North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Focusing on extremism won’t counter far-Right violence

The main agents of rising far-Right violence are not ‘lone wolves.’ They are often connected to communities, legal entities, sometimes even to the state and elites

Volodymyr Ishchenko Mihai Varga
3 December 2021, 8.32am
Police officers detain far-right demonstrators in Brussels, Belgium on 15 Septembre 2019
Alexandros Michailidis / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Far-Right violence is on the rise in Europe. In fact, far-Right terror is one of the most important rising threats in the West, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, which compiles the Global Terrorism Index. In the period from 2002 to 2019, the US, Germany and the UK had the largest number of far-Right terror incidents in the West.

Worse than that, far-Right violence – decentralised anonymous attacks on political opponents and ethnic, religious and gender minorities – is significantly under-recorded for various institutional, methodological and conceptual reasons.

One reason is that most incidents of right-wing violence typically are not classed as terror attacks but as hate crimes or often even simply go into general criminal statistics.

Meanwhile, the prevalent approaches to deradicalisation build on the concept of ‘extremism’ to understand and counter political violence. But this perspective is often inadequate in light of the rising threat of right-wing violence and presents several major flaws.

Extremism’ is misleading

Firstly, this perspective assumes that ideological conversion to extremist views represents the main way people turn to actual political violence. While it is true that some structural factors do increase the statistical probability of radicalisation among ‘vulnerable’ groups (e.g., poor youth, especially of migrant background), the purported mechanism of radicalisation is the same: those who commit political violence are militants who must turn into a variety of ideologies.

Secondly, according to this perspective, all extremists are somehow equivalent. They share some fundamental similarities that justify uniting militants from very different parts of the ideological spectrum, often hating and attacking each other, into the broad category of extremism. The depiction of the extreme Left and extreme Right as being basically similar is called the ‘horseshoe theory’, which implies that the public, researchers, and authorities should give equal attention to all extremes, as these endanger liberal democracies to similar degrees. In other words, that they are two sides of the same coin.

In reality, however, left-wing extremists – in Europe, at least – do not have influential and resourceful allies anymore. They also no longer have strong parties (the populists appealing to classical social democracy are not ‘far-Left’), state institutions or foreign states that would legitimate, support, and escalate left-wing radicalisation.

Thirdly, countering political violence logically focuses on ideological extremist groups. Deradicalisation is about preventing ideological conversion via exposure to extremist propaganda, promoting liberal-democratic political culture, providing labour and educational opportunities to the ‘vulnerable’ youth, countering the extremist groups with primarily repressive measures, and pursuing the re-socialisation of those who turned to violence.

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What these limitations mean is that the extremism perspective misses how most of political violence actually happens, fails to recognise right-wing violence as particularly dangerous and leads to suboptimal solutions.

Despite most EU states’ implementation of the national prevention and deradicalisation strategies during the 2010s, primarily in response to jihadist terror attacks, we now see more violence, not less.

Non-extremist violence and extremist nonviolence

Apparently, something is not working. This is what the findings of our D.Rad Horizon 2020 project point to, after systematically mapping radicalisation and deradicalisation in 17 countries in Europe and the Middle East.

Think about the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) or the riots by migrant youth in France, the anti-austerity protests in Greece, or, if we look beyond the EU, the BLM uprising in the US, the Arab Spring, or maidan revolutions in post-Soviet countries. In recent decades, the events that were paralleled with the most massive violence were not led or organised by extremist ideological organisations, although ideological militants could play an important role in initiating and upscaling violence. Most of the participants were radicalised not via conversion into any *-isms but rather in the interactive dynamics of state repression and protest reaction.

The main agents of ideological violence are not isolated ‘lone wolves’ but are usually interconnected with communities, non-violent agents and legal entities

This process is shaped by the experience of structural violence and eroding state legitimacy. Loosely organised coalitions, weak political leadership, poorly articulated ideologies are symptoms of the organic crisis of political representation we live through.

Of course, the carefully orchestrated terror acts committed by conspired ideological militants may be responsible for higher victim numbers than the loose popular uprisings. But extremist actions are only a small part of what extremists usually do. Violent actions typically go along with propaganda and education, peaceful mobilisation and electoral participation, and ‘small deeds’ strategies of extending support to struggling communities and taking over state functions.

