Extreme Right-Wing Political Violence and Terrorism

Extreme Right-Wing Political Violence and Terrorism

Editors: Max Taylor, P. M. Currie, and Donald Holbrook
Publisher: New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. 208p.
Reviewer: Tracy Lightcap | July 2014

This is an informative, interesting, and somewhat frustrating book. What Taylor, Currie, and Holbrook have assembled is a collection of useful essays about both modern right-wing populist political movements and extreme right-wing political groups. The coverage of these essays is the most complete I’ve seen; there are essays covering right-wing movements and groups in the United States, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Norway, and Germany. The comparative tilt of these essays – the authors make the effort to draw connections between terrorist groups, social movements, political parties, and ideologies across national boundaries – is enlightening and lends credence to the entire enterprise. However, the book’s title is somewhat misleading. The majority of the essays are not about right-wing violence and terrorism per se, but about what I find a more interesting and concerning subject: the rise of modern right-wing reactionary political movements and political parties. As I will point out, the editors and authors included in this book make a real contribution to our knowledge by illustrating how small groups dedicated to right-wing terrorism and violence have evolved into political movements. Extreme right-wing groups and the violence they both plan and provoke however, are by no means a spent force and continue to be a concern for law enforcement throughout the North Atlantic area. Rather than go through the essays one by one, I am going instead to treat with the main themes they analyze. The first of these is the rise of what several of the authors characterize as populist right-wing movements. Leonard Weinberg’s essay on right-wing political activity in the United States usefully divides the spectrum into a populist right based on movements like the Tea Party and a revolutionary right based on racism and fixation on a coming racial apocalypse. Weinberg correctly divides political movements that are geared to winning actual electoral battles from those aimed at (by discourse, at least) overthrow of the existing political order. Recently, the former, however successful, are distinguished by their specific rejection of ethnic and racial differences as the basis for political activity. Instead, these movements stress the decay of national identity, usually through the sudden influx of immigrants with different national cultures and, though this is normally downplayed officially, racial background. Since the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent bombings in Madrid and London, these movements in both the United States and Europe have focused on the supposedly corrosive influence of Islam on both national identity and economic and political prospects of “true” nationals. Interestingly, such movements normally eschew violence by their members and decry attacks of revolutionary right organizations, while usually defending the “inevitable” outbreaks of violence as the result of provocations by others.

As the essays show, the degree to which these trends present themselves are dependent on national context. The English Defense League described in essays by Robert Lambert and Joel Busher, and Ulster Loyalist organizations described by James McAuley are as scrupulous in trying to avoid associations with revolutionary right organizations and ideology as the Tea Party is in the United States; and they emphasize the same nativist themes, but with much less success. Here the problem is the general lack of resonance with the public of such ideas in both the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. There is prejudice against Muslim immigrants in both places, but there is not enough animosity to drive a mass political movement. In contrast, Rob Witte’s essay on the rise of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands and Michel Gandilhon’s work on the reconstruction of the Front National under Marine le Pen show movements that have been able to establish themselves readily in the national political spectrum by building on longstanding frictions between Muslims and “natives,” and on the slow decay of the capacity of the welfare state in both countries. Here we have a useful comparative description of the rise to political prominence of reactionary right movements and, on the continent, of political parties with which to contend. Americans will find the story of the way these movements distinguished themselves from the revolutionary right while retaining the capability to emphasize reactionary themes and activate racial and ethnic prejudices quite familiar. Indeed, one of the most useful aspects of this book for me was how it allowed me to put the Tea Party Republicans into comparative perspective, identifying common themes across national and cultural lines and making comparative strategies to navigate their way to political legitimacy clear.

