As I have written on many occasions in the past, we have ‘terrorism on the brain’. I wish I could write otherwise, but in a world where something happens somewhere on almost a daily basis it would be disingenuous of me to say that terrorism is not a frequent scourge, and hence it is on all of our minds a lot of the time. And, when something dominates our thoughts like terrorism has over the past two decades it is often the case that we overestimate how bad it is.
Here is an example. One term that I hear a lot of is ‘existential threat’, i.e. that terrorism poses an existential threat to either the world as a whole or to some part thereof. For something to be that big it has to be important, and no one would argue that terrorism can be ignored. But to warrant such a label should require significant evidence – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence after all (apparently this is called the ‘Sagan standard’ after the late US astronomer Carl Sagan) – and I am not so sure that anyone has demonstrated definitively that terrorism, as a general phenomenon or in the guise of a particular group (say Al Qaeda -AQ – or Islamic State – IS), actually stands a chance of destroying everything we hold dear (i.e. our ‘existence’ – which an ‘existential’ threat would risk).
Nevertheless, since 9/11 some have written that the type of terrorism deployed by AQ and IS, what we call Islamist terrorism, is indeed existential in nature. There is no doubt that these terrorists have been very busy, wreaking havoc in dozens of countries, some more than others (the sheer numbers of attacks in nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq widely outpace those in Canada or the US). But to say that any of this seriously stands to undermine our systems of government and society would be a stretch – a large one at that.
Nevertheless, all this talk of existential threat has led to bad decisions: military invasions that have resolved little to nothing, bans on Muslim migration, even attempts to make wearing the hijab illegal, as if a head covering was somehow just the first step on the path to the ‘Islamicisation’ of our lands. If you truly think that the enemy is banging at the gate – which is why the ‘gates of Vienna’ meme works so well for white supremacists (NB this is an actual event in history – 1683 – where the Ottomans tried to take the city, failed, and entered a steep decline leading to the dissolution of the empire/Caliphate in 1924) – you boost your response and not always in a good way.
So if the description of the Islamist extremist threat as existential was/is wrong, are we making the same mistake with the far right/white supremacist/white nationalist/neo-Nazi/identitarian movements? Do they pose an ‘existential threat’ to the West?
H.A. Hellyer at RUSI in the UK sure thinks so. Here is what he wrote in Time in the wake of the New Zealand attacks: “As an Englishman, I see far more of an existential threat posed by the rise of white supremacy to the fundamental integrity of my country and the West. ” A recent piece in The Christian Science Monitor makes a similar point, even if the word ‘existential’ is not used.
An interesting argument was made by the ICSR’s Peter Neumann about existential threats. He wrote about how the far right has seen ‘Muslim invasions’ to the West as existential and are thus ramping up their own activity. According to Mr. Neumann: “If you relentlessly speak about an existential threat, you can’t be surprised when some people take the logical next step and use violence. If the Muslims are invading and fighting a war against us and our identity, then there is only one answer: ‘We have to defend ourselves.” In other words, merely writing about Islam as an existential threat can make some take up violence.
What then should we make of all this? It is hardly surprising that massacres like the one in Christchurch recently have led to a renewed interest and concern over the far right (the threat has been around for a long time but there is nothing like the senseless deaths of 50 innocent people at prayer to sharpen the mind). There is no question that not enough has been done to monitor and push back against far right extremists – due to limited resources and the continuing Islamist terrorist menace – and that maybe now more will be done. But is all of this truly ‘existential’? Are there enough of these wankers out there to truly threaten who and what we are? I remain unconvinced. I could be wrong but I need a lot more data to start proclaiming the end is near. As an aside, an old friend of mine, John Rapley, wrote in the Globe and Mail last weekend that ‘populism’, associated to some extent with the far right, may actually have peaked.
That we need to get better at our response to the far right is a no-brainer. That we need to be careful at seeing it as far bigger than it really is, thus making the same mistake we did with the jihadis, is also a no-brainer. We have big brains: let’s use them wisely.