Anthropologist Scott Atran writes that recent events suggest that we are witnessing an escalating cycle of tit-for-tact violence in which Islamic extremists and white nationalists are engaged in a global competition to inflict death and destruction in an attempt to trigger an all-out race war that they think will benefit their own side.
These two violent ideologies are not separate, but work in tandem, hammering away at the political order, which is increasingly vulnerable for a number of reasons. In reaction to last month’s massacre at mosques in Christchurch, Isis spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir called for Muslims “to avenge their religion” anywhere and everywhere. And that, according to a video posted this week under the Isis banner, was precisely the “bloody reward” meted out to worshippers and tourists in Sri Lanka.
Far-right terrorism has increasingly co-opted key jihadist precepts and tactics (although it tends to involve lone actors linked mainly through social media). In 2007, the supremacist group Aryan Nations proclaimed an “Aryan jihad” to destroy the “Judaic-tyrannical” system of “so-called western democratic states”. Dylann Roof, who in 2015 killed nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina, made his own link. Responding to a court examiner, he said he was “like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people … the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret”. As a prelude to the Christchurch attack, the suspect posted a manifesto citing Roof and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed scores of leftist youth in 2011, as inspirations. It adopts a version of the jihadists’ reasoning to justify mass killing as moral virtue: appealing to a transnational brotherhood in a clash of civilisations that pits one global identity (the white race) against another (Islam) in a fight to the death for survival, with no place for bystanders or fence-sitters.
The world’s postwar trend toward greater tolerance and less violence relative to the past – including democracy’s spread to a majority of the world’s nations – risks being thrown into reverse, spurred by varieties of transnational terrorism that provoke and intensify one another. Constraining these radical forces demands more than countering their violent expression. Maintaining a more tolerant, less violent world requires dealing squarely with the underlying causes of these emerging forces. Chief among these is the failure of the global market economy to sustain cultures and communities that provide identity, meaning and purpose in life even when people’s material conditions are wanting. Terrorism is one response to this failure; the rise of authoritarian regimes that give a parochial sense of community is another. The complex and onerous task of liberal societies is to make the space for a third.
This cycle is of course playing out within the confines of the US itself, with the Jewish community being targeted by both sides. Just yesterday, soon after the attack on the synagogue in San Diego apparently by a young white nationalist that left one person dead and three injured and who had claimed that he had set fire to a mosque earlier, authorities arrested a military veteran, a convert to Islam, who had been planning a major attack on “Jewish people, churches, and law enforcement” in order to “seek retribution for attacks against Muslims”.
As Atran says, what seems to be driving both sides is a desire to trigger a race war of some kind, in the deranged belief that it will force people to abandon the middle and choose one side or the other. The form that this ‘war’ will take is not with large organized groups but with individuals and smaller groups taking violent action and then boasting about doing so and either streaming the events live or posting manifestos even before taking action in the hope that this will ‘inspire’ others to take similar actions. So this ‘war’ is seen as the result of creating a critical mass of incidents leading to a more-or-less spontaneous and widespread conflict.
These people are no longer operating in the shadows but are openly identifying themselves and proclaiming their intentions on unmoderated internet forums like 8chan, that seems to have become the go to place (at least in the US) for such views. These sites downplay their extremist rhetoric by claiming that the calls to violence are a form of ironic humor and that they are doing it for the ‘lulz’, thus normalizing rhetoric that would have once been considered beyond the pale and resulted in the user being ostracized. Now they get praised as ‘edgy’ and even ‘brave’ by others on those sites who egg them on to carry out their boastful threats. The killers are urged to ‘get a high score’ (i.e., large number of fatalities) reinforcing the game-like attitude to death. They are appealing to others who feel they are outside the mainstream, including religious skeptics, in their battle against political correctness and social justice campaigners whom they feel are restricting their freedoms to act and speak as they wish.
Jonathan Metzl had his presentation on his book disrupted by a group of about ten people. His book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland. He said they stood in front and chanted their white nationalist message with a bullhorn before leaving. He said that it was remarkable that they made no attempt to hide their faces.
When these protesters came in I was talking about how much stronger America is when it’s confident and open and welcoming. I was sharing the story of how my dad and my grandparents escaped Austria during the Holocaust. They got into the United States and were basically sheltered by a very brave family who became their official hosts. I was pointing at one of the members of that family who is now 80 years old. I was talking about him and how it was such an honor for me that he came to my presentation. Their taking in my family was a risk. There was plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country at the time.
There is another irony at work in that moment on Saturday with the Nazis. My book, in a way, agrees with the premise of their protest. So these guys were coming in and they were saying white Americans are getting screwed. And my book is really saying that white Americans are in fact getting screwed. But the difference is that white Americans are not getting screwed by immigrants or by minorities. They’re getting screwed by politicians and a type of capitalism that is undercutting infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools and health care. Money is being taken away from working-class people across the board and being given in the form of tax cuts to wealthy people and corporations. As my book explains these policies are literally killing white people in red-state America.
Trump has been dangling this whiteness narrative in front of particularly conservative Jews. Jews themselves are being divided by race in the United States depending on how they feel about President Trump. I often wonder, how could the Jews that I know and I grew up with be down with all these things that Trump is doing and saying right now? There is a division about red vs blue Jews right now, but that’s a distinction which of course does not matter to white supremacists. We’re all Jews as far as they’re concerned. So in that sense, this is very familiar territory for us as a people.
We bond together in times of crisis, around the shooting in California at the Poway synagogue and other incidents. Shared victimhood and solidarity have been the Jewish experience. Hopefully we can rekindle Jewish solidarity, as we did with groups like the NAACP in the ’50s and ’60s during the civil rights movement. I’m hoping that new alliances will come out of this moment under Trump.
There are so many strong, powerful coalitions in this country that do not espouse the kind of views that we’re seeing right now against immigrants, Muslims, Jews, nonwhites and other groups. But of course, history teaches us that small contingents, small factions of extremists can exert a lot of horrible power in a society.
We can create an alliance that’s much stronger than these Nazis and other right-wing bigots will ever be. Yes, white supremacy is ascendant in America with Donald Trump. Yes, the president of the United States is sending both overt and implicit messages to say that certain heretofore unacceptable acts and public speech and values in America are now permissible. What are we going to do about it? One answer is to try to convince people that white nationalism is real. But that fact is pretty obvious and hard to deny right now.
But the other option is to articulate a different framework and vision for America. What is the vision that we are going to replace that racist version of America with? We need more white people articulating a different version and understanding of what it means to be white, one that is not based on racism or racial resentment.
Let’s hope that Metzl is right. There is a dire need for that kind of solidarity by people and groups who oppose racism and bigotry, not just in the US but around the world. Those who would seek to use differences to sow hatred and death are currently relatively few in number but are capable of causing much damage and should not be ignored.