Can Europe Make It?

Introducing this week’s theme: Confronting Europe’s problem with far-right violence


This week's guest theme addresses a violent issue which has often been overlooked in Europe. Far-right extremism is often relegated to a second tier security threat due to the tendency to see these groups as irrelevant to inquiries into national security and terrorism. But we should be wary of this.

Vidhya Ramalingam
1 September 2014

Our guest editor this week, Vidhya Ramalingam, is Research and Policy Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where she oversees a programme of work on Far-Right Extremism and Intolerance. She set up and runs the FREE Initiative (Far-Right Extremism in Europe Initiative), a new resource that offers practical guidance on how to take action against violent far-right extremism. This resource has been built on the experiences of a network of hundreds of activists, police, policy makers, former extremists, and survivors of far-right violence spanning 10 European countries.

Vidhya introduces this week’s theme and her authors:

This summer, three years passed since the horrific terrorist attack by a far-right extremist who took the lives of 77 people and injured hundreds in Norway on 22 July 2011. Though news agencies often jump to commemorate anniversaries of major acts of violence in Europe, this one was hard to find in the news this year. The focus of western European attention over the past several months has – rightly so – been on Islamist extremism, worries about individuals traveling to fight in Syria and Iraq, and other threats to national security.

Far-right extremism is often relegated to a second tier security threat due to the tendency to see these groups as irrelevant to inquiries into national security and terrorism. Though in most European countries, it is fair to say that the far right poses less of a ‘terrorist threat’ than other forms of extremism, this is a simplistic way of conceptualising the role and impact of far-right violence on Europe. There are several reasons to be wary of this.

First, while it is high-profile and high impact events that hit the headlines, the bulk of the threat posed by the far right is felt through smaller-scale localised harassment, intimidation and bullying by extremists targeting minority communities. These kinds of incidences often go undetected, and they are hard to quantify – but they leave communities living in fear.

Second, the problem with far-right violence is that it is inextricably intertwined with public and political debates on immigration and integration, national identity, and national security. Far-right extremists may even be riding on narratives that are actually accepted by large sections of the mainstream population, or ideologies advocated by mainstream politicians. These groups and individuals are often reactionary, playing off current affairs and traumatic events to mobilise other supporters around hateful messages. Mainstreamed narratives are thus being used to justify terrorism and violence.

Third, estimated figures of participation in movements are not often solid indicators of the threat. Even in countries where intelligence reports minimal numbers, far-right extremism may simply be a ‘hidden’ phenomenon, less visible due to a strong penal code and social stigma against these groups, and increasingly active online. There is also a high level of chatter in the online space, and little is known about the relationship between talk and action. Worryingly, Europol confirms that many members of the extreme right-wing scene have been found in possession of a significant amount of firearms, ammunition or explosives, and there are numerous examples, from the Netherlands to Slovakia, of far-right groups providing training in combat techniques and target practice.

In some ways, despite the elusive, ‘hidden’ nature that makes them difficult to trace, their dependence on and manipulation of current affairs and grievances should actually make their movements easy to predict. We tend not to be front-footed in dealing with far-right violence. We focus far too much on expressing concern about ‘the problem’ rather than teaching ourselves about – or indeed carrying out – ‘the solutions.’ But we know enough about the problem to act.

There are thousands of front-line professionals across Europe who come face-to-face with this issue on a regular basis, whether it is those working specifically on countering violent extremism, or those who encounter the far right as part of their daily responsibilities policing communities or educating young people. They often develop innovative solutions to these challenges, though these rarely make headlines or send ripples beyond the community immediately affected. This initiative aims to change this.

The FREE Initiative is not your bog standard ‘zero tolerance’ anti-racism initiative. Our message is new. All too often those fighting the good fight simply look down on those who espouse far-right ideologies, dismissing them as ‘racists’ or ‘Nazis.’ This punitive approach is often preferred when dealing with far-right extremists in our communities. However, ignoring them or dismissing them will not make them go away. In fact, time and time again we see that this approach can help push individuals further down the path of radicalisation, or push them underground to operate undetected.

The FREE Initiative, and this editorial partnership with openDemocracy, aims to start a conversation on how Europe can engage directly with the problem of far-right extremism. It is a conversation about solutions.

