The committee on the roots of radicalisation needs to challenge the notion that only al-Qaida-inspired extremism must be tackled
What causes violent radicalisation, and how effective is the government's current approach to countering this threat? These questions are the focus of a home affairs committee on the roots of violent radicalisation, which has set out to examine the factors that lead some citizens toward terrorism and will inform the next iteration of the Prevent strategy.
In some ways, my invitation to give evidence was unexpected. I have spent much of the past decade researching what leads citizens toward the far right: a type of extremism that appears nonviolent when set against al-Qaida or "AQ"-inspired terrorism. I've also become accustomed to ministers, policymakers and other academics dismissing the far right as too weak and disorganised to mount a major security threat.
I have also long argued that our current approach to tackling extremism has focused too heavily on only one form of extremism, and that policymakers and security services should take far-right extremism more seriously. Despite the collapse of the British National party (BNP), there are three reasons why the government should devote more energy to understanding and challenging this political trend.
The first concerns the wider social and economic environment. Across Europe, conditions remain ripe for the far right. Large numbers of citizens remain deeply concerned about immigration, feel anxious about the cultural compatibility of Muslims, and are threatened by rising diversity. In fact, in recent years the Brits have become equally if not more concerned about these issues than many of their European neighbours. These voters are also extremely dissatisfied with the response of the main parties to such trends. The financial crisis has certainly added to this perfect storm, but far-right supporters were pessimistic about their economic prospects long before the collapse of the Lehman Brothers. The key issue is how to respond to voters' profound anxiety about this issue.
This not simply affecting older generations. Far from a passing fad, the potential for far-right extremists is reflected in the demographics of their support. Last year in Austria, the Freedom party was the most popular party among those aged under 30, while today almost three-quarters of English Defence League (EDL) members are in the same age bracket. These findings point toward a clear conclusions: the far right is connecting with a new generation.
The second concerns the potential for violence. Movements such as the BNP and EDL might not pursue overtly violent goals like AQ-inspired terrorists, but the wider subculture in which they are embedded is characterised by a culture of violence, which cultivates a set of narratives among supporters that would justify its use under certain conditions: it tells them that they and their loved ones are under threat from minority groups; that they will soon be involved in a race war; and that urgent and radical action is required to save them from racial extinction. The line between nonviolent protest and violence has already been crossed by "lone wolves" such as Anders Behring Breivik and, in the UK, affiliates of the Aryan Strike Force (ASF), Racial Volunteer Force (RVF) and the BNP.
The third concerns our current understanding of this challenge. As the previous Prevent strategy conceded, our knowledge of the far right is much less developed than our understanding of AQ-inspired terrorism. The good news is that we do now know a lot more about what leads some citizens into the far right. This year alone has seen new research on the BNP, members of the English Defence League and populist extremism across Europe. But the evidence base remains inadequate: we know next to nothing about how those voters compare with far-right violent extremists, or the factors that lead citizens toward one form of activity as opposed to the other.
The simply reality of post-9/11 politics is that we have focused almost exclusively on tackling only one form of extremism. In the aftermath of New York and the attacks in Bali, Madrid and London, the emphasis on tackling al-Qaida marked a logical response to the priorities of national security. Today, however, the landscape has changed. We need to adopt a more holistic approach to challenging extremism and sharpen our understanding of its different branches. Most importantly, we need to overhaul the traditional view of the far right that claims this movement is nothing more than a minor political irritant.
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