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A protest in New York in May (Photo: Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A protest in New York in May (Photo: Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SocietyDecember 10, 2020

The inquiry may be over, but the fight against white extremism is just beginning

A protest in New York in May (Photo: Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A protest in New York in May (Photo: Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The government has accepted the Royal Commission’s recommendations, but the job is far from done, says Abbas Nazari – we underestimate the threat of white supremacy at our peril.

With the government making an “in-principle” commitment to all 44 of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission, no doubt the response to the Christchurch mosque attacks inquiry will be one of the most prominent themes of its second term.

But while it is easy to place the report on a shelf and say job well done, it is not the end. As many vocal participants in this process have written, the work is only beginning, as the rise of white extremism will be one of the most pressing national security challenges of the coming decade. 

For much of the post-9/11 world, intelligence agencies around the world focused their attention on jihadi terrorists. As well as the 9/11 attacks, the early 2000s saw the horrific bombings in Madrid, London, Bali, New Delhi and across much of the Middle East. In recent years, the ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks throughout Europe have raised the terrorism threat level in many countries to their highest levels. While battling the jihadi extremism, intelligence agencies were becoming aware of another emerging terrorist threat, this time from white supremacist extremists. 

As early as 2009, the United States Department of Homeland Security sounded the alarm, with a leaked memo which cautioned that the economic downturn caused by the global financial crisis and the election of the first African American president in Barack Obama presented “unique drivers for rightwing radicalisation and recruitment”. The DHS memo was later retracted due to political pressure from the Republican Party. 

White supremacist groups enter the mainstream

In Europe, a perceived mass migration of Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, particularly during the Mediterranean refugee crisis of 2014-16, was met with a rise in nationalism and anti-immigrant populism. This saw the rise of extremist identitarian groups – networks of race-based young men such as Identity Europa, Greece’s Golden Dawn, and the English Defence League. While these groups started out in the fringes, many are now in the political mainstream, lurching traditionally progressive politics to the centre-right. Political parties such as the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), Hungary’s Fidesz Party and Austria’s Freedom Party all have their roots in the far right. Riding the wave of nationalist fervour, these parties, have all performed surprisingly well in national and EU-wide elections.

There has been a similar rise in the US, with an array of extremist groups, many well-armed, entering the mainstream. It is important to note that while the European groups appear to be race or ethnicity based, the American groups are more diverse in their raison d’etre. Neo-Nazi groups such as the KKK and White Aryan Resistance are clearly race-based. However, other groups, such as state-based militia, present themselves as anti-government and defenders of the constitution regardless of race (although the overwhelming majority are white). Others, such as the Boogaloo Bois (actual name) wish for a race war and a collapse of the government. The US-based advocacy groups Southern Poverty Law Centre and the Anti-Defamation League keep a comprehensive list of such groups. Perhaps the most famous of these groups are the Proud Boys, who Trump refused to condemn in a nationally televised presidential debate. The Proud Boys are one of the fastest-growing white nationalist groups, with chapters in Britain, Norway, and Australia. 

The Great Replacement theory

Much of the academic and philosophical underpinning of white extremism is the notion of the Great Replacement Theory, proposed by the French writer Renaud Camus in 2011. Camus warns about the erasure of western culture due to liberal immigration policies and the higher birth rates of non-whites. White supremacist groups have taken a firm hold of this theory, and it’s been mentioned in the manifestos of several white supremacist terrorists, including the Christchurch gunman, the shooters in El Paso, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and many others. At its core, Camus’ theory rests on a vast conspiracy and anecdote, but for those lurking in the world of memes, conspiracy videos, the dark web, and internet chat rooms, such nuances are lost.

Beyond the individual

As the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry makes clear, the Christchurch gunman had a traumatic upbringing, and displayed many of the psychological, social and economic elements that are the hallmarks of such terrorists. This is not to steer the conversation about the real victims of the Christchurch attacks, who are aptly placed at the centre of the inquiry and its recommendations. The report makes valid and timely recommendations regarding New Zealand’s domestic intelligence apparatus, amending organisational procedural failures, and enabling policy that is representative of New Zealand’s increasing diversity. But a conversation also needs to be had about the familial, economic and societal conditions that allow an individual to commit mass murder. 

Abbas Nazari is a Fulbright New Zealand Scholar in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, Washington DC

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