Radical-right radicalization appears to be focused on global and increasingly existential scenarios rather than on domestic or national issues.
Radical-right radicalization has quickly moved from being a fringe domestic phenomenon to a mainstream global movement. The radical right, albeit always internationally connected and aligned across individual states, has over the last decade moved to increasingly intertangled structures, not only in terms of technical platforms of communication but, more importantly, in terms of subjects and objectives. This shift represents a succinct case in point for the application of methods in international relations (IR), highlighting an important aspect of interactions within the international system as driven by transnationally organized — in this case radical right — interest groups. It is only when we understand the underlying dynamics of their shared interests that we are able to decode, and potentially counter, their messages.
Understood from the idealist position in IR, transnational interest groups are, together with INGOs and NGOs, frequently identified as important (f)actors in the international community, as agents of positive change promoting peace, development and other political goods in opposition — or as a complement to the traditional state of Westphalian fashion and its presumed realist and self-centered agenda extending only to its territory and population.
However, as with the case of PEGIDA and other radical-right social movements on the national level, coined as a “dirty side of civil society,” it would be possible to claim that what we witness today is the rise of a new type of transnational interest group. Its agenda extends beyond the national and realist interests and normatively formulates quite different idealist positions than conventionally conceptualized: the dream of a future global order based on racial segregation and white supremacy restored. These positions can be traced within the recent terrorist manifestos of the Christchurch, El Paso and other attacks, relating back to Anders Behring Breivik and further.
To what extent is radicalization caused by domestic (endogenous) factors and to what extent by foreign (exogenous)? Contemporary scholarship operates mainly from the perspective of securitization or of socio-economic factors, which both mainly assume that it is best to intervene or prevent radicalization on the national, or even very local and individual level, for instance through closer collaboration between judicial, educational and social institutions. Although radicalization, extremism and terrorism are acknowledged to represent global threats, there is some, but little true international collaboration to combat them, possibly with the exception of the EU.
Moreover, the focus since 9/11 has predominantly been to avert Islamist terrorism, so little attention has been directed toward radical-right radicalization. However, arguably starting with Breivik’s rampage in Norway in 2011, but certainly clearly visible since the Christchurch terrorist attack in 2019, it appears as if the agenda of radical-right radicalization is focused only to a minor degree on domestic or national issues and rather locates itself on the level of global and increasingly existential scenarios.
The securitization position represents the legitimate self-interests of states and societies to preserve stability and to deliver security as one of the principal and non-negotiable political goods. It was formulated out of a concrete need of protection against terrorism at home or against (individual or group) recruitment to “insurgent” troops or irregular combatants in war theaters abroad. Socio-cultural explanations of individual and group attraction to violence and conflict question the simple assertions of the securitization view and focus on more complex contextual, discursive or anthropological factors.
For example, in this view, the alienation of second or third generation immigrants in Western societies, frequently described as a push factor toward engagement in Islamist terrorism, is typically explained by larger issues such as structural exclusion from the labor market, reaction to one-sided media narratives or grievances, and peer pressure.
Global Political Settings
However, radicalization must also be understood in relation to international and global political settings. Radicalized individuals frequently act upon grievances that assume meaning in a global context, for instance the perceived discrimination against Muslims. The reference point in most cases of radicalization is not the given society per se — nor even socio-economic grievances such as unemployment — but events transgressing the local, regional or national level. Radicalization in our own time is not confined to domestic settings, the delivery of political goods or ideal points of reference, but is embedded in the complex context of globalized politics and flows of information.
Alex Schmid, in a paper for the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague, writes that “the reference point of these ‘vulnerable youth’ is often external to the host society.” Whereas this important factor slowly arrives at scholarship and potentially a larger community of experts in relationship to Islamist terrorism, the implications for understanding the expanded references created by globalization in the transnationally shared universe of radical-right radicalization are still under-researched.
A reasonable chronology of trigger events in Islamist radicalization tends to start with Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, followed by a string of devastating Western involvement in multiple conflicts in the MENA-region, or the Danish Prophet Muhammad cartoon crisis of 2005. These events have placed severe pressures of identification on members of societal out-groups in the West, principally Muslim communities, leaving them in a state of double alienation and identity trade-offs. Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen points out that “radicalization occurs as individuals seek to reconstruct a lost identity in a perceived hostile and confusing world,” and that “individualization and value relativism prompt a search for identity, meaning and community.”
Conversely, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 and charged with the divisive rhetoric of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” counter-jihadism has emerged as a political platform to organize members of societal in-groups in the West, inciting political violence such as the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway. In these arenas of radicalization, identification processes charge political concepts like “Europe” or the “West” with new meaning, even lending their names to entire movements such as the Identitarians and practices such as identity politics, as in the German PEGIDA movement or its parliamentary arm, the Alternative for Germany party.
