I’ve met a lot of men like James Fields in mosques, underground indoctrination classes, and Middle Eastern battlefields. Fields, who is 20 years old, might have thought he was some sort of special ops soldier doing his duty for the white race when he allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of people in Charlottesville, Virginia, but al-Qaeda and ISIS are literally bursting at the seams with men just like him.
And I mean literally just like him: white, Western, from dysfunctional families with histories of violence and run-ins with the law. If you want an example look no further than Eric Glenn Harroun, a Colorado man who was prosecuted for fighting with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
But I’m not going to use the rest of this article to ask "what is wrong with white American culture?" Instead, I’m going to ask you to consider something bigger. Maybe it’s time to abandon the assumption that underpins a lot of Western security and foreign policy: that extremism is something that “they” bring to “us,” and that there is something special about Western culture that keeps such fanaticism at bay.
As a journalist in the mid-2000s, I covered extremists and their ideology and activities extensively. As the jihadi reaction to the US presence in Iraq reached a blood-soaked crescendo, I saw that the profile of the typical Western recruit had changed from a nerdy, politically driven ideologue of mostly Muslim heritage to a lost, dysfunctional, ruthless, and criminalized young convert.
On one reporting assignment, I found that al-Qaeda in Iraq — which eventually became ISIS — was targeting gang members in Europe for recruitment. Why? They thought gangsters had street smarts, resourcefulness, and an affinity for violence. Perhaps most tellingly, they saw these young recruits were more interested in finding a sense of belonging than they were in religious ideology.
After leaving journalism, I worked on British government counterextremism projects. Around 2007, I would typically see two or three "criminals going straight" types in every group of 10 followers of an extremist leader like Anjem Choudary, the hate preacher recently jailed for supporting ISIS.
By 2010, when I was trying to figure out how to counter the ideology of extremists — the challenge laid down by policymakers — it became clear from trials and ongoing investigations that nearly all those detained for their involvment in terrorism had histories of criminality, family breakdown, drug abuse, and other forms of dysfunction.
Fields fits the profile pretty neatly. News reports state his father died before he was born, leaving his disabled mother to raise him. Neighbors describe a quiet young man who mostly kept to himself. Records obtained by the press show his mother called the police several times alleging Fields — who had tried to enlist in the military but was rejected — had attacked her and threatened her with a knife.
Fields represents an American problem, just as British extremists – like ISIS executioner Jihadi John – represent a British one. I said this in a meeting once and drew immediate hostility. A lot of decision-makers, pundits and politicians find it reassuring to think that ISIS and al-Qaeda are a "Muslim problem," born of screwed up cultural priorities or religious views. Similar people once had similar views about Irish culture and Catholicism, back when the UK was the target of the Irish Republican Army.
The white supremacist message is just an unashamed, vocal expression of something a lot of those who wield power feel subconsciously. Something along the lines of Western culture is inherently logical, intellectual, collaborative, and organized. The "uncivilized" parts of the world are full of emotional, irrational, tribal people prone to violence.
Those old assumptions do not hold true. And this is a fact that needs to be digested across media and politics.
The conclusion I drew from a decade of reporting was that social, political, and economic issues act on people in a way that makes them susceptible to calls for radical, sometimes violent solutions. If you have the right circumstances, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes up with a compelling political narrative that convinces people to use violence to get what they want. Charlottesville has made that painfully clear.
The strength of al-Qaeda is not its logistics, training, or even ideology. The group has, over years of trial and error, developed a clever political proposition. Its followers are deeply frustrated people, and al-Qaeda articulates the causes of those frustrations, identifies an enemy responsible for them, and presents a viable-sounding solution.
Radicals across the world have pulled off a similar narrative feat, and Donald Trump has ridden on the back of an American version of the same formula, while also turbocharging it. Just like a Middle Eastern potentate, he has chosen to hitch his rhetoric to the ideas he feels "his people" are most likely to support, without worrying too much about the ramifications.
The comparison to the Arab world isn’t limited to Trump’s style of politics. Deeper similarities explain why extremist right-wing political rhetoric (a designation that also works for the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS) is gaining traction in the first place. People in the US and the UK are facing very similar experiences to those their counterparts in the Middle East have been dealing with since at least the 1980s. Society has become much more unequal. The traditional middle class has either become very rich or much, much poorer — with the vast majority ending up in the latter category.
When I first went to Cairo as a student in the late 1990s, we used to pity Egyptian friends for having to live with parents long after graduation. This is now a common occurrence for Brits and Americans in their twenties. The big change for people in the Arab world was that the information revolution made it clear to them that their living standards had dropped dramatically in relation to countries they felt were similar in terms of economic development. The same revolution then made it possible for insurgent political forces like al-Qaeda to spread their "solutions."
The American version of this has been stagnant or declining incomes and living standards, increased income inequality, and the realization that the US was facing competition on the global stage from rising world powers. It has many feeling frustrated and looking for someone to blame.
As political violence carried out in the name of Muslim superiority came to public attention in recent decades, bigots and racists used the phenomenon as proof of their theories on Mulim culture. Not everyone subscribed to this, but the racists managed to shift what was considered acceptable public discussion far to the right. As a result, political leaders in the US and the UK were able to lean on the lazy assumption that extremism is specific to "overly religious" or "underdeveloped" cultures and societies.
This line of thinking led to policies that have failed us miserably. The idea that extremism is a Muslim problem, not a universal issue dependent on circumstances, encouraged decision-makers to see fighting terrorism and influencing Muslims’ religious views as part and parcel of the same challenge.
If the same approach had been used in response to the atrocities of white supremacist terrorists like Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway, or the rise of white extremist groups in the US, what issues could we expect to see discussed on talk shows and by politicians? Can the GOP be considered — as the Muslim Brotherhood has been — a "conveyor belt" to extremism? Should young boys who exhibit a little too much knowledge about historical military exploits be referred to the authorities?
It seems ridiculous to think that killers like Breivik or Dylann Roof, or ideologues like Richard Spencer, somehow represent the entirety of white Western culture (which itself sounds ridiculous as a phrase). Isn’t it equally ridiculous to think of other huge swathes of humanity in the same way?
Now is the time to make the case forcefully that extremism — whether it is in support of a global ISIS-ruled caliphate or white superiority in the US — is a product of social, economic, and political factors rather than an errant, viral ideology. Counterextremism should be wrested back from ideologues who care more about their pet agendas than effectively stopping violence and preventing social upheaval.
There is nothing superior about Western, American, British, or Muslim culture. Having a stable society that promotes prosperity and justice isn’t an automatic function of your DNA or your ability to adhere to religious dogma. It is achieved through compromise, tolerance, and vision — and luck. When you have it, you need to hold on to it. Assuming it’s a birthright or a divine reward is probably the easiest way to miss what makes it function, take it for granted and, ultimately, destroy it.
For my part, I have decided that my time is best spent working to build stable communities, countries, and societies grounded in social justice and the rule of law. This is what I work on now. If we can make headway on these issues, extremist political forces seeking to mobilize through hate, fear, and frustration will fail to find more Orlando shooters, marathon bombers or American Nazis.