Five years ago, most analysts would have regarded far-right extremists as politically marginal and, as a terrorist threat, overshadowed by groups claiming to act in the name of Islam, such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Since then, far-right populists have made significant electoral gains in countries traditionally regarded as stable democracies, and acts of far-right violence have become more frequent and more deadly. While not on the scale of Islamist terrorism it is nonetheless a growing form of transnational violent extremism. Countering it will require a robust effort by both states and civil societies around the world.
New Zealand’s top police official said March 20 that Brenton Tarrant – the Australian national and Far-Right terrorist – who killed at least 50 people in two separate mosques in Christchurch, likely had plans to attack a third mosque. Police Commissioner Mike Bush revealed that authorities “absolutely” believe they stopped the suspect “on the way to a further attack.” Separately, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a “global call” to combat the “ideology” of racism. “If we want to make sure globally that we are a safe and tolerant and inclusive world we cannot think about this in terms of boundaries,” said Ardern.
In a 74-page manifesto, which Tarrant posted online before he went on the killing spree, the Far-Right militant expressed anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hatred. Tarrant focused heavily on stopping a “white genocide,” in which white supremacists claim that “Caucasians are slowly being killed off due to a combination of shifting social and political norms that encourage race-mixing and intermarriage. He also saw open immigration policies allowing non-Whites from less developed nations to enter and settle into the United States and Europe, and shifting demographics toward more racially and ethnically-diverse societies.” To understand how the attack came about, we need to recognize the socio-political forces animating far-right extremist movements.
Far-Right Populism and Extremist Narratives
In recent years, observers have noted a global rise in far-right populism, citing electoral gains in countries such as India, Philippines, Brazil, United States, United Kingdom, and at least 15 of the 27 European Union (EU) member states. Much of this far-right populism is driven by political actors exploiting perceived cultural and economic dislocation resulting from globalization, which often gets expressed in the form of anti-immigrant sentiment and racial anxieties.
In Europe and the United States, these sentiments and anxieties are largely driven by social and political changes stemming from demographic shifts toward increasingly ethnically and racially diverse populations. These shifts force societies to answer questions about civic identity, citizenship, and national belonging. Large segments of these societies are responding to the perceived moral panic associated with these discussions by supporting far-right political parties that define national identity along ethnic and racial lines.
Despite the increased moral panic associated with the surging far-right populism in Western democracies, many overt expressions of racism and bigotry remain socially unacceptable. Instead, xenophobia and racism are often communicated in coded, “dog-whistle” terms. For example, coded anti-Semitism will be expressed as “globalists” or denigrating specific high-profile individuals who happen to be Jewish, like George Soros, and direct attacks against immigrants or people of color are reframed in terms of “illegal immigrants” and alleged widespread welfare scamming.
An important exception to this observation is overt anti-Muslim hate. Islamophobia tends to be more mainstream than other forms of prejudice. With no sense of irony, these political actors often frame their bigotry as a defense of liberal values, portraying Islam and Muslims as wholly intolerant and narrow-minded outsiders. It is not uncommon to hear far-right politicians and activists propagating fears about Muslims plotting to overthrow Western governments and eventually erase European cultures through a “demographic jihad” and “Islamization” of Europe.
Attacks from extremists like al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their associated actors provide powerful validation for far-right anti-Muslim narratives. In turn, violent Islamists seek to exploit overreaction from the government and citizens, which can include anti-Muslim bigotry, as fodder for their recruitment efforts, creating a cycle of reciprocal radicalization. Since the New Zealand attack, for instance, ISIS-affiliated propaganda outlets have used spliced footage of Tarrant’s livestream of the shooting to incite retaliatory attacks. While details are still emerging, a mass shooting on a tram in Utrecht, Netherlands, may be an extremist responding to the call for revenge.