In other words, the non-extremist activities of extremists are critically important to reaching wider audiences, recruiting prospective members and connecting with ‘respectable’ parties and organisations as well as elite factions. This helps legitimise violent agents within civil societies and portray them as dealing with urgent social problems that should be a point of public concern and civic action. For example, Italy’s CasaPound or Germany’s III. Weg (Third Way) are far-Right groups energetically engaged in social activism in support of the poor.

A web of violence

The main agents of ideological violence are not isolated ‘lone wolves’ but are usually interconnected with communities, non-violent agents and legal entities, at times even including connections to law enforcement personnel.

Right-wing violence appears as particularly if not the most dangerous form of political violence precisely because social connections and embeddedness are so important. If we look beyond ideological justifications for illiberal actions, we would see that the extremists differ fundamentally in access to the necessary resources and opportunities to commit the actual violence.

The social base of jihadism (the primary target of counter-extremist policies) in non-Muslim countries is a marginalised minority. It lacks any internal political allies and meets largely hostile majorities. Anyone who would call for rationalisation or legitimation of the causes for the jihadist violence would rather be stigmatised.

Instead, right-wing extremists benefit from the legitimation and often covert support of far-Right and sometimes right-of-centre parties and factions of the ruling elite. Among the most notorious are the Italian Lega party’s legitimation and connections to the neofascist Casa Pound, which helps the former recruit electoral support, and the Hungarian and Polish ruling parties’ legitimation, support and instigation of the extreme Right.

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Right-wing violent agents are better-off in connection with influential elite allies. The targets of right-wing violence are primarily marginalised groups, having fewer self-defence capacities. Sympathies and connections of right-wing extremists to law enforcement and military institutions facilitate the recruitment of specialists capable of more dangerous violence and enjoying better protection from eventual prosecution.

Target elites, not marginalized groups

Now we can see why repression or preventive deradicalisation focusing on ideological militant groups and conversion into extremist views appears insufficient to counter increasing right-wing violence.

On the one hand, rather than sticking to ideological dogmatism, extremist groups are often flexible and quickly adapt to repressive threats. They circumvent bans on hate speech and propaganda of extreme ideologies by developing ‘softened’ versions of their ideas and replacing political activities with cultural channels of radicalisation. When far-Right groups are banned by the most popular social networks belonging to Western corporations (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), they move to non-Western networks like Telegram. Social connectedness helps right-wing extremists mimick deradicalisation and undermines the legitimacy of repression.

On the other hand, identifying groups that are ‘vulnerable’ to radicalisation is just one step away from social profiling, which only aggravates injustices and discrimination based on racial, religious or social markers (see the criticism of the UK Prevent program). This contributes to the further alienation and radicalisation of such groups, which lashes out during massive mobilisations.

Not surprisingly, the European state preventive programs and civil society projects pay the most attention to Muslims and youth. However, the agents that contribute the most critical logistical and discursive resources to right-wing violence such as law enforcement, military, conservative politicians and elites are not in focus.

In addition, projects countering right-wing radicalisation tend to excessively rely on NGOs. This creates problems for these organisations’ legitimacy.

For example, Germany’s right-of-centre Christian Democratic Union party obstructs the operation of NGOs in countering right-wing radicalisation by accusing them of being too left-wing. But this take reproduces the relativising argument equating right-wing and left-wing ‘extremisms’. On the other hand, the strong reliance on civil society leads to what we call the ‘mirror-image’ problem: right-wing civil society may also call for representation as a legitimate stakeholder in countering jihadist and left-wing radicalisation.

Certifying and supporting only ‘properly liberal’ civil society actors opens a Pandora’s box of ideological bias in dealing with radicalisation. The mirror-image problem points to the risks of governmental reliance on civil society for deradicalisation. The involvement of civil society can lead to accusations of co-optation and depoliticisation of civil society organisations, causing them to lose public legitimacy.

This is not to say that the above mentioned repressive and preventive deradicalisation measures cannot be more efficient, however, they are hardly sufficient. Political violence is socially connected and embedded. It is an outcome of dynamic interactions and relations rather than the materialisation of extremist blueprints. Comprehensive deradicalisation should focus not so much on the ideological militants but on the connections making their violence possible, effective, legitimate and unpunished.

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