One doesn’t often get to be a nationalist far-right supporter in the morning and an Islamist extremist sympathiser in the evening. This year’s Guy Fawkes Day brought back vivid memories: a year ago, my day started with a discussion of “the need to deport all Muslims from Britain” over a cider, and ended with a conversation about “the necessity to establish a caliphate in the UK”. The two events that coincidentally fell on 5 November were organised by two organisations with diametrically opposed world views: the extreme-right English Defence League (EDL) and the global Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir.
When I arrived in what the EDL called “the Muslim grooming capital” Telford, I was unsure what I found more shocking: the protestors’ unexpectedly warm-hearted welcome or their inconceivably apocalyptic world views. “We want to make the politicians listen, they don’t get it but we are being taken over. This town is already infested by Muslamic rapists and terrorists”, a middle-aged EDL marcher whispered in my ear as we sat on a bench waiting for the rally to start. “But don’t worry, we’ll look after you today!”, he added with a friendly smile as he mistook my indignation for fear.
The EDL marchers I spoke to all had very human concerns. Sarah, a woman in her early thirties told me she had joined the EDL because she didn’t want her six-month-old daughter “to grow up with Islamic rape and terrorism”. Yet, their suggested solutions could hardly be more inhuman: “we need to deport all Muslim parasites”, her boyfriend Paul concluded.
A few hours later, I found myself sitting in the segregated women’s section in the midst of members of the global Islamist extremist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. “Every day when my children take the tube I am afraid they might become victims of a hate crime”, Sana, a young woman in a colourful hijab told me. “This is what Muslims are facing everywhere in the world today, only by establishing a global caliphate and universally adopting sharia we can end our suffering.”
The tales and arguments I found among far-right and Islamist extremists were strikingly similar; so similar that their apocalyptic predictions and utopian visions ended up being more complementary than contradictory. What started with legitimate concerns about the rise of terrorism, sexual threats, hate crimes and discrimination gradually turned into the desire to pre-emptively destroy the chosen culprit. I soon realised that Islamist and far-right stories were part of the same overarching narrative – one that foresees an imminent war of cultures, pitting Muslims against non-Muslims. And so I used this peculiar excursion into the worlds of extremists as the starting point to write The Rage: The Vicious Cirlce of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism.
The goal of The Rage was to understand how these caring, welcoming EDL protestors and Hizb ut-Tahrir members could possibly want such a sinister future. What is it that drives people into embracing this return to drawing the battle lines along religious, racial and cultural identity? How can the societal rifts be prevented from widening and extremists on both sides stopped from moving into the mainstream?
The first step to diving into the worlds of extremists is to learn their language and cultural references. Social media algorithms have made it terribly easy to make ourselves comfortable in our sheltered echo chambers of like-minded individuals, to see only what we agree with and to hear only what we want to hear. While extremists are starting to create their own parallel online societies – including alternative media outlets, chat forums and crowdsourcing platforms – the middle ground is becoming increasingly detached from the reality of those on the fringes of the political spectrum. The consequence of this is becoming increasingly obvious: a deepening divide between “us” and them” – and ultimately – dwindling empathy.
Understanding the simultaneous rise of Islamist and far-right extremism requires taking a step out of our filter bubbles and listening to the people directly involved in extremist networks. But with the introduction of stricter hate speech laws, entering their closed forums and encrypted chat rooms has become more difficult. Often gaining the trust of extremists involves passing rigorous vetting procedures. For example, multiple extreme-right channels asked me to confirm my ideological leaning through questionnaires, interviews and social media background checks. In others, I even had to prove my whiteness by submitting time-stamped wrist pictures.
I quickly learnt that whichever extremist channel I entered, the declared goal was always the same: to create a mass movement that would bring about radical political change. Islamist extremists discussed methods to galvanise “the grey-zone Muslims” for their causes; the extreme right strategized on how to best “redpill all normies” (radicalise normal people). I therefore pretended to be one of these “grey-zone Muslims” using the name Maryam Ansari in Isis Telegram channels, while I would adopt the pseudonym Jennifer Malo to pose as one of these “soon-to-be-redpilled normies” in extreme-right Discord channels.
Setting up a digital fake identity takes time and patience. You have to know the past, present and future of your characters, and one inconsistent answer can blow the entire cover. Once I had established credible online accounts, I waited for the extremists to attempt to radicalise me. Whether as Maryam or as Jenni, what I saw was a high competence of tapping into fears – often legitimate ones – about the future of their identity group. Both sides of the extremist spectrum skilfully rationalised personal grievances of “grey-zone Muslims” and “normies” by arguing that the establishment had failed to keep them and their families safe – economically, socially, physically.
According to far-right extremists, the only avenue to escape “the Muslim invasion” and “the white genocide” would be the closure of all borders and remigration of all refugees and migrants: in other words, a return to ethno-cultural homogeneity. Meanwhile, Islamist extremists argued that the “global persecution of Muslims” could only be solved by creating a religiously homogeneous society in the form of a caliphate. Two supposedly monolithic blocs – Islam and the West – would have to be eyeball to eyeball in a final battle sooner or later.
