October Issue 2018
The Rise of the Right
I distinctly remember the early morning of October 2, 2017. It was about 1:30 AM in New York City and I was watching a re-run of Bill Maher on HBO. My son hurried into my bedroom to announce what he had just seen on CNN: another shooting — this one at a concert in Las Vegas. My heart sank.
I was sure it was an act of terror. Another ‘Islamist’ act of terror.
But the mass shooting at the country music festival in Las Vegas, which killed 58 and injured nearly 500, was not an act of terrorism perpetrated by Islamic State (IS), or others of the jihadist ilk. For once, instead of analysing why Muslims are predisposed to mass murder, the coverage focused on the debate over gun control and the shooter’s life.
Fast forward four weeks: on October 31, an Uzbek plowed a rented pickup truck down a bike lane on Manhattan’s West Side, not far from where I live, mowing down pedestrians and cyclists. My daughter was at school, a stone’s throw away from the crime scene. Eight innocent lives were lost.
We learned that the attacker’s mobile phone contained videos of Islamic State propaganda. The coverage that followed, focused on IS, the pathology of the Muslim mind and the root cause of terrorism.
America today faces several strains of extremism, from IS-inspired lone wolves, to the digitally-organised Alternative Right, commonly known as the ‘Alt-Right.’ But a University of Alabama research paper published in June 2018 revealed that the ratio of attacks by Muslims — going by the headlines — as opposed to those carried out by others, is 105 to 15. Citing the study, The Guardian reported “Terror attacks by Muslims receive 357 per cent more press attention.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an international Jewish non-governmental organisation based in the United States, “The very real spectre of radical Islamic terror in the United States has existed alongside an equally serious threat of terror from right-wing extremist groups and individuals.” Yet, attacks by Muslims garner much more bad press.
American far-right extremists borrow heavily from French right-wing academics. And there are plenty of commonalities between American and European extremists — among these, a rejection of egalitarianism, democracy and human equality.
French philosopher Alain de Benoist, leader of the metapolitical school of thought and mind behind the European ‘New Right,’ is frequently quoted by the American Alt-Right. Benoist is opposed to free markets, neoliberalism, democracy and egalitarianism. He has written more than 50 books, including The Problem of Democracy and Beyond Human Rights.
French journalist and writer Guillaume Faye is also a rage among the American extremists. His books Archeofuturism – European visions of the post-catastrophic age; Why we Fight – a manifesto of the European resistance; and Convergence of Catastrophes, are top-rated among the Alt-Right.
However, unlike the Europeans, the American far-right girdles religious ideology and the fundamentalist interpretation of holy texts as justification for ultra-extremism. For example, Aryan Nations promotes the idea of racial superiority through the lens of religious text. The group states: “God’s creation of Adam marked the placing of the White Race upon this earth. Not all races descend from Adam. Adam is the father of the White Race only….We believe that the true, literal children of the Bible are the twelve tribes of Israel, now scattered throughout the world and now known as the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Teutonic, Scandinavian, Celtic peoples.”
To understand the growing extremist, Alt-Right movement, I caught up with Thomas J. Main, professor at the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, City University of New York. The Brookings Institution recently published Main’s book, The Rise of the Alt-Right.
Main asserts that “Alt-Rightism is in essence a political ideology rather than a movement, constituency, or interest group.“ This assertion is validated by several Alt-Right publications as well. Extreme white nationalist sites like Counter Current and Alt-Right talk about ‘metapolitics,’ a concept first coined by Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye. It is critical for these groups to change the way people think.
Main says: “The Alt-Right is far more radical and dangerous than the right-wing extremism of past decades. For it is the underlying ideology of the Alt-Right, rather than its controversial policy positions, that merits concern.” He believes the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia was one of the earliest manifestations of the movement. “The movement had hit the high-watermark,” Main says. The 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., who had previously espoused neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs, crashed his car into a crowd of people who had been peacefully protesting against the Unite the Right rally.
Charlottesville didn’t go so well for the Alt-Right. As soon as they moved out of the metapolitical, digital realm into the real world, the movement fizzled.
Investigative journalist David Neiwert’s book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right, argues that the ideology of the Alt-Right is mostly similar to that propagated by the Ku Klux Klan of the past, but he agrees with Main that the new radical right-wing groups have benefited from the internet and social media.
Main claims that “this new strain of reactionary thought goes beyond the garden-variety racial prejudice of yore – which certainly was bad enough – to a root-and-branch rejection of American political principles. The Alt-Right is a form of radical Gnosticism as fundamental in its rejection of the American democratic tradition as the Communist Party line of the 1930s and the most fevered effusions of New Left radicalism of the 1960s were.”
Arie Perliger, Associate Professor at the Department of Social Sciences, in the US Military Academy at West Point, has a different perspective. In his publication Challenges from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right, he concludes that “ideology and behaviour are linked and nurture each other in the organisational frameworks of the American violent far right.”
From a theoretical perspective, this constitutes a further indication of the perception among some parts of the academic community that terrorism is an instrument of symbolic discourse, which is shared by violent groups and their adversaries.
Extremism is not an Islamic or Christian phenomenon by definition, but the lion’s share of terrorist acts and the most devastating of them in recent years have been perpetrated in the name of religion. This fact has sparked a fundamental debate among academics regarding the link between extremism and the religious text.
Ibrahim Sajid Malick is a New York – based technologist, digital anthropologist, and writer.