This month the former head of counter terrorism policing, Sir Mark Rowley, called for politicians, the media and the public not to underestimate the threat posed by far-right groups, highlighting as an example the step-change in organisation and sophistication represented by the proscribed National Action group. This is not about being alarmist, but we have to appreciate that the threat from right wing extremism is increasing across Europe.
He then went on; “I’m not going to say that it’s the same level of threat as the Islamist threat. From last year’s numbers for example, out of 14 plots stopped, 10 were Islamist, 4 were extreme right wing, so no pretence that it’s exactly the same order of magnitude, but it’s very significant and growing, and what I’ve seen over the last couple of years is a lack of recognition of that.” But the very fact that Sir Rowley went on to draw a comparison with the threat posed by Islamist extremism tells us a lot about the counter terrorism scene in the U.K.
The quest for a parity of response to right wing extremism against the backdrop of the perceived securitisation of the state’s relationships with Muslim communities post 9/11 has led to the situation where you cannot talk about one without the other. Senior police officers, civil servants and Ministers seem incapable of framing the threat profile around one form of extremism without inextricably linking it with the other. Much has been made of the reciprocal radicalisation phenomenon whereby members of Islamist groups radicalise members of right wing extremist groups and vice versa. I’ve always questioned this as it’s an oversimplification of what’s actually happening on the streets. When I was working within counter terrorism policing a colleague told me how he’d visited a Muslim male who had been imprisoned for terrorism offences and he asked him about the EDL; “they’re a joke” was the response. And likewise, when you speak to those turning out on the streets under the banner of the EDL, their biggest opponents aren’t the Islamists anymore, it’s the militant left-wing groups spoiling for a fight against the Nazis.
The threats posed by the various forms of extremism are not contingent upon one another. We must start talking about them on their own merits because otherwise we’ll persist with a bland one size fits all approach to counter terrorism. Furthermore, if we respond to Muslim communities’ concerns about the impact of counter terrorism policies by simply quoting how we’re also now responding to right wing extremism this does nothing to resolve the issues. Worse than this, it avoids them. Some of these community grievances are justified, some not, but these are the conversations that need to be had.
The U.K.’s Prevent Strategy was expanded in 2011 to explicitly cater for “all forms of extremism” with an emphasis on the right-wing variation. My research demonstrated that other than the significant increases in individuals assessed as being vulnerable to being drawn into right wing extremism being managed through the Channel programme with tailored intervention packages, it is difficult to see the development of bespoke counter narratives or community engagement framed around the right wing threat.
But the truth of it is that nowadays, its very difficult to talk about subjects like uncontrolled immigration or child sex exploitation without getting dragged into messy identity-politics laden vitriol which we politely refer to as polarised debate. In our post EU referendum utopia everyone is an extremist. Hold your breath, abandon any sense of objectivity and jump into Twitter, that swirling vortex of misery where once rational people now clutch to the fringes of a violently frothing swamp of online name-calling, bickering and despair. Anyone expressing a negative view of immigration there is immediately branded a racist Brexiteer in need of some form of intervention.
This only adds to the latent levels of fear that permeate our current discourse, a fear we must stop trading in for the creation of a binary and depressingly threatening world is exactly what those who have camped at the extremes want. As we have shifted from fact-based to emotion-based discourse it is becoming increasingly difficult to move the needle back.
The constant focus on the interplay between Islamist and the radical right is a distraction from the bigger and more difficult issues facing communities. People are forgetting how to talk to each other about the real problems; the erosion of community services, the cultural challenges posed by uncontrolled immigration, and the absence of an effective integration strategy. Its much easier to take to Twitter to blame the extremes of society within 140 characters while doing nothing positive to reclaim the centre ground.
The number of people ranging across the extremism spectrum who want to do us harm remains very small, despite what you might think from spending 5 minutes online. Yes, we should wake up to the threat posed by the radical right, not because it should stop us going about our lives freely and with confidence, but because it must be judged on its own merits.
Dr Craig McCann is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Principal at Moonshot CVE Ltd. His profile can be found here:
© Craig McCann. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).