While Islamist extremists use xenophobic, far-right rhetoric to confirm their narrative of a profoundly Islamophobic West that seeks to oppress Muslims on a global scale, the extreme right views jihadist terrorists as representative for all Muslims. As a result, both sides fail to se that the conflict is in fact not one between cultures but between two extreme counter-cultures. Both Islamist and far-right extremists have successfully created counter-cultures that exploited identity crises and leverage anti-establishment resentments. Only the mainstreaming of these dangerous counter-cultures would risk to turn the war between fringe groups into a large scale civil war.
Unfortunately, counter-cultures tend to resonate well with younger generations. It seems that those who don’t know what the world looked like before 9/11 and the War on Terror have been especially susceptible to these black-and-white counter-cultures. Isis was able to lure many teenagers into travelling to Syria, while the extreme-right networks managed to gain traction among Generation Z. It is a generation that is disillusioned with the negative side effects of modernity and globalisation. As a result, many have bought into Islamist and far-right anti-modern and anti-globalist ideologies – paradoxically whilst exploiting modern technology and building global networks. The extreme fringes turned their weakness into their biggest strength by framing themselves as the revolutionary heroes, lending meaningfulness to the perspectiveless and belonging to the left behind. Their biggest weapon became the hypocrisy of those in power and the virtue signalling culture of those on the bandwagon.
People older than 25 may have missed out on Snapchat, possibly even Instagram. But, wait a second, when did neo-Nazism become fashionable and jihad cool? In the past, most counter-cultures were the brainchildren of the left – from women’s rights to Woodstock. Now far-right and Islamist extremists are in the process of creating regressive counter-cultures that risks to reverse all the civil rights their parents, grand-parents and great grand-parents had been fighting for.
The use of pop culture references and the creation of inside vocabulary worked well on both sides of the extremist spectrum. Old ideas are rebranded using new labels and memes. Isis convinced many youngsters that becoming a “Jihobbist” in a “call to duty” because “Yodo” (you only die once) is trendy, while the alt-right turned “saving the oppressed people of Kekistan” from the “the globalist scum”, especially the “libtards” and “cuckservatives” into an appealing youth resistance movement.
“I am too old to be the leader of Generation Identity’s new UK branch”, one British member of the pan-European extreme-right movement told me in the pub. In my first Skype call with one of their leaders I had been asked if I could imagine to represent the Identitarians in front of the media. “This is a youth movement, we need young faces.”
When I joined the organisation’s strategy meeting that was held in an Airbnb in Brixton I realised just how important the public image was to the movement. Martin Sellner, the hip Austrian leader who wears Ray-Bans and drinks Club Mate briefed us on how to respond to tough questions from the media. His past as a neo-Nazi has taught him that “being openly anti-Semitic and racist” is strategically not smart, if you want to create a mass movement in Europe. Instead they do controlled provocation to carry out “strategic polarisation and force people to take a side”. This allows them to slowly shift the Overton Window.
Optics and public perception matter a lot to extremist movements. Isis-jihadists use only the most attractive jihadi brides as their poster girls and make sure their foreign fighters look good in their propaganda videos. Being perceived as “hip” and “sexy” was also a top priority for the white supremacist organisers of the Charlottesville rally who even called on less good-looking people to stay home in their Discord channel.
Attempts to do understand and challenge these counter-cultures can be painful, as I had to learn the hard way. Whether it was the English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson paying me a surprise visit as part of his “Troll Watch” series, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin ranting against me on his Daily Stormer webpage or the alt-right doxxing me on 8Chan – attempts of intimidating their political opponents are an inherent part of this counter-culture. Religious, ethnic and sexual minorities make for good culprits, but so does today’s dominant culture of multi-culturalism. Depending on their favourite bogeyman, I was either a Muslim or a Jew, occasionally a “cultural Marxist”, “globalist” and a “social justice warrior (SJW)”. In any case I would remain a traitor to the white race and European identity – in a similar manner as Islamist extremists would view Muslims who oppose exclusivist ideologies as traitors to the ummah, the global Islamic community.
But ultimately, condemning extremists’ ideologies – however harmful – isn’t good enough. We need to understand the human elements in the radicalisation process and the appeal of counter-cultures among disillusioned members of our society. We start with the commonalities rather than the differences – between left and right, Muslims and non-Muslims, whites and blacks.
Only by listening to those who feel unheard and by addressing what matters to them we will be able to rebuild the broken bridges. This might even mean learning their language and reading their ideologies. After all, even Nietzsche, one of the far right’s favourite philosophers (known often exclusively for his “Ubermensch” term misappropriated by the Nazis), warned of “fundamental philosophical doctrines” – today’s “isms” of all kinds. And Ibn Taymiyyah, one of Islamist extremists’ primary sources of inspiration, argued that justice is more important than religion and criticised those who “forget the good about others”. In any case, for him “what really counts are good endings, not flawed beginnings.”
Everyone deserves a second chance. The more days I spend studying the evil sides in people, the more I also believe in their good sides. My undercover research helped me to see those that we quickly label as extremists – Islamist or far-right – as what they are: human beings with flaws, certainly, but also capable of loving, laughing and crying. Extremism begins with the dehumanisation of the other, so fighting extremism can only start with the re-humanisation of extremists. We need open debate instead of blind denouncement to build bridges instead of walls.
The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism is published by I.B. Tauris (£11.99)
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