Global Extremes

Not all ‘extremisms’ are created equal: lessons from the Christchurch attack

Extreme far-right views have seeped into parts of the media and politics, normalised in parts of life that other forms of ‘extremism’ have not.

Richard McNeil Willson
27 October 2019
Vigil to remember the victims of Christchurch in Adelaide, March 21, 2019.
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Picture by KELLY BARNES/AAP/PA Images. All rights reserved.
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The events of the mass killing of innocent people at prayer on 15th March 2019 led to feelings of shock and despair resonating far beyond Christchurch. However, underlying these reactions was another feeling amongst observers – a looming realisation that such a terrorist attack was not as surprising as it should be. In an environment of political polarisation in which debate has become febrile and brittle, in which extreme ideologies of the far-right are given too much freedom to roam, there has long been a risk of violence spilling into our societies and communities.

This dual sense of shock and expectance present amongst observers suggests two things about the extreme far-right violent: firstly, in many ways, the far-right is just as violent and dangerous as other kinds of extremism and should be treated that way; and, secondly, in other ways, right-wing extremism is more dangerous, exceptional because of its ubiquity.

Such attacks clearly show us that the extreme-right is just as capable of enabling attacks as so-called ‘Islamist’ forms of violence. What has been exposed is a stubborn bias that has persisted in discussion on violent extremism that has prioritised ‘religious’ formations – particularly acts that have been justified using Islamic language – over and above other forms of violent extremism and polarisation. As the Christchurch shooting demonstrates with great macabre is that religion is not, and should never, be considered a defining feature of violent extremism. In fact, the factors involved in how individuals choose to engage in terrorist acts – irrespective of their motive as either ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious’ – bare similarities across different contexts, and understanding these similarities is important in determining how individuals become involved in violent extremism.

The factors that lead to such indiscriminate violence, according to current practice and literature, are varied: segregation or deprivation; toxic masculinity or cultural identity struggles; racism and discrimination; or engagement in already extremist and violent networks. All of these factors have been shown to play complex roles in the creation of violence in some way. In this sense therefore, far-right violence is no different to co-called ‘religiously’-inspired terrorism – all have similar triggers, similar conditions, even if the combinations of these factors vary greatly across contexts.

However, that counter-terrorism policy and practice over the past two decades has largely assumed that ‘religiously’-inspired violence is more of a problem than the far-right, has led to Muslims being targeted and problematised as dangerous. This has fuelled attacks by far-right (or self-proclaimed ‘anti-jihad’) groups who frame Muslims as a threat, visible symbols of a dangerous and irrational religious Other. It is within this context that maybe it is also worth considering a second point – that the Christchurch attack also illuminated that, in some senses, the far-right is not so similar to other kinds of extremisms.

Much of the language within the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto – entitled, ‘The Great Replacement’ – bore striking similarities to political discussions that take place around us. His words echoed statements and policies of right-wing populist European parties which attack immigration and minority communities, and he made a point to express support for Brexit and European far-right parties.

Many Muslim commentators have observed how they have to face an often-daily barrage of discrimination and Islamophobia, often based around similar incendiary themes used by the Christchurch terrorist. Such Islamophobia is also often given a pass in the media, as anti-Muslim and anti-migrant ideas and tropes are repeated with a nudge and wink, even by many liberal commentators. The reticence to challenge elements of right-wing ideas within the mainstream means such ideologies have grown to have far too much of a privileged space in European societies.

There has been a sharp realisation, in the months since the massacre, that greater introspection is needed on how and why such attacks happen, and a vast amount of commentary has been (and certainly will continue to be) written on this. There are two things though that need to be considered most of all into future discussions and lessons that can be learnt from the attack. Firstly, the similarities between this and many other terrorist attacks is clear – the disregard for life, the targeting of innocent people, the Manichaean worldview that underpins the killer’s ideology. In that sense, it is integral that we understand that far-right violence is just as dangerous an extremism as any other, and is formulated upon several similar factors.

But this first statement must also carry conditions. Far-right extremism has infiltrated parts of the media and politics, has become normalised in parts of life that other forms of extremism have not. It is exceptionally pernicious in its ubiquity. Responding to the threat of the far-right requires us to be reflexive in our response, to peel away at the Islamophobic tropes and stereotypes that have permeated the world around us. Only then can we build an adequate response to violent extremism and start to prevent polarisation in the communities we share.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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