In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005), many Western governments developed countering violent extremism (CVE) strategies, with the UK’s PREVENT scheme, launched in 2007, being considered the world’s first of this kind. What these CVE programs (more recently “prevention” was added turning the initialism into P/CVE) had in common is their focus on jihadist-inspired extremism and their claimed focus on preventing violence rather than policing “extreme” religious or political beliefs.
The Complex Role of Racism Within the Radical Right
CVE measures have been criticized for many reasons, but the declared emphasis on preventing political violence has been crucial and justified: The only significant threat that “Islamist” extremism can pose to Western societies has been violence. However, this article is not about jihadist-inspired violent extremism. Instead, as national policymakers subsequently sought to apply their CVE strategies to the rising threat of right-wing extremism, multifaceted threats of far-right movements and challenges have emerged.
No Thought Police
When in the mid-2010s the far-right threat could no longer be ignored, Western governments expanded their CVE programs to respond to the new threat environment. This response was guided by the conviction of convergences between different forms of extremism and governments’ intentions to avoid accusations of double standards.
However, applying such an ideologically neutral lens has hampered a holistic threat assessment and the development of effective prevention and intervention measures. In particular, the adoption of preexisting CVE terminologies, principles and programs to counter the far right has created blind spots by focusing mainly on violent extremism.
The unprecedented risk of far-right terrorism and political violence cannot be overstated, but how can we move toward a broader threat assessment beyond the focus on violence, which characterizes current P/CVE strategies in several countries, including Australia? Australia’s national CVE program, Living Safe Together, for example, was set up to prevent and counter violent extremism, defined as a person’s or group’s willingness “to use violence” or “advocate the use of violence by others to achieve a political, ideological or religious goal.” Similarly, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation recently emphasized that it “does not investigate people solely because of their political views.”
From a law enforcement perspective, focusing on violent (or otherwise criminal) acts appears appropriate in a democratic society where dissenting, even radical, political ideas should not be unduly curtailed or criminalized. However, the line between political views and advocating violence is often difficult to draw. This poses a challenge for combating (violent) extremism of any kind, not only but especially on the far-right of the political spectrum where violence against the “enemy” is often an integral element of the political ideologies.
Research on far-right online spaces, from Facebook and Twitter to alt-tech sites such as Gab, consistently finds not only occasional calls for violence, but also high levels of What Pete Simi and Steven Windisch refer to as “violent talk” — messaging that cultivates, normalizes and reinforce hatred, dehumanization and aggressive hostility toward minority groups and the “political enemy.”
While stressing the “important distinction between talking and doing,” Simi and Windisch argue that “Violent talk helps enculturate individuals through socialization processes by communicating values and norms. In turn, these values and norms are part of a process where in-group and out-group boundaries are established, potential targets for violence are identified and dehumanized, violent tactics are shared, and violent individuals and groups are designated as sacred…. In short, violent talk clearly plays an important role in terms of fomenting actual violence.”
Identifying calls for violence linked to real-life plans to commit violent acts and violent talk that advocates violence is both challenging and crucial. However, the focus on violence in countering the far right tends to overlook other threats that are specific to radical or extreme right-wing movements.
The 2019 terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, by an Australian far-right extremist sent shock waves around the world, but it has had particularly severe and lasting effects on the sense of physical safety among Muslim communities, especially in New Zealand and Australia. For many, it has been a painful reminder that anti-Muslim hatred can lead to violence.
When asked about far-right activities in Australia, Adel Salman, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, stated: “Muslims feel threatened. We don’t have to look back to the very tragic events in Christchurch to see what the results of that hatred can be.” A recent large-scale survey among Australian Muslims confirms these community fears, with 93% of respondents expressing concerns about right-wing terrorism.
While Australia has seen incidents of far-right violence in the past, none of these acts have ever been classified as terrorism. However, the reemergence of radical and extreme right-wing groups and their actions in the 2020s, while mostly non-violent, has nevertheless given rise to significant safety concerns among communities targeted by the far right. This has had tangible effects on these communities.
Our research found, for example, that far-right mobilization against a mosque in a regional town of Victoria fueled fear of personal safety among the Muslim communities. Many felt so intimidated that they would no longer leave the house alone or after dark; some even questioned their future in Australia.
Similar public safety concerns exist among many targeted communities. For example, after a series of anti-Semitic incidents, including verbal abuse and swastika symbols displayed near a synagogue, a representative of the Jewish community in Canberra stated in a 2017 New York Times interview that “For the first time in my life, I don’t feel safe in Australia. I have little children who don’t feel safe playing outside.”
Such community concerns around public safety are not caused by violence or advocating violence by far-right networks but by public expressions — such as online, graffiti or postering — of exclusivist views of white supremacy, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism or homo- and transphobia. These community perspectives have hardly been taken into account in the current violence-centered threat assessment of right-wing extremism and radicalism.