The end result of this “demographic jihad” is Le Grand Remplacement or “The Great Replacement,” which stokes fears of a white genocide in Europe specifically by Muslims from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa through mass migration and demographic growth. These explicit anti-Muslim narratives, along with other coded expressions of bigotry, are often echoed by far-right heads of state and other elected officials. In July 2017, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban combined overt anti-Muslim and xenophobic bigotry with coded anti-Semitism and racism when he claimed that George Soros was seeking a “new, mixed, Muslimized Europe.” In the same remarks, he reportedly asserted that “Hungary’s low birth rate made the country an ‘endangered species.’”
More recently, within hours after the New Zealand attacks, Australian Senator Fraser Anning stated, “The real cause of the bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” While some analysts have focused on Tarrant’s involvement in an online extremist “ecosystem,” it is important to remember that extremists behind digital devices live in real-world socio-political conditions that have equal, if not greater, effects on individuals. Widespread racism and prejudice long predate the internet. Tarrant lived in an offline social environment where far-right politicians and pundits worked consistently to normalize and mainstream bigotry against Muslims and other scapegoated groups of people.
Tarrant’s violent actions and his manifesto — also titled “The Great Replacement” — must be analyzed in this context. In it, Tarrant spoke at length about “white genocide,” immigration, and racial birth rates. He mentioned the word “genocide” in the context of white genocide at least five times, while the words “replace,” “replaced,” and “replacement” in the context of racial, ethnic, cultural and demographic continuity at least 37 times. “Birth,” “birthrate” and similar words were mentioned at least 23 times in the context of discussing demographics.
An Enduring Threat to Security and Democracy
Although white supremacy and far-right extremism are often thought to be “domestic” phenomena, they have long been transnational movements. Many of German Nazism’s ideas on anti-Semitism and white racial pseudo-science were influenced by publications from American figures in the early 1900s, such as Henry Ford and U.S. proponents of the eugenics movement. After the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, terrorist attack at an African American church, observers also noted how transnational white supremacist networks spread their extremist ideology, including the notion of white genocide, which directly influenced gunman Dylann Roof. The idea of white supremacy and far-right extremism as a transnational movement re-emerged in the public discourse after the New Zealand terrorist attacks when members of the press asked U.S. President Donald Trump if white nationalism is a rising threat to global security, an idea which he explicitly rejected.
The president’s comments contradict experts’ opinions and data provided by watchdog organizations. European security experts have recently pointed out that while far-right violence in the EU largely had been unorganized, the growth in far-right populism has established a political climate more socially accepting of violence and more conducive to organization. In the United States, Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism noted that far-right extremists were responsible for nearly three-fourths of all extremist-related fatalities in the past decade, including 49 out of 50 extremist-related fatalities in 2018.
While non-state violence will remain a growing concern to the public and policymakers, the bigger threat from far-right actors is their potential impact on democratic institutions. Far-right extremism threatens Western democracies based on sheer numbers that provide its supporters with chances for substantial electoral success. Upon assuming power, far-right political actors enact autocratic policies that scapegoat and discriminate against vulnerable communities, attack freedom of the press and undermine the rule of law. A 2018 report by the Varieties of Democracy Institute found that countries where far-right populists have gained recent national political power. These include Hungary, Poland, the United States, and Brazil, which have seen some of the greatest declines in democratic norms and institutions in decades.
Rolling back far-right extremism will require a muscular reassertion of democratic values and institutions domestically. Among other things, this includes supporting independent civil society organizations and media outlets, along with fighting to preserve checks and balances in government. It will also require elected officials, civil society, and members of the public speaking out against all forms of bigotry and discrimination. Given the recent political gains of far-right parties and the factors that enabled their rise, reversing the trend of increased violence and autocracy will be a long-term struggle.
Alejandro J. Beutel is an independent research scholar who focuses on the study of non-violent and violent far-right extremist and Islamist movements. He is a former Senior Research Analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center and a current Research Affiliate with the National Consortium for Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.