, which is why the IIJ has sought to explore the need for new terminology.

Firstly, there are too many definitions of ‘far-right’ extremism for the term to be workable.

More on this: Targeting terrorism in cities

Secondly, far-right extremism is disaggregated and amorphous, operating largely as a network, or more specifically a dune organisation. This means that it has no territory, nor does it at this stage seeks one, opting to move almost randomly from one territory to the next – in this case, arguably preparing the ground for a ‘take over’.

Thirdly, in general, some political cultures have shifted to the right, as seen with the rise of such political parties as the Alternative for Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Five Star Movement, or the French Génération Identitaire. This has made the term politically charged for a segment of the community, rather than purely descriptive.

The problem here is that there is a tendency to connect this shift with far-right political extremism, if only because ‘right’ is in the name. This has also resulted an effective counter campaign by conservative policymakers and pundits, who label the idea of far-right violence as an attempt by the extreme left to stifle conservative values.

In developing the concept of REMT, the IIJ is seeking to draw out some of the key elements within the latest manifestations of right-wing political violence.

REMT identifies the key themes that seem to resonate when looking at the 2011 shooting in Norway, the Charleston shooting, the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, El Paso, and Halle. Reading the ‘manifestos’ of the perpetrators it becomes clear that they were driven by ideas relating to race and ethnicity.

These generally appear as a need to protect the Caucasian, European Christian from the ‘other’, a sense of a clash of civilisation, and a belief that they are the enlightened vanguard who have taken the ‘red pill’ and must save their respective communities.

REMT builds on Cas Mudde’s distinction between those that operate within the democratic process to bring about political change, seen as ‘radical’, and those that reject democratic principles, advocate for violence, and are generally intolerant of others, which are castigated as ‘extreme’.

In doing so, the idea of REMT accepts that the democratic process may bring about a public attraction to conservative values, which may include the adoption of stringent immigration policies.

It does this without accepting that extremist actions are not old-fashioned pedestrian racism, but rather betray a deeper and more sinister reality that mainstream political parties are reflecting and playing to.

However, REMT does have some shortcomings. One key challenge is deciding what race and ethnicity mean in the 21st century, another is that the phenomenon it seeks to describe is highly fractured. When looking at Salafi-jihadism or ecoterrorism, in comparison, it is much easier to identify the end-goal.

Clearly, a shift is taking place around the world in which those adhering to racial and ethnic ideas are feeling empowered, with the Anti-Defamation League noting that just in United States incidents of white supremacists posting fliers have increased 182 per cent in 2018, from 421 in 2017 to 1,187 in 2018, as have racist rallies.

If this form of action is to be properly countered, there needs to be a robust conversation on how to describe the phenomenon, just as there was after 9/11. As it did then, it may take us several years in which mistakes may be made, but that change will be worth it if it allows policymakers to combat the threat of these violent acts.

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