I recently spent a couple of weeks in the US and was shocked by the polarized and frenetic political atmosphere. People I spoke to expressed horror at the ascendance of a freshly empowered populist right. That the far-right conspiracy theorist Roy Moore still believes he has a path to the Senate in an election in Alabama, despite allegations that he assaulted underage girls, illustrates how these disturbing trends have brought some truly loathsome personalities and ideologies out of the woodwork.
Universities have always been bastions of enlightened attitudes, but they are increasingly on the front line of America’s cultural war. Alt-right activists exploit liberal traditions of freedom of speech to propagate racist incitement, while anti-fascist protesters are often prevented from responding; a new anti-protest policy at the University of Wisconsin bans students from campaigning against controversial speakers or obstructing on-campus activities by right-wing extremists. We should be deeply concerned about extremist ideologies acquiring a veneer of intellectual respectability and gaining currency among the leaders and professionals of tomorrow.
Until recently, the extreme-right seemed (justifiably) rather ridiculous: Tiny numbers of unemployed skinheads fantasizing about racial purity on obscure online forums. Several factors led to a transformation of their fortunes: Trump’s victory demonstrated the poisonous potency of populist rhetoric, exploiting the fears of under-educated white communities who felt culturally and economically under siege. The President’s reluctance to denounce fascist marchers in Charlottesville was a watershed moment — a green light from the world’s most powerful man.
Alt-right elements are finding new ways to repackage their detestable rhetoric, obscuring the violent, fascist undertones that previously repelled audiences. The right-wing media avariciously exploits public fears about immigration, selling newspapers with thinly veiled scare stories demonizing Syrian refugees. Social media is likewise perfectly designed for weaponization by the populist right.
Marine Le Pen in France softened the neo-fascist rhetoric of her Front National to win mainstream acceptance, and Hungary’s Jobbick Party is trying the same trick. In Germany, the far-right AfD Party took third place in federal elections, with likeminded racists performing far better than they deserve in other European states. Because of proportional representation in many European election systems, far-right entities often need only about 15 percent of votes to dictate the composition of new governments. Consequently, extreme-right parties look set to become a feature of governing coalitions, which they will exploit as a step to greater things.
After the Brexit referendum and terrorist incidents in the UK, there has been a surge in racist attacks and far-right activity. There was a 66 percent increase in white supremacist suspects held under counter-terrorism legislation reported in 2017, with a sharp spike in criminal incidents linked to far-right extremists.
When Israel’s right-wing became increasingly radicalized during the 1990s on the back of opposition to the Oslo process, this was seen as a transient phenomenon. Instead, the Zionist right succeeded in hijacking the political system and rewriting public narratives about the peace process. The 1994 massacre of 29 worshippers in a Hebron mosque by Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein heralded a chronic pattern of attacks on Palestinians by militant settlers. Today, Israel’s political center ground has withered away and elections are a choice between the far right, or the lunatic messianic extreme-right — with the latter guaranteed cabinet seats whatever the outcome! The growth in far-right credibility across the West could likewise have long-term consequences for the political landscape.
Muslim extremists and far-right extremists thrive by demonizing one-another. In reality they enjoy a symbiotic relationship; sharing tactics, rhetoric and objectives. The very existence of one side fuels recruitment, popularity and legitimacy for the other. It has become a cliché that Trump’s crazed anti-Muslim rants are the best possible recruiting agents for the jihadists – and vice-versa.
Neo-Nazis are finding new ways to repackage their detestable rhetoric and obscure the violent, fascist undertones that previously repelled audiences.
For liberalism to not be swept away by the forces of intolerance, there must be recognition that the boundaries of political acceptability must be policed. Tolerance of extremist entities makes societies less hospitable towards the rights of vulnerable minorities. The recognition of Hitler as a politician and his enjoyment of freedom of speech led to the definitive eradication of the human rights of millions of innocents. Likewise, the genocide against the Rohingya people should serve as a wake-up call about where such exterminatory logic leads. I grew up with the stereotype of Buddhists as the ultimate pacifists, and for many years saw Aung San Suu Kyi as a supreme authority for human rights – both preconceptions have been shaken by the Rohingya tragedy.
All nations must ban sectarian political parties or prevent clerics from participating in politics, and Western states must remove intolerant entities from the public sphere. Such preachers of hatred who don’t believe in equal rights for all shouldn’t have the same tolerance extended to them. These extremists and their tabloid champions aren’t simply a mirror of existing attitudes; they actively propagate dangerous narratives through fake news, scare stories and conspiracy theories.
Ideas are often more potent than armies and today the most potent and intoxicating ideas are emerging from the political extremes. Daesh may be physically extinguished in Syria, only for its ideology to thrive from remote boltholes and cyberspace. Meanwhile, other extremists and militants (such as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in Iraq) are thriving in the vacuum created by the disappearance of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Far-right ideologies will likewise not be banished by the failure of Marine Le Pen to capture the French presidency, or impeachment measures against Donald Trump. We must address the underlying causes of those social ills which nurture such hateful narratives, rather than simply treating the symptoms.
Make no mistake, we are part of a war of ideas on many fronts — and we are losing. We can no longer hold on to the liberal article of faith that the world will continue to get better through the power of wishful thinking. Liberalism and pluralism must be rescued from their current refuge as complacent ideologies of distant governing elites and remodelled to face the challenges and threats of today’s world.
Young people should be brought up with an appreciation of their integral connection to a wider world; we are part of humanity and we each have a role to play. When we shirk from that role and ignore what’s going on around us, the forces of fascism steal the opportunity to spread their own doctrine of violence and hatred, setting humanity against one another. If we are not part of the solution, we become part of the problem.
When 60,000 fascists take to the streets in a single European city, this is no longer a laughing matter — rather an existential question as to whether mankind in all its diversity is willing and able to coexist. If platitudes about shared values from mainstream politicians provide insufficient motivation to take a stand, real fears about where the politics of the populist right are taking our planet should make us all stand up and say: “Enough!”
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.