Extreme right-wing ideology across both sides of the Atlantic has traditionally been rooted by notions of singular identity bounded in place and space. But it today’s post-9/11 era and its ensuing war on terror, a clash of civilization-style narrative has fuelled the emergence of a common enemy uniting the various disjointed identities. Commonality in hatred, fear and othering has become a transnational phenomenon in today’s information age.
While Europe and the US have dealt with the problem of organised far-right groups for decades, the evolving nature of the elevated identity requires an evolution in approach to overcome what represents a major internal security challenge for Nato nations.
Firstly, the infiltration of Islamophobic narratives in mainstream discourses needs to be noted. It appears to be the strategy of far-right pundits in the US and activists in the UK to highlight, increasingly, the ‘failure’ of Muslim communities to integrate into mainstream life. They accuse immigrants of being responsible for the creation of ghettos; profiteering from social security systems and taking away jobs that ‘belong’ to ‘indigenous’ communities. The proliferation of this perspective, along with increasingly aggressive tactics, particularly in the UK and Holland (such as far-right demonstrations in areas with a high Muslim population) inflames community tension, costs millions of dollars to police and appears designed to provoke a violent response from the Muslim community.
Exacerbated by the current global financial crisis, these groups feed off a growing discontent/mistrust that some American/European whites have towards immigrant populations and government in general. These groups can be exploited by hostile external actors and thus provide platforms for hostile interventions.
The electoral success of the far right in Europe has increasingly legitimised their exclusionist narratives in media circles and, perhaps more dangerously, has led to the open adoption of many of their views by more ‘mainstream’ right wing thinkers/appeasers. There has also been a recent increase in attacks by such groups, from the notorious massacre by Anders Breivik in Norway to an increase in vandalism towards mosques and harassment of Muslims on streets.
In the US, anti-Muslim rhetoric has been openly used by politicians including some former US presidential candidates. All this activity is correlated with a dramatic increase in the numbers of supporters, funding and visibility for far-right causes, and is linked to greater cross-Atlantic co-operation between far-right groups. This cooperation takes the shape of intellectual exchange, direct financial support and joint misinformation projects.
We must not underestimate the capacity of these groups to exploit the multitude of overlapping crises facing Western societies by funneling populist frustration through this vehicle. In the age of globalisation, the West faces not only a panoply of interconnected global crises – financial instability; environmental degradation; food inflation; energy insecurity; state-failure; international terrorism – there is also an increased propensity for shocks and grievances in one sector to be swiftly transmitted to other sectors due to the power of global communications. Far-right extremists exploit these interconnections by providing simplistic explanations based on identity politics, scapegoating particular communities while obfuscating the real causes of social problems – and, more dangerously, offering a course of action that can potentially lead to mass violence
Our leaders should respond to this threat by actively building cross-Atlantic networks to facilitate co-operation among anti-extremist activist groups, media portals and policy makers. Europe can learn from the success of the US multicultural model, while the US can learn from the challenges Europe faces in integrating diaspora communities, with the ultimate aim of developing a new inclusive vision for a multi-ethnic Western polity.
The next 5-10 years are likely to see a disturbing consolidation of these groups into a political force with the potential to significantly influence and transform the political landscape. It is therefore critical that leaders amongst the transatlantic community begin taking this challenge more seriously. Politicians should seek to address the root causes driving disenfranchisement, while taking active efforts to purge extremist views from their discourse.
Equally, politicians should seek ways of criminalising some of the actions of these groups. More light needs to be shed on the financing of these networks and efforts need to be made to names and shame the individuals that finance their campaigns and actions. Finally, increased financial support is necessary for organisations combating such prejudices, while mainstream right wing parties must concertedly disavow extremist rhetoric and intensify outreach to minority communities.
Muddassar Ahmed is founder and the Chief Executive of Unitas Communications Ltd, a London based international communications agency. Cenk Sidar is the managing director of Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington-DC based strategic advisory and research firm. Sidar and Ahmed are both members of Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.