UNDERSTANDING THE FAR-RIGHT THREAT
In December 2020, a 16-year-old youth was the first person detained for far-right extremism under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Singapore. This has raised concerns about the global and local threats posed by such ideologies. This case, however, raises a number of issues that will lead us to think carefully about what we mean by ‘far-right’ extremism, and also how prejudice, in particular Islamophobia and antisemitism, play into the matrix.
For those concerned with Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), which include scholars, policymakers, and law enforcement agents, the term ‘far-right’ is often deployed to capture a variety of contemporary militant groups and ideologies1. These range from white supremacists to militant Hindu and Buddhist nationalists, and militant Zionist settlers in Israel. Such diversity may make us wonder whether they are all ‘far-right’, especially if this denotes an extreme right-wing political stance. These groups draw from diverse, and often contradictory, impulses including fascism, Nazism, white supremacy, Neo-Paganism, a posited Judeo-Christian tradition, anti-colonialism, and populist and nationalist politics. I suggest we exercise some caution before assuming a common far-right stance. However, common amongst such groups are particular forms of prejudice which include, almost universally, both Islamophobia and antisemitism. These often manifest as violence.
THE LOCAL CASE
What we know about the local youth is that he is of Indian ethnicity and self-identifies as a Protestant Christian. He believed that Muslims were required to kill Christians and so he seemingly perceived himself as acting in self-defence of his fellow believers with an attack on a cathedral in France being a strong impetus to his radicalisation2. He plotted an attack on two mosques and in deciding to attack two places of worship, driving between them and livestreaming the event, he was inspired by the Christchurch attacker3.
It is, perhaps, the link to the Christchurch attacker, whose attack and motives are linked to a range of white supremacist groups and an Islamophobic narrative that ties this youth to the epithet, ‘far-right’. However, as an Indian, he presumably did not draw from white supremacist narratives, while his ideological underpinning as a Christian contrasted with that of the Christchurch attacker’s Neo-Pagan inclinations. It is hard to see, from what we know, what may mark this youth as being politically right-wing, yet he has been called a ‘far-right’ extremist rather than a ‘Christian’ extremist. Conversely, those inspired by militant neo-Islamic jihadism ideology are never termed far-right extremists. But a clear link of this youth to typical far-right ideology is Islamophobia.
ISLAMOPHOBIA AND CONTEMPORARY FAR-RIGHT EXTREMISM
As much as far-right extremism has roots in white supremacism, often linked to a Christian or (Neo-)Pagan heritage4, Muslims will typically be cast as an out-group. Nevertheless, hostility to Muslims is not inherent. The Nazis sought allies amongst Arab nationalists, and the Muslim leader, Hajji Amin Al-Husseini (1895-1974), mufti of Jerusalem, spent much of the 1930s in Germany. However, for European – and hence Western – minds, the spectre of Muslims as threat has brewed as an image from at least the time of the Crusades5. Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and then the 9/11 attack have heightened a perception of Muslims as the prime enemy, related also to the end of the Cold War and the need to manufacture a new enemy6.
Examples of Western Islamophobia are rife, even at the political table: in the USA, Trump’s travel ban on primarily Muslim countries; in the Netherlands, the rhetoric of populist politicians such as Geert Wilders; and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, mocked Muslim women in burkas as letterboxes, which resulted in, or, he may argue, coincidentally coincided with, a spike of assaults on Muslim women7. While not only a facet of the political right, smearing and targeting of Muslims is part of the playbook of many populist politicians. Meanwhile, from the American Proud Boys to the British English Defence League, militant violence and intimidation are often targeted against Muslims8.
Outside the West9, Muslims have become the particular fixation of militant Hindu nationalists. While the memory of Mughal conquests and tension with Pakistan is part of this, it has also been fed by colonial narratives. In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, or First War of Independence of 1857, it served British purposes to paint Muslims as disloyal and liable to revolt. In Sri Lanka, following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the search for a new enemy by militant Buddhist nationalists led to Muslims becoming the target of choice. For militant Zionist settlers, Palestinians (who are not all Muslims) have been cast as like the biblical Amalekites, the fiercest enemies of the Jewish people who must be expelled from the land of Israel to fulfil God’s commands.