Shawn Matthew Powers speaks of the competition of strategic actors “to radicalize communities against the established organs and apparatuses of a given society.” Whereas he mainly has mutual interventions in separate national media environments in mind, we could likewise claim that the different types of radicalized out-groups and elements of in-groups “compete for influence in a more balanced, transnational, ideational playing field,” and that “the market for loyalties” has no national or domestic borders anymore since the formerly “closed ideational marketplace” is now open up to online-radicalization. The quick move to internet-based communication facilitates the trans-nationalization/globalization of information space, “emerging communication technologies reshape how societies negotiate power and legitimate authority.” Social media “play an important psychosocial role in establishing community, or put another way, shared knowledge, norms and interests.”
Allegiances are forged based upon other factors than the prevalence of a nationally shared knowledge-culture. “Moral outrage [about extra-domestic political issues] can trigger violent behaviour” or, as we currently can witness across Europe, mobilize massive electoral support for new right-wing populist parties promoting radical positions communicated in a growingly radicalized political rhetoric of the right.
What Fuels Outrage?
What fuels outrage in the transnational radical right? Which topics of presumed humiliation are constructed in its transnational discourses? I propose the following ingredients and various overlaps between them.
Nativism / supremacy / “replacement”: Starting with Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto and straight on to the ones penned by the perpetrators of the Christchurch and El Paso attacks, it would be possible to claim a complex of ideas gravitating around classical concepts of nativism and racial/national supremacy infused with the conspiratorial fear of replacement of the aboriginal white, European population on a global scale.
Shared conspiracy imagination: The “Eurabia” theory follows the narrative pattern of classical conspiracy theories since the French Revolution, in which an unholy alliance of domestic traitors and external enemies hatches a plot aiming at total destruction of Europe/the West. Renaud Camus‘ so-called “great replacement” theory is a more recent variation of this narrative that can be applied to other radical-right settings such as the US, where fear is stoked in relationship to Latinos, also harking back to a long history of pejorative stereotyping.
Migration flows: These first two points receive significant traction in relationship to ongoing migration flows either from war-torn macro-regions such as MENA or countries like Afghanistan, or are driven mainly by economic and climatic factors such as from Latin and Central America to the US. These migration flows are eschatologically charged as “deluges.”
A global racial war/antagonism: In light of the visions of supremacy paired with virulent conspiracy beliefs, a global racial war or existential racial antagonism is imagined that either will end in a future decisive and final battle or in the radical separation of humankind into racially divided “ethnopluralist” homelands. Apartheid will be practiced on a global level.
Crisis of masculinity / traditional gender roles: Across the radical-right spectrum, a particularly predominant feature is a perceived crisis of masculinity and “traditional” gender or family roles. Spearheaded by a global movement against “genderism” (and virulent support for the Canadian academic Jordan P. Peterson), radical and radiant visions of pure patriarchy restored — as a manifestation of unalterable divine or organic order — are promoted.
Climate change denial / eco-fundamentalism: Among the radical right, there are two ambivalent positions toward climate change and ecological sustainability. One position simply denies the reality of climate change and, for instance, engages in online abuse and humiliation of Swedish climate campaigner and activist Greta Thunberg. Another position is more eco-fundamentalist or eco-fascist (like the El Paso and Christchurch manifestos) and blames overpopulation for the ecological decline of the planet — and thus that extinction of significant parts of the human race can be excused against the backdrop of this decline. A pure and pristine nature is equated with racial and cultural superiority in a Manichean contrast to its degenerated and filthy Other.
Victim-perpetrator reversal / reinterpretation of the human rights framework: The radical right likewise occupies and ambivalent relationship toward the international human rights framework, originally intended to safeguard individuals and minorities from external infringements. As much as for instance LGBTQI+ rights are questioned, ridiculed and attacked, femo and homo-nationalism or the recent push for “straight rights” represent an attempt to hijack the rights discourse for exclusionary purposes. In connection with the great replacement conspiracy theory, global victim-perpetrator relationships are reverted, and it is claimed that the “white race” is under threat of extinction and thus in need of protection through human rights.
We are currently witnessing the emergence of the radical right as a transnational interest group and thus should be regarded as an actor in the “totality of interactions within the international system.” Along the discursive positions sketched above, a political agenda is shaped to fit into a multiplicity of different national settings and antagonisms. This move from national to international agenda setting is made visible by a string of interconnected and inter-referenced terrorist attacks across the continents, ranging from Oslo and Utøya, in Norway, to Christchurch in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, in the United States, and turned into transnational media events through dissemination in both social and traditional media and their news cycle logic. These developments have to be understood through new and more holistic approaches in peace and security studies, and will impact foreign policymaking across the globe.
Dr Andreas Onnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor of History of Ideas at University of Gothenberg. See his profile here.
© Andreas Onnerfors. 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).
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