The second theme of the book has to do with the revolutionary right. Here as well, the comparative structure of the essays provides much useful information about the character of revolutionary right-wing violence and the justifications for it. Robert Lambert’s essay on the emerging anti-Muslim violence in the United Kingdom and its perpetrators was especially enlightening to me. As he points out, the anti-Islamic rhetoric of the English Defense League and the British National Party has provided justifications for attacks on Muslims. The attacks, often committed by individuals with no or sporadic contact with revolutionary right organizations (“lone wolves”) or by local gangs, are similar to incidents described by Weinstein in the United States and Witte in the Netherlands. In many cases what appears to be happening is that revolutionary right organizations talk a good game, but come to be seen by their adherents as incapable of undertaking the action they espouse. Toby Archer’s essay on the “mindset” of the Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik is an excellent case study of this. Breivik was a classic lone wolf, disappointed at the lack of action against Islam’s rise in Europe. He felt that his attack would provide an example of the “Counterjihad” needed to protect European society from Islamization and the influence of its enablers (cultural relativists, the “Frankfurt School, social democrats, etc.). As Archer shows, these ideas have hit resonant chords with revolutionary right-wing activists elsewhere. Donald Holbrook adds an examination of how the tide of revolutionary right-wing ideas in Europe and America appears to be connected to some extent with the increasing vehemence of radical Islamic rhetoric since 9/11. Holbrook finds that the two movements may now be in the process of creating an escalating situation that feeds on itself. This might be even more of a problem due to the continuing reluctance of the state to accord equal attention to right and left wing terrorism. Peter Lehr’s chapter on the persistent blindness of the German police to right-wing terrorism is revealing. Lehr speculates that the lack of serious attention to right-wing terrorism, even when it is exposed by incidents like uncovering a long standing terror cell in Zwickau in Germany, is explained by the supposed lack of any revolutionary threat to existing institutions by right-wing terrorism. A moments reflection will reveal how shortsighted that is.

But I also mentioned frustrations with this book, and I should explain what they are. To do that I will focus on the remaining essay in the book — Ineke van der Valk’s study of how young people become involved in extreme right-wing organizations in the Netherlands. I should start by saying that my frustrations have little to do with van der Valk’s analysis; I found his claims—young people come to right-wing organizations more to find friendship then for ideological reasons, prejudice plays a role, and involving youths in violence against others is a basic tool for binding them to the groups—quite convincing; and he bases them on in-depth interviews conducted by a private organization in Amsterdam. But it is just here that the problem arises, as it does in several of the studies in the book. van der Valk provides us with little information about the survey itself. How many respondents were there? What were their characteristics? What kinds of interviews were conducted and using what techniques? I found myself questioning my own assessment of his findings because I had so little data to tell me what weight to give the interviews. Similar problems arise throughout the book. With the exception of Weinstein’s essay on the United States, most of the expressions of concern about rightwing violence and terrorism were accompanied by only anecdotal evidence. I was not able to get a clear picture of the actual extent, character, or object of right-wing violence and terrorism in most of the countries included in the book. As a consequence, I was not able to assess how great a threat it is, especially in contrast to attacks motivated by racial or ethnic prejudice (“hate crimes”). In some instances this appears due to the lack of police attention to the phenomena. As Lambert points out, British crime statistics do not allow for a separation of right-wing violence from hate crimes, probably for the reasons Lehr adduces. But if one of the biggest problems involved in analyzing rightwing terrorism and violence is a lack of basic comparative data concerning it, why isn’t this the focus of an essay in this book? As it is, the evidence in the book is either qualitative—several of the studies give us useful insights into how the ideologies of revolutionary right-wing terrorists develop—or anecdotal. This is alright as far as it goes, but it is obvious that some of the essays might have benefited by using, for example, the Global Terrorism Database (2012) to get a more complete picture of, at least rightwing terrorism in the countries considered. Even P. M. Currie’s useful conclusion summing up the studies in the book fails to mention the data problems. Both a recognition of the data deficiencies and a major data collection effort seems called for here.

Despite my reservations about the dearth of systematic descriptive data, this book is a most worthwhile read. The topic is an alarming one, and the comparative focus of the book shows just how alarming it is. Seeing the similarities and differences between rising populist right-wing movements and their revolutionary counterparts was both interesting and enlightening. Americans tend to see the Tea Party and Timothy McVeigh as sui generis developments tied to conditions in this country. These essays make it obvious that this view is completely and dangerously mistaken. Common themes, driven by reactionary and often illusory grievances, stretch across the Atlantic and beyond.

National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). 2012. Global Terrorism Database [Data File]. http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd Tracy Lightcap, Department of Political Science, LaGrange College.

Tracy Lightcap, Department of Political Science, LaGrange College.

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