Being right-wing politically does not, of course, make anyone inevitably Islamophobic. But across the far-right, Islamophobia is built into the national and international networks. For instance, Hindu nationalists have developed alliances with European Neo-Pagan extremists, and the Trump-Modi bromance seemed to have a strong Islamophobic sentiment10.
INTERSECTIONAL PREJUDICE: MUSLIMS, JEWS, BLACKS, WOMEN, ETC.
Some castigate intersectionality as politically-correct rhetoric; however, it highlights at least two well-documented features of prejudice11. First, prejudice often hits hardest at the intersection of oppressions, so Black women – more than simply Black people or women – often bear the bigger brunt of discrimination. Second, prejudice does not normally occur against just one group; Islamophobes typically hate many others, and targets of typical far-right hatreds include Jews, socialists, Blacks, intellectuals, and women amongst others.
Focusing on antisemitism, the Nazi connection of many groups means we should expect this prejudice. The controversial Republican congresswoman, and Trump advocate, Marjorie Taylor Greene has suggested that Jewish space lasers were responsible for last summer’s forest fires in California12. The 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, USA, saw open chants of “blood and soil”, an old Nazi chant – though these days it may also reference the Great Replacement theory in which white supremacists believe Muslims are demographically taking over Europe and other Western nations (Jews are often believed to be orchestrating this)13.
Antisemitism also links to Hindu and Buddhist extremists, with the former having direct Nazi links. During the 1940s, an agreement was reached for some Hindu nationalist information to be placed in German newspapers in return for antisemitic content being spread in India amongst Hindus14. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan militant Buddhist nationalist Anagarika Dharmapala drew direct parallels between his hatred and incitement of violence against Muslims in the 1915 riots to Jews15. As such, despite Western roots, antisemitism is part of both the Hindu and Buddhist far-right.
An exception is, of course, militant Zionist settlers, though they do attack Jews who defend the rights of Palestinians – the 1990s Oslo peace process was derailed in large measure by a militant Jew murdering Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Moreover, many right-wing Jewish figures readily work alongside antisemites; much US Evangelical Christian Right support for Israel is not based upon a love and respect for Jews, but a belief that when all Jews return to Israel it will usher in Jesus’ Second Coming, with a resultant Middle Eastern war killing almost all Jews16.
Antisemitism is not only limited to the far-right, having deep Christian roots, and with left-wing antisemitism existing17. There is also a modern trend of Muslim antisemitism which counters traditional Islamic understandings of Jews as ahl al-kitab (People of the Book) and ahl al-dhimma (protected people, often dhimmis), drawing instead from Western, especially colonial and Nazi, impulses18. While I have focused on antisemitism, it is not to downplay such things as prejudice against Black people, indigenous peoples, or women, with a diminution of women – and violence against them – being typical of the far-right.
