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21 February 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 9:16pm

To defeat far-right terrorism, we must counter the ideas behind it

In Germany, and across the West, attackers are motivated by tropes of white genocide, elite conspiracies, and Jewish or Muslim plots. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

Nine people died on Wednesday night when a gunman attacked two shisha bars in Hanau, near Frankfurt, in Germany. All of the victims had migrant roots – mostly Turkish – as did most of the five injured. The 43-year-old suspect, Tobias Rathjen, was found dead, having seemingly killed his mother too, at his flat shortly after the attack. Demonstrating what German authorities have called a “deeply racist mindset”, he appears to have been the author of a 24-page “manifesto” littered with conspiracy theories and genocidal hatred, proposing among other things the annihilation of a long list of countries in Africa and Asia.

The attack is the latest in a wave of terrorism motivated by far-right ideology, a list including the massacre at Utøya and Oslo in 2011, the Charlottesville car attack in the US in 2017, shootings at a supermarket in El Paso, Texas, and a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year. In Germany there have been several far-right attacks in the past twelve months alone. In a speech yesterday, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s president, recalled the murder last June of Walter Lübke, a local politician who had supported Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, and the attack last October on a synagogue in Halle, at which only a recently installed high-security door prevented a bloodbath.

It is not hard to see a pattern in the ideology of the perpetrators. Tropes of white genocide, white replacement theory, elite conspiracies, race war, anti-feminism and Jewish or Muslim plots recur again and again in the racist utterances and writings of the attackers. They belong to a common ecosystem of extreme, hate-filled ideas. The Halle and Christchurch perpetrators, for example, both seemed to have picked up memes and talking points from far-right internet chat rooms. The Hanau suspect’s text was more esoteric and, unlike others, did not reference previous attacks. But it echoed conspiracist, far-right discourse in America: the rambling manifesto includes a call for a border wall with Mexico and alleges that the CIA uses mind-control.

This pattern of ideological motivation is sometimes overlooked in the aftermath of such attacks. Responsible reporting focuses primarily on the victims rather than giving the attacker the gratification of publicity. But where an attacker is written about, the language can be unhelpful. “Lone wolf” may be an accurate description of logistical autonomy (an attack planned and executed without outside help) but can falsely imply ideological autonomy (the notion that the attacker was not motivated by others’ ideas). Calling an act “an attack on us all”, as the Hanau shooting has been termed, is a well-meant call for unity but can downplay the targeted racism behind such attacks on minorities. And terming racism a “poison”, as Merkel did yesterday, is absolutely correct – but out of context can imply that racism is a force of nature rather than a worldview to be fought.

Prominent voices on the political far-right are only too willing to encourage any blurring away of the far-right ideas behind the violence: “This is neither right- nor left-wing terror but the mad act of a crazed man,” tweeted Jörg Meuthen, the federal spokesman of the nationalist-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) yesterday. In many cases, including this one, the attacker does indeed appear to be deranged. But as the German terrorism expert Peter Neumann has pointed out, derangement and ideological motivation are by no means mutually exclusive.

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It is worth comparing this with the reactions to Islamist violence. In the aftermath of terror attacks such as those in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Manchester attention has (rightly) been directed at the ideological eco-system from which they have emerged; at the process of attackers’ radicalisation, at the mosques and madrassas attended, at the trips made to the Middle East or North Africa, at the chat rooms used. The result has been a growing consensus that it is not enough to combat the security threat from Islamist extremism, that societies need also to confront the extreme ideas, even when they take non-violent forms. “Security measures measures are necessary, but we are spending billions and billions of dollars in security measures,” Tony Blair told the New Statesman last month: “In the end you’ve got to destroy the ideas.”

That is as true of far-right terrorism as it is of Islamist terrorism. Anti-Semitic tropes, misogyny, racist conspiracy theories and the like exist not just in the minds of far-right terrorists but in those of a much larger body of people willing to promote and share them; indeed, in a somewhat milder form they can even be tolerated in parts of the political mainstream.

A report last year by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue noted that “white replacement theory” – the baseless notion, cited by the Christchurch attacker, that migration and differential birth rates are wiping out white Western populations – has grown in prominence on social media in recent years. The report attributes this to the term’s explicit propagation by frontline politicians such as H.C. Strache in Austria, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen in France and the AfD’s Björn Höcke in Germany, and to racist references to an “invasion” of migrants by leaders such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán. There is ample evidence of Western mainstreams turning a blind eye to or tolerating such poisonous ideas. 

Take Germany, for example, where the armed forces have long been accused of doing too little to root out right-wing extremists in their ranks, where earlier this month centrist parties almost established a state government reliant on AfD backing and where, as the Die Zeit journalist Christian Bangel wrote of the ideas behind the Halle attack: “They are ideas which, in a slightly less strident form, are also discussed on talk shows by some who identify as conservatives.” And all this in a country that by international comparison is particularly wary of and sensitive to the slippery slope from poisonous ideas to poisonous acts.

The long-term answer to extreme-right violence and terror, then, is the same as the long-term answer to extreme Islamist violence and terror: better security, yes, but also an uncompromising culture of calling out, confronting and defeating the ideas that spark the attacks. It is temptingly simple to reduce horrors like the shootings in Hanau to guns and evil, a case of stopping bad guys before they do bad things. But the broader task falls not just on counter-terrorism squads but on politicians, journalists, social media platforms, teachers, civic leaders and, indeed, ordinary citizens. That task: stopping the bad ideas.