How polar extremisms fuel and support each other

Originally Published by Open Democracy: 4 September 2014. Original linked here.

Groups hold similar roots of discontent, such as poverty, discrimination and the sense of values under threat, but manifest these sentiments in an array of diverse extremist ideologies with highly varied targeted ‘Others’.

We are witnessing a polarising effect in certain European countries where far-right discourse is being co-opted into broader political platforms, and in effect, further developing incentives and propaganda that foster other extremist outlets, such as Islamist extremism. France and the UK are two leading examples of this worrying trend as far-right parties and Islamist extremist groups currently seem to be expanding their reach into mainstream discourse.

In Britain it is increasingly difficult to differentiate far-right and conservative strands of politics as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has gone from strength to strength on anti-immigration and Eurosceptic platforms. Many are still unclear of how to label UKIP on the political spectrum, not going as far as extremist parties like the EDL or BNP, yet certainly not fitting into any centrist category.

France has witnessed a more steadfast stream of support for the National Front party, now rejuvenating as the party’s original figurehead, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has passed the chairman baton to his daughter, Marine Le Pen. Since taking her leading position in 2011, Marine Le Pen has worked diligently to blur and co-opt National Front language to toe the line of extremism and broaden far-right support networks.

In seeming opposition to these trends, we are also facing the heightened concern about Islamist radicalisation and extremism proliferating across Europe. It is estimated that around 3,000 Europeans have already left to fight in Syria and Iraq, many joining the forces of terrorist organisation, Islamic State (IS). Large portions of these foreign fighters are also coming from France and the UK. While this polarising trend is not concretely indicative of causality, the existence of strong far-right rhetoric and action serves as ammunition for Islamist extremist propagandists who utilise anti-Muslim actions to justify anti-western ideologies.

The definition and re-definition of the ‘Other’

While polar spectrums of extremes develop and grow, extremist groups are forced to give a face to their discontents. ‘Extremism’ is a highly malleable and ever-changing concept based on the social, cultural and political understandings (or misunderstandings) of a time period. As such, extremist groups, whether we are discussing far-right or Islamist extremists, are defined by the ‘now’, by the local, national and international discontents of our time, regardless of any allusions to the past. The aims, targets and victims of extremist groups are also ever changing; constantly redefining perceived threats according to those who these groups define as the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’ or the ‘foreigner’.

This radicalisation can occur across the political and ideological spectrum, and this constantly evolving and varied extremist rhetoric is ever present in Europe today. We are witnessing groups that hold similar roots of discontent, such as poverty, discrimination and the sense of values under threat, but manifest these sentiments in an array of diverse extremist ideologies with highly varied targeted ‘others’.

Looking again at the UK and France as primary cases we can see these high levels of variance in how extremist groups define themselves by what they oppose. In the UK, far-right groups alight mainly on the narrative that the poor economy and difficult job market is caused externally by the EU and internally by immigrants. From this point of view, on the one hand the European Union laws drain UK funds to give to needier countries and on the other hand immigrants who come into the UK, largely Eastern Europeans and Muslims, are taking jobs from British citizens while depleting the UK of its ‘British values’.

As a result, British Muslims in particular have been targeted. Current events and media also play a large role in the perceptions of targeted ‘others’. In recent years the brutal murder of Lee Rigby by two Islamist extremists as well as more recent events in Syria have resulted in increased verbal and physical attacks on British Muslim citizens, as seen by recent figures coming out from the advocacy group Tell Mama. Anti-Muslim attacks by far-right perpetrators are in turn playing into Islamist extremist rhetoric about ‘the West violently oppressing Muslims’ – feeding the back-and-forth between opposing extremist constituencies, and playing into one another’s propaganda.

France is a slightly different case. While the National Front and other far-right groups in France also voice similar aggravations about the EU and immigrant populations, we are witnessing cases of far-right activists and certain Islamist extremist groups uniting in protests, finding common ground in homophobia and anti-Semitism. In essence, conservative ‘French values’, with regards to the preservation of the family and intolerance of ‘deviancy’, are discovered to be compatible with conservative Islamist extremist value sets. Recent media depictions of Israel and Gaza have also heightened anti-Semitic tensions in France, resulting in a wave of verbal and violent attacks on Jewish communities.

Countering extremism

In times when extremist rhetoric and ideologies seep into the mainstream it is crucial that we protect and uphold a healthy marketplace of ideas. While exterminating extremism entirely is unlikely, a strong democratic society will always only have a marginal and largely powerless extremist population, existing on the peripheries of acceptable thought and behaviour. However, the more extremist rhetoric is catered to sympathetically by the moderate majority and allowed a platform to propagandise, the more we are in danger of facilitating the spread of extremist ideologies. We should be wary of giving undue space on mainstream platforms to voices that are not representative of democratic values, equality and upholding human rights.

That said, censoring unwanted ideologies has never, and will never, be the way forward in the fightback. Not only does this constitute an undemocratic form of thought suppression, but it also often fuels extremist groups, justifying their definitions of ‘us versus them’. Thus, critical engagement is essential. The moderate majority should never feel silenced in the face of the extremist minority and as such should openly challenge extremist claims that provoke hatred, segregation and xenophobia.

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