NO BENIGN BIGOTRY
It has not been my aim to argue that what marks out far-right extremism is Islamophobia. Rather, I have tried to note the often complex webs of prejudice that are today increasingly focused on Muslims as a common enemy by not just militant groups, but also populist politicians even in mainstream settings. The UK’s Baroness Warsi recently described Islamophobia as a socially acceptable prejudice, because it could pass the ‘dinner table test’19. In other words expressing it would not make one a social pariah, nor would it be considered out of place in polite conversation. The study of prejudice during the twentieth century has, however, taught us that there is no benign bigotry. Our stereotypes of groups, and words against them, all too readily lead to discriminatory actions and even killing or genocide. Prejudice against one of us, is probably also hatred against another of us, and undoubtedly a harm to all of us20. ⬛
1 Kumar Ramakrishna. The Growing Challenge of the Extreme Right. RSIS Commentary, CO21011. 2021, January 20. Retrieved from: https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/the-growing-challenge-of-the-extreme-right/#.YC3XfC0RqlO
2 Daryl Choo. 16-year-old S’porean who made ‘detailed plans’ to attack 2 mosques in Woodlands detained under ISA. TODAY. 2021, January 27; updated 2021, January 28. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/16-year-old-sporean-who-made-detailed-plans-attack-2-mosques-woodlands-detained-under-isa; see also: Ministry of Home Affairs. Detention of Singaporean Youth Who Intended to Attack Muslims on the Anniversary of Christchurch Attacks in New Zealand. 2020, January 27. Retrieved from: https://www.mha.gov.sg/newsroom/press-release/news/detention-of-singaporean-youth-who-intended-to-attack-muslims-on-the-anniversary-of-christchurch-attacks-in-new-zealand; and, Paul Hedges. Rise of Violent Christian Extremism: Whither Inter-Religious Ties? RSIS Commentary, 21027. 2021, February 11. Retrieved from: https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/CO21027.pdf. Though, on issues around the term ‘radicalisation’, see: Paul Hedges. Radicalisation: Examining a Concept, Its Use, and Abuse. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis, 9.10 (2017): 12–18
3 Singapore teenager arrested for plotting attack on Muslims. Al-Jazeera. 2021, January 27. Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/27/singapore-arrests-teenager-for-plotting-attacks-against-muslims
4 On racism and Christianity being linked to prejudice, see: Paul Hedges. Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism in Global Context. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. pp. 85-88, 135
5 As used here, ‘Europe’ is very much an imaginary construct created in contradistinction to an imagined ‘Muslim world’, see: Franco Cardini. Europe and Islam, trans. Caroline Beamish. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001
6 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, revised edition. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2002
7 In general, see: Paul Hedges. Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism in Global Context. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. pp. 129-134; and on Johnson, see: Lizzie Dearden. Islamophobic incidents rose 375% after Boris Johnson compared Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’, figures show. The Independent. 2019, September 2. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/boris-johnson-muslim-women-letterboxes-burqa-islamphobia-rise-a9088476.html
8 See: Bill Chappell. Canada Lists Proud Boys As A Terrorist Group, Alongside ISIS And Al-Qaida. NPR. 2021, February 3. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2021/02/03/963682181/canada-lists-proud-boys-as-a-terrorist-group-alongside-isis-and-al-qaida; and Ray Gaston. Christian Responses to Islamophobia, in Paul Hedges. Ed. Contemporary Muslim-Christian Encounters: Developments, Diversity and Dialogues. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. pp. 135-150
9 Paul Hedges. Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism in Global Context. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. pp. 165-194
10 Ibid, pp. 181-182, 192-194
11 Kimberlé Crenshaw. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989.1.8. 1989. pp. 139-167. Retrieved from: https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf
12 Jack Dutton. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s ‘Jewish Space Lasers’ Conspiracy Theory Met With Derision, Jokes. NewsWeek. 2021, January 29. Retrieved from: https://www.newsweek.com/marjorie-taylor-greene-jewish-space-laser-mockery-1565325
13 Paul Hedges. Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism in Global Context. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 108-109
14 Marzia Casolari. Hindutva’s Foreign Tie-Up in the 1930s: Archival Evidence. Economic and Political Weekly 35.4, 2000. pp. 218-228; and Paul Hedges. Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism in Global Context. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 187-188, 269 n.28
15 Paul Hedges. Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism in Global Context. London: Bloomsbury, p. 175, 264 n.40
16 Ibid, p. 110
17 Ibid, pp. 51-65, 109-110, 113-122
18 Ibid, pp. 149-164
19 David Batty. Lady Warsi claims Islamophobia is now socially acceptable in Britain. The Guardian. 2011, January 20. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/jan/20/lady-warsi-islamophobia-muslims-prejudice
20 Frantz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Markmann. London: Pluto Press.  1986. p. 122
Assoc Prof Paul Hedges, PhD is an Associate Professor in Interreligious Studies for the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.