Opinion: We Took On Religious Extremists. What Are The Lessons For Taking On Violent White Nationalists?

We've spent decades taking on violent extremism by far-right Islamists. The lessons should be applied to the threat of violent white nationalists.

The Christchurch massacre reminded us once again that pushing back against violent white supremacism, and the online radicalization that incubates it, is a major national security priority. But how do you do it? The obvious parallel for many is how we have addressed violent extremism by far-right Islamists — another case where misfits and bigots are inspired to commit unspeakable violence by a digital drumbeat of ideological poison.

One way this threat had been tackled is by trying to talk extremists from the far-right of the Islamist camp down from the ledge — to “de-radicalize” them using credible intermediaries. Nonviolent religious extremists, in this case, have been used to convince others that violence is not acceptable.

Should we be doing the same with violent white supremacists? Should authorities be reaching out to the "peaceful racists" of the alt-right, working with them to identify individuals at risk of turning violent and convincing them to lay down their weapons?

As someone who worked at the front lines of the effort to counter violent extremism — and was often a critic of its methods — I’d warn this is not a good model to replicate. What might have arguably worked as a tactic, on occasion, with far-right Islamist extremists will only make the problem of violent white nationalism worse.

In the years leading up to the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, some in the UK security services worked closely with certain Muslim groups connected to Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Salafi religious establishment. They managed, quite successfully, to pull some Western Muslims away from violent forms of extremism.

But that approach had a serious downside — one that has to be taken into account when we think about how to de-radicalize potentially violent white supremacists.

When the UK authorities worked with these Saudi-linked ultraconservatives, they ran the risk of legitimizing them as mainstream voices within the Muslim community. That was a serious mistake — not because they are violent, but because their approach to religion is considered aberrant by the vast majority of Muslim religious establishments worldwide. They also consider much of mainstream Islam itself to be deviant, and making them representatives of Muslim communities brings potentially serious social consequences for those communities.

What does this mean when dealing with violent white supremacists?

It’s hard to draw a direct analogy, because many white nationalist ideas are far more widely accepted in the West than ultraconservative Salafism is within Muslim communities. While the impact of Saudi-backed proselytization is evident worldwide, it remains a minority approach, albeit a noisy and well-funded one. This means the most promising approaches to countering the radicalization of Muslims have focused on mainstream Muslim voices.

When it comes to white nationalism, the ideology has been normalized — not over a few years or decades, but far beyond that. It thrives today in tropes about foreigners, Muslims, and other groups changing the social and demographic nature of Western countries. The so-called invasion of the United States by Latino immigrants is a mainstream conservative talking point, as is the idea that headscarves or halal butchers are a threat to the national character of France or Germany.

Versions of this thrive within our political establishment, our media, and even in our academic circles. It is why the UK's police counterterrorism chief wrote this week that “the reality is that every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others, and when they can’t find it on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram or Twitter they only have to turn on the TV, read the paper or go to one of a myriad of mainstream media websites struggling to compete with those platforms.”

In the case of a 2017 van attack against a group of Muslims leaving a mosque, the perpetrator was “driven to an act of terror by far right messaging he found mostly on mainstream media, not even having to plumb the depths of social media or the dark web,” he wrote.

The question today is how to confront that embedded white nationalism, and establish an inclusive discourse that leaves no one behind. And in this, our political leaders and our media have been woefully inadequate. Often, they will tack toward white nationalism for votes and clickbait. We have seen the results of that kind of rhetoric — rampant anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice in the mainstream, the rise of hate crime, and at the extreme end, the Christchurch massacre.

If we want to intervene and disrupt the process of far-right radicalization, it is going to come by attacking the foundational myths that it feeds on, and by asserting a civic form of political identity that can include all of us. Working with the mainstream, whether in Europe or the United States, will always be the best way to eliminate the violent extremists by extinguishing the ideas that inspire them — and replacing those ideas with far better ones.

That is a tall order, and it won’t be a popular one, even against the backdrop of the Christchurch massacre. But that is what leadership is all about — doing what is right, even when unpopular. And it is the only thing that has a chance of working.

H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK, as well as the Atlantic Council in the US.

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