Rampant populism, identity politics, widespread disinformation xenophobia and Islamophobia that fuel growing far right extremist violence around the world have created one of the most complex security challenges in recent years.
The United States considers white supremacist violent extremism a major domestic terror threat. US intelligence and security analysts called the January 6, 2021 insurrection against the election results that led to Joe Biden’s presidential victory the perfect storm of a xenophobic ideology that was combined with armed extremist violence and mis/disinformation spread at scale through online platforms.
In Britain, at least five anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant Neo-Nazi groups have been banned under terror laws since the UK government first proscribed the white supremacist National Action in 2017.
Members of the Canadian government have called anti-Semitic, anti-Black and anti-Muslim white supremacist extremist violence a harsh reality.
As kindred individuals are connecting with each other across borders and continents, propagating conspiracy theories – such as the great replacement theory for example – the white supremacist threat is fast becoming transnational.
According to the Canadian terrorism analyst Jessica Davis, the current set of counter terrorism tools, geared towards tackling threats from global jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State under UN Sanctions regimes are proving to be outdated when it comes to far right actors because they are aware of existing counter terrorism frameworks and how to evade them.
And yet, in spite of the growing evidence that emboldened ultra right-wing ideologies are becoming a significant threat to safety and security, there is no international agreement on either the definition of far right extremist violence, or on the terminology of the catch-all term of ‘racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism’ or REMVE.
While the west grapples with white supremacist violent extremism that seeks to overthrow elected governments and push for racially and religiously homogenous nations, the South Asian story is more complex, because right wing groups across the region don’t act against elected governments but in fact, receive ideological support from their governments, either tacitly or overtly.
Sri Lanka’s or Myanmar’s Buddhist majoritarianism for example has thrived on a hyper nationalist, hyper masculine religious or ethnic identity politics that aims to create a homogenous society in linguistically, religiously and ethnically diverse countries.
At home, the populist BJP government thrives on the propagation of this very brand of muscular politics that seeks to alienate and marginalise religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians. As a result, lower down the food chain, local individuals and groups aligned with Hindutva politics increasingly assume the state’s silence and/or failure to punish crimes like mob lynchings , or tackle calls for genocide made by self-styled religious leaders or right wing politicians stringently, as ideological and political sanction for their crimes.
The breakdown of political consensus around defining terrorism is in itself an age old problem, especially at the United Nations. This is further complicated by the reality of our digitalized world in which tensions can travel across borders easily, as was evident most recently in the British city of Leicester in September 2022, in the aftermath of an Indian cricket win against Pakistan. The vandalisation of a local mosque, the procession of Hindu men chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, heckling British Pakistanis in turn caused retaliatory incidents and raised alarm bells within the UK’s security establishment. And while the Ministry of External Affairs condemned the violence against the Indian community, it also condemned the vandalisation of Hindu religious symbols, significantly equating religion with national identity.
India’s own unwillingness to categorise militant Hindutva actors as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists has been hardened by strong domestic political resistance against accepting linkages between violent actors who perpetrate hate crimes against religious minorities, and their ideological beliefs equating Hindu supremacy as national identity. In fact, as head of the UN Counter Terrorism Committee for 2021-2022 the previous Indian permanent representative to the United Nations, T.S. Tirumurti had said that the adoption of new terminologies “under the guise of “emerging threats” such as racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism, violent nationalism, right wing extremism” would be divisive, and urged member states to desist from a tendency to label acts of terrorism based on motivation. That position remains unchanged.
Further though, terrorism scholars Naureen Chaudhury Fink and Tanya Mehra write Indian diaspora communities in the United States and Britain have not helped mitigate the threat, but instead have begun to align, especially with anti-Muslim right wing politics in their adopted countries. For example Hindus rallied to form the Republican Hindu Convention that supported Donald Trump in 2016, and more recently, in 2019, the BJP’s supporters amongst the Indian diaspora in UK actively campaigned for the Tories in over 45 parliamentary seats. Both Trump’s Republican Party and the current avatar of the British Tories have swung further to the right, against inclusivity and pluralism in their respective countries.
Whether in the West or in the South Asian region, the far right “loves extremist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda because they make non-Muslim societies fear Muslims”, argues Bethan Johnson, a terrorism expert studying the spread of American white supremacist violence at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
In fact, the parallels of the ideologies and practices of white supremacist movements – with the significant exception of access to arms and ammunition that violent actors in the West, especially the United States have – are obvious to anyone who cares to look. However, given global contestations on the subject of identity based populist politics that has led to a far right extremist awakening around the world, (India is no exception to extremist violence), it is next to impossible to designate such individuals or groups acting domestically as terrorists. Adding to the complexity is the nature of US laws. The US Constitution protects free speech and the right bear arms. Further, it doesn’t allow for the categorization of US citizens acting violently at home as terrorists, even though heavily armed White Supremacists are challenging internal security around the country.
The truth is that the world community is in a state of constant crisis, and a social contract that sought to prioritize harmony among communities is badly eroded. Whether it is the war over Ukraine, or the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, whether the arrival of the extremist Taliban in Afghanistan or the strain on civil liberties in authoritarian states, the world is littered with such crises, and it has become increasingly evident that violent extremist actors not only cut across the ideological spectrum, but take advantage of the ensuing chaos.
The imperative now is for both honesty and political will amongst all UN member states, in order to formally accept that terrorism or violent extremism is no longer restricted to jihadist violence alone, but recognise that other factors of history and economics fuel racially and ethnically motivated extremist violence in the world. To do so would pave the way for the designation of far right groups and individuals as terrorists who perpetrate violence on the basis of ideology and identity, even if a universally acceptable definition of terrorism per se continues to remain elusive.
Maya Mirchandani is Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies, Ashoka University and Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.