In the immediate aftermath of last week's white nationalist terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that took the lives of 49 people, the U.S. president minimized the scale of the problem, proclaiming that there is no systematic issue: “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
This, however, is exactly the kind of denial and deflection that the West had criticized so forcefully when it came from Sunni Arab countries after 9/11.
Ever since the early [aughts] 2000s, the U.S. and Europe have rightly pressed a number of Sunni Arab countries to crack down on the internal sources of Islamist terrorism, arguing that their inaction on domestic extremism was putting both their own societies and people around the world at risk. We emphasized, again and again, that only a determined focus on the preachers and financiers of terrorism could staunch the threat.
After yet another massacre apparently inspired by white nationalism, it is long past time for Western countries to reflect on whether they should act on the advice that they so freely handed out to others. It is our turn to deal with propagandists who radicalize online, as well as with those who fund them, or risk the lives of people around the country and the world.
We already know that this is a real and growing phenomenon. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, told Congress last year that, for the first time, the bureau is investigating as many homegrown far-right terrorist cases as Islamist ones. The Anti-Defamation League reported that every one of the 50 extremist related murders in the US in 2018 was linked to the far right.
White nationalism relies on a fundamentally genocidal belief in “the great replacement,” the central claim of which is that a non-existent "white race" is threatened by the arrival or socioeconomic rise of "others," usually defined as those of darker skin and/or a different — usually Muslim — faith. The threat is so great, white nationalists argue, that extreme violence against “the enemy” is not only justified but required, in order to wipe out what they see as the existential threat.
The sources of these poisonous ideas are no secret, given the number of violent acts already inspired by them. Dylann Roof acknowledged the influence of the alt-right’s Council of Conservative Citizens, as well as the activists Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor, for the “racial awakening” that led him to attack an evening Bible study at the Emmanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people and wounding three. Robert Bowers shared material from the group Christian Identity on social media before attacking the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11 people and wounding seven.
And in Europe, Jean Raspail — whose racist novel, "The Camp of the Saints," advocates massacring all immigrants at the border — has been repeatedly cited by former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon in discussing immigration. Among a myriad of rising white supremacist sentiment there, Generation Identity — whose slick videos document their harassment of migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean while being cheered on by Katie Hopkins in Britain’s best-selling Sun newspaper — stands out because its leadership has been linked to neo-Nazi violence in Europe.
But the ideas espoused by these groups are hardly marginal: Though most alt-right groups don't explicitly advocate violence, there exists a plethora of organizations dedicated to spreading hate-filled, racist, Islamophobic and white nationalist messages under the guise of politics, feeding into and feeding from the fringe groups that do.
How any of these far right organizations get money to continue their operations is more mysterious than their ideology — though some clues come from public filings and good investigative work.
In 2016, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the University of California at Berkeley listed 74 groups that had invested $206 million into Islamophobic projects from 2008 to 2013. These include ACT for America's "Radicalization Map Locator," a database of nearly every Muslim student association and mosque in the U.S. with no known links to violence, and Frank Gaffney's campaign to show that the U.S. government has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood (it has not). Ha’aretz exposed the Diller Foundation’s backing for a range of far right groups including Geert Wilders's Dutch anti-Muslim party. And the Center for American Progress’s Fear Inc. report mapped the sources of the $57 million invested into far right causes in 2011, including Pamela Geller's Stop Islamization of America and David Yerushalmi's campaign against Sharia Law in the U.S., both of promote the false notions that Islam is a threat to Western civilization and that that Obama Administration promoted Sharia.
While always respecting the civil liberties of even the most repellent propagandists and financiers of white nationalism, there is much more the U.S. and European governments must do to combat this ideology that has cost too many lives — from Norway, to Charleston, Charlottesville, Virginia, Oak Creek, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh in the U.S., and now Christchurch in New Zealand.
First, our governments and our leaders must explicitly acknowledge the abhorrent ideologies driving the attacks, as well as the pertinent racial and/or religious identity of the victims. Friday’s tweet from President Trump refers only to those who “senselessly died” without mentioning the plain and obvious fact that they were Muslims who were victims of right-wing terrorism. (The accompanying White House statement likewise failed to mention these facts.)
Second, our governments need to explain to citizens how dehumanizing political rhetoric isn't just a rejection of so-called "political correctness" but can lead to violence, and consistently, openly reject the propagandists and politicians who traffic in this language for political gain. The political project of many white nationalists is to get mainstream politicians to adopt their language and aspects of their views, and any politician who does so must be unequivocally denounced — particularly by his or her own party.
Third, the funding sources for white nationalist propaganda must be investigated, exposed and, where linked to criminal activity, prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Civil society and the private sector also have important responsibilities. After much delay — and thanks to consistent pressure from activists — online platforms, payment, security and hosting services have begun to refuse service to white nationalist, neo-Nazi and other groups that promote violence. This must continue, though there remains much work to do, especially on the part of social media platforms, which can so effectively target ads but can and must do more to minimize viewers' exposure to increasingly fringe propaganda.
Mainstream religious, social and political groups need to renew the fight against ideologies that threaten the safety of citizens around the world by reminding their co-religionists, supporters and members of our shared commitment to combat fascism and white supremacy in all its poisonous forms.
It is time to get our own houses in order, exposing the propagandists and funders of a vicious ideology, and investing in the police work and civil society activism needed to defeat them.