What constitutes terrorism? The answer is using the threat of, or actual violence, as a means towards a political end.
The last decades’ notoriousness of terrorist attacks driven by Islamist extremist ideologies, coupled with the lack of constancy in defining terrorism, has not only prompted the rise of widespread societal anti-Muslim animosity, but also restricted public understanding of the term.
More importantly, it has served to neglect the emergence of an equally dangerous extremist ideology and similar terrorist attacks: far-right inspired attacks.
Islamist terrorism is driven by the political ideology of Islamism mixed with a Salafi jihadist interpretation of Islam. Yet, out of fear of being branded an anti-Muslim bigot, several high-standing politicians have used terms like “al Qaeda-inspired terrorism” or merely “terrorism,” seeking to avoid confrontation with non-extremist Muslims by not naming the Islamist ideology.
The consequences of such neglect have been severe. Beyond the rapid upsurge of anti-Muslim bigotry, the resultant public discourse has exposed disastrous double standards, revealing that subconsciously many people are on some level incapable of cognitively processing that terrorism comes in different forms, beyond Islamist terrorism.
This week, Thomas Mair, a Hitler-obsessed far-right terrorist, was sentenced for murdering a UK member of parliament, Jo Cox. The MP, who was sympathetic to the suffering of Syrian civilians, and in favor of welcoming immigration policies and cooperation with partners in multinational institutions, was stabbed and shot as Mair shouted “Death to traitors.”
Similarly, ISIS fanatics, motivated by establishing an Islamic state and enforcing a version of Sharia law on society, execute Muslims for not being Muslim enough, and non-Muslims for their different beliefs.
Both far-right and Islamist extremism are driven by dehumanizing, hate-promoting political ideologies, seeking to cleanse society of the “significant other” with disparate beliefs. In the aftermath of the Cox murder, Mair has publicly been labeled everything from a Nazi to a “Right Wing nut.” If an extremist claims to be executing non-believers and shouts “Allahu Akbar,” how should we react?
Mair may have been driven by Nazi ideologies, but the political purpose behind his action confirms the terrorist nature of his crime; it must therefore be labeled as such. The language used by Islamist and far-right perpetrators is similar; their crimes are similar; the ideologies behind the crimes entail similar components. Yet some public discourse seem reluctant to use the term terrorism when the act is driven by non-Islamist ideologies.
Another example of narrow perceptions is reflected in discussions about the UK’s “Prevent” strategy — designed to prevent ideological terrorist attacks in the UK — which has been widely labeled as anti-Muslim, and which some people believe (incorrectly) ferments Islamist extremism. Yet, the fact is that in certain regions of the UK, more referrals to the Prevent strategy’s deradicalization program, Channel, have been of far-right extremists rather than Islamist extremists.
If public discourse persistently associates terrorism with Islamist atrocities only, how can the notion that all terrorists are Muslims, or all Muslims are potential terrorists, be rejected? By not showing consistency, we feed the Islamist narrative that the West hates Islam and vice versa.
Also, by not acknowledging the extremist nature of white supremacist, alt-right ideologies, and by failing to expose their parallels to Islamist extremism, we disregard the severity of the rising far-right problem.
If we do not pay attention to the reciprocity of radicalization patterns, we are directly creating fertile ground for the far-right extremist ideology. The reciprocity, showing that the two extremisms are stimulated by each other, confirms that we cannot combat one of the extremisms without challenging the other simultaneously.
It is therefore imperative to discuss the politics, which drive the extremist ideologies to terrorism, be it Islamist or far-right supremacist ideologies. This would not only allow us to distinguish all Muslims from Islamist extremism and thus restrict the growing bigoted hatred towards them, but also prevent parallel extremist ideologies from taking further roots.
We must be very clear in our understanding that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two and that they feed off each other. Potential double standards must be addressed so that perceptions cannot be manipulated by recruiters.
Only then can we start to treat all forms of ideological terrorism consistently, so that perpetrators can be brought to justice, and to ensure that there is a continuance of nuance when these phenomena are being discussed within our societies.
Haras Rafiq is the CEO of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank based in the UK. Magnus Roar Bech is Quilliam’s communications officer. The opinions in this article belong to the authors.