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Preventing radical right extremism requires honesty, empathy and a whole society approach. Are we doomed to fail?

We need to empathise with those we fundamentally disagree with. Is society ready for that?

William Baldet
5 June 2019
Court artist sketch of Thomas Mair, charged with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, June 2016.
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Elizabeth Cook/PA. All rights reserved.

In a year that marks the twentieth anniversary of the London Nail Bomber’s campaign of terror, two recent terrorist incidents, the Christchurch Mosque and San Diego Synagogue tragedies, have reinforced the deadly reality of neo-Nazi conspiracies and sharply focused the minds of politicians, social networking sites and the media who must ask themselves what part they should play to defuse this ideology. Amidst the soul-searching they should also wonder if they have somehow fed this beast.

Practitioners in the UK’s countering violent extremism strategy, Prevent, approach extremism with an agnosticism that adapts to local threats, including radical right extremism. We recognise that it appeals to people for a broad range of social and psychological reasons and so grappling with the ideology alone is insufficient.

Fractures of identity and a diminished sense of belonging are common. We have seen family bereavements drive people into the arms of a surrogate ‘family’ of extremists who seize an opportunity to exploit their grief. Some feel they are victims of an unjust system and seek solace in online ecosystems which draw them into perpetuating cycles of conspiracy and mistrust. We see deeply personal grievances framed as part of an existential struggle against an ‘other’.

Theirs is a world of discord in which an unholy trinity of politicians, police and media are colluding to suppress dissent and control the masses. A world in which Jews are the financiers of this corrupt elite and the public are dispossessed of a voice to challenge the establishment. The perception that nobody listens and nobody understands is disempowering; when you believe that ‘others’ are responsible for disadvantaging you or your communities, then groups that sow division and divide the world into ‘us and them’ are an opiate.

When you believe that ‘others’ are responsible for disadvantaging you or your communites, then groups that sow division and divide the world into ‘us and them’ are an opiate.

Safeguarding

The majority of people we support through Prevent are not yet fully immersed in ideology, but testing its waters. This means that early intervention (‘safeguarding’) for the underlying factors is the most compelling way of helping them navigate the path of radicalisation. Tackling the issues early is effective in helping a person blend their binary, black-and-white thinking into the shades of grey that more accurately reflect the nuanced and ambiguous world around them, deligitimising violence towards an outgroup. The support we offer is voluntary and provided through statutory bodies or wraparound care within the person’s family. Sometimes it will be an NGO or charity that is best-placed to provide that social care response, similar to longstanding safeguarding work in the field of gangs and drugs.

For the more serious cases, and those where the ideology has become integral to a person’s identity, a mentor will be used. These relationships can be profound and will involve a combination of traditional counselling and expertise from former extremists.

The reason Prevent’s approach is successful – some 80% of cases exit the process with no further extremism concerns – is because it’s built on a consensual and trusted relationship with the individual. It is not about rejecting their world view but understanding it and empathising with its genesis. The conversations can be uncomfortable and challenging, but without honesty and empathy a person can feel judged or rejected by the mainstream and risks being driven back into the comfort of an extremist movement.

Without honesty and empathy a person can feel judged or rejected by the mainstream and risks being driven back into the comfort of an extremist movement.

Bullying

But radicalisation does not happen in a vacuum. External factors continuously obfuscate the environment, reinforcing stereotypes or promoting an adversarial discourse that undermines empathy. Social media has made virtues of tribalism and outrage, where winning an argument is more important than finding common ground. If success is measured by your ability to denigrate others and bully them into silence, what values are we handing down to subsequent generations?

Sara Khan, the UK’s Commissioner for Countering Extremism, stated that we need a whole society approach to solve this problem. I absolutely agree, but to do this requires us all to have those honest and difficult conversations and to empathise with those we fundamentally disagree with, and I’m not convinced society is ready for that.

Prevent can work with individuals to thwart the radicalisation process and it can promote initiatives to inoculate against extremism (instilling values of tolerance, respect and equality) but it’s not a panacea. We need our politicians to earn the trust of a significant cross-section of the electorate who feel forgotten, ignored and disinvested in society, we need the media to strike the difficult balance between platforming an ideology and shining a light on its hypocrisies with robust alternative narratives and we need social media companies to redesign the algorithms that amplify and perpetuate enmity.

We need our politicians to earn the trust of a significant cross-section of the electorate who feel forgotten, ignored and disinvested in society.

Our Jewish and Muslim communities have become a lightening rod for radical right hostility. If we cannot move from the fringes of caustic discourse to a reasoned and pragmatic centre ground, and if we continue to allow anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim prejudice to go unchecked and unchallenged, we are doomed to fail and the ramifications for these communities will continue to be mired in tragedy.

Visit the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (#CARR)

Read more on Countering the Radical Right

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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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