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Myths of right-wing terrorism


THE new assumption in reporting of terrorism is that the attacker must be ‘right-wing’.

On Friday, news emerged of another disgusting mass shooting, more shocking for occurring in New Zealand where violent crime and internecine tensions are still low. The attacker’s and targets’ identities were clear because the attacker posted a manifesto, live-streamed his attack, specified Muslims as his victims, and chose two Islamic sites.

He was clearly anti-Muslim, but journalists decided that he was ‘right-wing’. BBC Radio 4 news used this event as evidence for a growth in right-wing terrorism, on top of an attack on an American synagogue last year. Hang on: anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic are different motivations. A religious position is not necessarily a political position. And why assume right-wing? Anti-Semitism tends to be left-wing, as Britain’s neo-Marxist labour Party and America’s newly socialist Democratic Party illustrate.

BBC Radio 4’s analytical programme PM promised to explain, but its only guest ‘expert’ was a BBC correspondent on online ‘trends’. He spoke airily about his impressions from an online forum where supposedly right-wing potential terrorists congregate. He said with superiority that some were clearly dispossessed or alienated. Lummy! Watch out, you parents of teenagers.

The Daily Mail had a long report on the ‘right-wing mosque shooter’ Brenton Tarrant, but this headline is contradicted by the report’s own evidence. The Mail quoted Tarrant’s manifesto, in which he identifies as the son of a ‘working class, low-income family’, a defender of the working class, ‘a communist, then an anarchist and finally a libertarian before coming to be an eco-fascist’.

His manifesto specifies ‘eco-fascism’ as closest to Chinese Communism. It denies he is anti-Semitic, Nazi, Christian, or supportive of Donald Trump. (Even two days later, Channel 4 News misquoted him as a supporter.) Tarrant answers his own direct question: ‘Were/are you a conservative? No, conservatism is corporatism in disguise, I want no part of it’. At length, he describes his main problem with conservatism as its betrayal of environmentalism. In answer to direct questions about being ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, he gives the same answer: ‘depending on the definition, sure’. The only other appearance of these terms is an expectation of these two poles tearing apart the US. Ironically, he repeatedly predicts that commentators would mischaracterise him despite his explicitness.

The manifesto is entitled ‘The Great Replacement’, subtitled ‘Towards a new society: we march ever forward’. Tarrant illustrated the cover with a wheel of objectives or aspirations, including ‘anti-imperialism’, ‘workers’ rights’, ‘environmentalism’ and ‘responsible markets’ at the top. These are clearly left-wing priorities.

The bits at the bottom of the wheel smack of the nativism and anti-globalisation of new left-wing populism: ‘protection of heritage and culture’, ‘ethnic autonomy’, ‘law and order’ and ‘addiction-free community’. These are the same ideals of the ‘yellow vest’ movement in Europe and Britain’s own Populist Party (sometime the Popular Alliance), which dates back to 2001 with an explicitly socialist manifesto.

Nevertheless, the Guardian described the manifesto as ‘neofascist’ because it aimed to terrorise Muslims. That’s a strange equation with an ideology whose clearest demographic targets were Jews, and which allied with Yugoslavian Muslims.

The BBC described the manifesto as ‘espousing violent right-wing ideology’, but offered no evidence. A BBC correspondent said that Tarrant’s identification with ‘European peoples’ against Muslim immigration is ‘a code for hatred or fear of Muslims’. Possibly, but that’s not proof he’s right-wing.

Why can’t British outlets be as accurate as the Washington Post? It described his ideology as ‘anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist’.

Brenton Tarrant identified with many anti-Muslim attackers (he painted their names on his weapons), without identifying them as right-wing. In the car to the attack he listened to a song celebrating Serbian paramilitaries. He claimed to avenge the victims of Jihadi terrorism, particularly a Swedish girl – one of four killed by a truck driven by a Jihadi Uzbek immigrant in 2017. This is evidence for vengeful cycles of terrorism, which I identified years ago when Anders Breivik, with whom Tarrant identified, was convicted for killing 77 in Norway. It is not evidence for ‘right-wing’.

In most years (we have data back to 1970), leftist terrorism outnumbers rightist terrorism. In the most recent year (2017) for which data have reached the public domain, exactly the same proportion (20.59 per cent) of terrorist attacks in the West were coded as ‘far right’ or ‘far left’. Both leftist and rightist terrorist attacks had become more frequent over the previous year. Rightist terrorism has accelerated quicker than leftist terrorism in recent years, but both have accelerated. One shouldn’t assume long-term trends in terrorism from short-term trends. Terrorism is highly volatile when measured year on year: a group can emerge one year, disappear the next. Groups typically don’t last beyond a few years. A surge in leftism in one year can provoke a surge in rightism in the next year, and vice versa.

Politics has little to do with newest terrorism, which is more ethnic and religious in its hates. Jihadis/Islamists account for more terrorism than any other identity: this is true at the global level, in the west, in Europe, and in Britain, even though Muslims are a minority. These are uncomfortable facts, but they don’t cease to be facts just because they are uncomfortable. To make sense of the observation, consider that most of the victims of terrorism are Muslims, because terrorists are likeliest in majority Muslim areas. In 2016, two-thirds of terrorist attacks globally were attributed to Jihadis. This fell to about half in 2017, but still a much greater proportion than the next identity. These proportions are of attacks. Jihadis account for an even greater proportion of fatalities. From 2005 through 2017, 117 people died in terrorism within the United Kingdom, of whom 82 per cent were killed by Jihadis; 2.5 per cent were killed by white extremists, but none of the latter was a member of a right-wing group.

So where does the myth of dominant right-wing terrorism come from? Surprise, surprise: it comes from left-wing groups. For example, in recent years the Southern Poverty Law Center re-roled itself as counter-terrorist, collected its own judgments, and misrerported two-thirds of US terrorism as right-wing.  The Anti-Defamation League misreported that both anti-Semitism and anti-Islam are fundamentally right-wing. Both organisations promiscuously coded non-terrorist mass murders as terrorist and the murderers as right-wing. Hey presto! Their approach is magic, not science.

In London, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue advertises its mission as counter-extremism based on ‘our belief’ that ‘it is the task of every generation to challenge such divisive, fascistic movements’. It defines any anti-Semitic, -Muslim, -feminist, or -gay expression as right-wing. It has a research manager for Far Right and Hate Crime, but no other category. More of its publications are titled against right-wing extremism than any other form. Its advisers include Tony Blair’s top civil servant appointee on terrorism, Jonathan Powell, who has written three books arguing unempirically that all terrorism ends by negotiation.

Its CEO was the only guest on Friday’s Channel 4 News, when she seconded the presenters’ and reporters’ characterisations of Tarrant’s attack as ‘right wing’. Then she suggested that it was an inevitable consequence of a ‘right wing’ trend; she complained that governments are neglecting this trend, then contradicted herself by praising the increased awareness behind record official referrals of right-wing extremists last year.

Fake science influences fake conservative governments that beg for left-wing approval. By 2018, Britain’s politicians were receiving official training highlighting right-wing terrorism but ignoring Jihadi terrorism. A long-standing problem with terrorism studies is politicisation. Reducing nuanced motivations to a political pole is both ignorant and polarising.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas Permian Basin. He is also the author of the anti-woke satire "The Dark Side of Sunshine" (Perseublishing, 2020).

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