When representatives of communities targeted by far-right mobilization speak about these threats, they often do not clearly differentiate between manifestations of hatred such as racism, anti-Semitism or homophobia and deliberate political actions of far-right groups or individuals. For their lived experience, it seems to make little difference as to whether the abuse or threat is perpetrated by someone who is affiliated with a far-right network or not.
When I interviewed an LGBTIQ+ community representative for a study on far-right local dynamics, for example, she noted experiences of transphobic abuse in the streets and that many in her community would avoid certain public places for fear of being subjected to such aggression. Although the locally active white nationalist group was described as holding particularly aggressive homophobic and transphobic views, the problem was portrayed as a societal one — it was not about the political ideology but the public climate of exclusion and intimidation.
This points to a second underappreciated factor in the current far-right threat assessment: its potential to mainstream exclusivist, hateful and dehumanizing sentiments. A literature review on extremism and community resilience concluded that far-right movements “exert disproportioned levels of agenda-setting power as they manage to attract high media attention through their message of fear and anger.” Christopher Bail referred to this as the “fringe effect” in his study of anti-Muslim fringe organizations in the US that, he suggests, “not only permeated the mainstream but also forged vast social networks that consolidated their capacity to create cultural change.”
The potential to spread exclusivist, hateful messages from the fringes into the societal mainstream needs to be considered when assessing far-right threats, even when there is no use or advocacy of violence. The risk of promoting exclusivist sentiments toward minority communities and fueling social division poses a significant threat to a pluralistic society, especially given that significant segments of the population already hold negative views on certain groups and may, under certain conditions, be receptive to some of these narratives pushed by the far right.
Undermining Democratic Norms
Strengthening commitment to democratic values has been a central piece in some national governments’ strategies to combat right-wing extremism. However, such an emphasis tends to be absent or underdeveloped in national contexts where countering extremism focuses on political violence. Here, the problem of far-right mobilization undermining democratic norms and processes is not a common feature in the public debate.
If it is mentioned at all, it is presented as a process of advocating ideologies that contradict liberal democratic principles of equality. Researchers have argued, for example, that far-right discourses tend to “challenge the fundamentals of pluralist liberal democracy through exclusivist appeals to race, ethnicity, nation, and gender.”
But far-right actions may also be able to influence democratic decision-making processes. When far-right groups held a series of disruptive street protests against a local mosque application in an Australian suburb, our fieldwork suggests that these protests may have influenced the local council’s decision on the mosque planning permit. The council deferred the case to avoid making a “contentious” decision, as one study participant maintained, adding that a small group of far-right protesters sought to “intimidate” councilors to vote against the mosque.
Another community representative interviewed for our study explained the council’s deferral with a reference to the previous far-right street protests: “You wouldn’t want to say yes [to the mosque application], because that’s when the trouble would start again.” The far-right protesters did not engage in a legitimate form of democratic deliberation about the local mosque; instead, their actions seemed to undermine the democratic process by creating a climate of intimidation.
Beyond Political Violence
The threats that far-right movements can pose to liberal democratic societies are complex and manifold, and they certainly include the risk of political violence and hate crimes. But the potential of the far right to cause serious harm to communities and the democratic order goes beyond the use or advocacy of violence.
Strategies to prevent and combat right-wing extremism need to acknowledge this complexity. A focus on terrorist acts and violence makes sense in the context of combating jihadist-inspired violent extremism, which has never had the capacity to threaten the stability of democratic principles and institutions, to spread its ideologies into the societal mainstream or to create widespread concerns around safety so that people were too scared to leave their homes.
Without downplaying the threats of any form of violent extremism, there is a need for more nuanced and holistic approaches to assess, prevent and counter right-wing extremism. This would require us to take into account the capacity of far-right mobilization to create fear in many parts of our communities, spread divisive and socially harmful ideologies, and undermine the legitimacy of democratic norms and institutions. There are no quick fixes, and this article is not the place to propose a comprehensive strategy.
What is clear, though, is that the answer does not lie in the repression or criminalization of dissenting, radical political views. Instead, preventing and countering the far right should pay more attention to the concerns of targeted communities and take action to support and empower these communities. This is also related to the need for effective anti-racism and anti-homo/transphobia programs, which have been central components of government strategies to prevent the proliferation of right-wing extremism in several Western countries.
Our efforts against far-right ideologies is also a struggle for democracy — a struggle US President Joe Biden recently called “the defining challenge of our time.” Given the prevalence of far-right assaults on democratic principles and institutions, strengthening citizens’ commitment to democracy and human rights should be considered a key element in a holistic strategy to counter the far right. This would require a much stronger role of civil society actors in this commitment for a democratic culture as well as a more place-based focus on supporting local pro-democracy community initiatives.
None of these considerations are new. They have all been tried and tested in other countries, such as Germany, where the comprehensive federal program Live Democracy! forms a crucial element in the government’s commitment to combating right-wing extremism. Every national context is different, of course, but far-right threats go beyond political violence in all societies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.