At the heart of efforts to tackle the far right must be initiatives to have the difficult conversations with those in or on the peripheries of movements, engaging with them as people and working to help them change their behaviour and their attitudes. The FREE Initiative showcases the stories of those who are on the streets having the hard conversations with far-right activists, those who have rid entire towns of neo-Nazi gangs, and those who have pushed hundreds of violent extremists to leave the scene. It includes survivors of far-right violence, who share their stories to prevent attacks like this from happening again, and former extremists who share their stories to prevent others from taking the paths they once did.

Throughout this week on openDemocracy, through film and written reflections, we will explore different themes, from police and state responses, to methods of intervention, to how to empower communities targeted by the far right:

We begin the week with the voices that are most important to be heard – those whose lives have been directly affected by far-right extremism: survivors of far-right violence and former violent extremists. The series begins with the film The Human Face, on the human impacts of far-right violence on survivors and perpetrators. We are fortunate to have a piece written by the subject of this film Bjørn Ihler, an activist, writer, filmmaker and survivor of the 22 July attacks in Norway. Despite having experienced the most horrific violence himself, Bjørn tells a simple message about the need to recognise the humanity of extremists and engage with them as people.

We are also fortunate to have another personal reflection by Daniel Gallant. Daniel is a writer, a certified social worker, and someone who himself has come on a long journey out of violent far-right extremism. Daniel shares his personal journey, the defining moments that made him doubt his ideology, and eventually that helped him to leave the extreme right. His message is one urging ‘responsible compassion,’ to be there for those who reach out for help to change themselves, and to recognise that change is possible.

On Tuesday, we turn the discussion to prevention and intervention, with several pieces which provide important context on the problem of far-right violence and how it must be managed. Maria Alvanou offers insight on extremist violence in Greece and the necessary distinction between judicial responses and social responses to the problem. Heike Radvan and Carmen Altmeyer reflect on the role of women in violent far-right extremism in Germany, and the need for gender-specific response measures. Harald Weilnboeck offers recommendations for intervention and rehabilitation work to guide perpetrators of far-right violence back into society. Tuesday’s film How to approach extremists offers guidance on carrying out interventions, something which should be done with care and by trained professionals. As Harald elucidates, interventions rely on face-to-face relationship building, and require personal commitment, mutual trust and confidence.

On Wednesday we explore the softer end of the spectrum: prejudice and anti-minority sentiment. Joel Busher stresses the importance of understanding the emotional dynamics which lead individuals to join anti-minority protest groups. Rocio Cifuentes discusses methodologies for challenging racism and far-right ideas among young people in Wales. Our film, Speaking against prejudice addresses how to have effective conversationsn with people with racist or prejudiced views.

We turn to counter-speech on Thursday and how to engage with extremist ideologies and hate speech, beginning with a film on Dealing with Extremism Online, which offers tactics for engaging with hateful content and myths spread on the internet. Erin Saltman, an expert on internet radicalisation, offers background on how different forms of extremism fuel and support one another. Peter Kreko offers a piece on the importance of conspiracy theories in far-right narratives and how these theories can and should be undermined. He contends that conspiracy theories are hard to eliminate once they exist, and it may be easier to prevent new ones rather than eradicating those that are already widely spread.

Ending the series on Friday is a final focus on working with communities that are victims of far-right violence and intimidation. We launch the film Empowering targeted communities, and begin with a discussion from Fiyaz Mughal of cumulative ‘tit for tat’ extremism in the targeting of Muslim communities in the UK. András Vágvölgyi writes on the struggle for justice following a murder spree directed against Hungary’s Roma minority. Tom Johnson offers a piece on another struggle for justice in Germany by the families of victims of the National Socialist Underground, a terrorist cell which operated undetected for over a decade. We also present a film on Policing the Far Right. The most successful methods of managing a far right presence often empower the wider community to get involved in productive ways.

Confronting Europe’s problem with far-right extremism is no easy task. Those who are doing the toughest work often devote both their personal and professional lives to this task, and many are targeted by far-right groups themselves – some must even remain nameless for their own safety. Governments that choose to respond will need to take some risks – the first being to move beyond simple up-stream prevention and anti-racism work into the hard-end intervention space. Yes, there will be risks, but evidence shows us these methods work. And the lives of those targeted by far-right violence are worth it – in fact, so are the lives of those who have fallen into hateful ideologies.

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