Far-Right Extremism Is a Global Problem

And it is time to treat it like one.

A member of the Architect of the Capitol inspects a damaged entrance of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 7.
A member of the Architect of the Capitol inspects a damaged entrance of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 7. Alex Wong/Getty Images

From Brazil to the United States, Hungary to New Zealand, right-wing extremist ideas and groups are posing a grave threat to democratic societies. Within this context, the ongoing support U.S. President Donald Trump receives from parts of his base despite the drop in his approval numbers and the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 reflects the continued evolution of a global threat. As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden emphasized after a right-wing terrorist killed over 50 people at a pair of mosques in her country, “there is no question that ideas and language of division and hate have existed for decades, but their form of distribution, the tools of organization—they are new.” If there is any hope of repairing those divides and advancing equality, rule of law, an inclusive civil society, and respect for human rights, the United States needs to work with other countries and multilateral organizations to build a coalition to combat the growth and spread of right-wing extremism.

Nearly 20 years after the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent launch of what American leaders dubbed the “global war on terror,” the world finds itself confronting a new threat. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, as the international community focused on al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other groups espousing a particular interpretation of Islam to justify their terrorism, right-wing extremism grew around the world. Social media platforms and chatrooms offered important mediums for people to share ideas, connect, and learn from each other regardless of geographical location, facilitating connections that might otherwise have been difficult to form.

While right-wing ideology and groups are not new to many parts of Europe, the growth in immigration from Muslim countries, increased movement of individuals within the European Union, and the mainstreaming of far-right ideas from populist politicians as a response to the rise in immigration contributed to a right-wing surge in the 2010s. For example, the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik executed his brutal and deadly attack in Oslo and on Utoya Island in July 2011. In his manifesto, he described a need to defend Europe from Muslim domination and multiculturalism. In response to the attacks, Norway changed its laws to redefine the requirements for a terrorist conviction, agreed to share fingerprint information from criminal investigations with the United States and EU to enable other countries to monitor the actions of individuals who cross borders, and launched a nationwide strategy against hate speech in 2016. The strategy embraced recommendations from the United Nations incorporating both international and domestic approaches. Norway’s whole-of-society approach to addressing extremism ensures that citizens are actively involved in promoting the country’s values to combat threats.

As Norway was still working on its response, major right-wing terrorism hit the United States. In 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine Black people in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Similar to Breivik, he believed that white people needed to be protected from the dangers of other groups. For Roof, that included Jewish people, Latinos, and Black people. Roof also espoused key features of right-wing extremist ideas focused on nostalgia for a historic white past of greatness to counter perceived white victimization in the present.

Although the U.S. response to the attack did not result in a nationwide reckoning on right-wing extremism as Breivik’s strike in Norway did, it did lead to dialogue and initiatives at the local level in South Carolina that pointed to steps that could be taken at the national level as well. The 2015 murders forced South Carolina residents, activists, politicians, and academics to confront the state’s long history of racism and discrimination. Civil rights activists and the University of South Carolina joined forces to establish the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation, to encourage local communities to confront racism and the state’s history by building stronger alliances and relationships across racial lines.

The deadly attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 underscored how right-wing extremism had continued to grow around the world. Similar to Breivik, the Christchurch shooter, who mentioned the Norwegian by name in his own manifesto, referenced protecting white people of European descent from immigration, Muslims, and other threats he described as amounting to “white genocide.” The New Zealand government moved quickly after the attack to address right-wing extremism. It changed the country’s gun laws to ban the kind of semi-automatic weapon used in the attack, and it demonstrated visible support for New Zealand’s Muslim community. New Zealand worked with France and technology companies to find solutions to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content on social media platforms based on applicable laws of the countries supportive of the Christchurch Call, as the plan became known, as well as industry standards and international human rights law, including the freedom of expression. The attack also led to a nationwide interrogation of the country’s values and treatment of its diverse communities. In a report released in December 2020, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attack reveals the failure of the country’s security forces to track the right-wing extremist threat and the hate, discrimination, and poor treatment Muslims and other groups have encountered in New Zealand. The report provides a series of recommendations including strengthening engagement with those communities and restructuring the security agencies that are responsible for counterterrorism.

Over the course of the 2000s, right-wing extremist ideas were mainstreamed as they permeated political parties and influenced politicians.

It isn’t just outright attacks that mark the spread of extreme right-wing ideology. Over the course of the 2000s, those ideas were mainstreamed as they permeated political parties and influenced politicians.

In 2010, Viktor Orban became Hungary’s prime minister. During his tenure, he has expressed anti-refugee and anti-immigration ideas and argued that Europe was being overtaken by other cultures and groups, particularly Muslims. Using the power that comes from controlling the state, Orban and his party have undermined democracy by changing laws to place loyalists in the civil service, attacking academic institutions, limiting press freedom, and pushing the concept of a singular Hungarian national identity. Orban has even praised Trump for his “America first” platform. In response, thousands of Hungarian citizens have marched to protest the government as an Orban spokesperson blamed the demonstrations on George Soros. Recently, opposition parties have united to challenge Orban and his party’s rule in the 2022 elections.

In 2014, Narendra Modi and his right-wing party won the majority in the Indian elections. Before his victory, the U.S. government had denied Modi a visa because of his suspected support for and indifference to Hindu extremist mob attacks on Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister there. Despite his more recent embrace by the international community, Modi has encouraged the most extreme factions of his party and, with allies, has brought extremist ideas into the mainstream, advancing the idea of India as a Hindu country irrespective of its great diversity. Politicians from his Bharatiya Janata Party have also sought to advance a narrative of Hindu victimhood to justify supporting anti-democratic measures like the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Bill, which excludes Muslims from a list of persecuted religious groups from neighboring countries who could be eligible for Indian citizenship. To challenge Modi and the government’s actions, hundreds of thousands of Indians have mobilized to provide counter-narratives to their propaganda and disinformation. The Indian news site AltNews fact-checks politicians, articles, and other information, identifying misleading and false reports to inform the public.

The 2018-2019 rise of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency in Brazil demonstrated how right-wing extremist ideas have continued to emerge. During his campaign, Bolsonaro advocated a platform of returning Brazil to its former glory through attacks on government institutions and minorities, as well as violence against criminals, activists, and opposition parties. Using social media, he was able to grow his support across the country. Bolsonaro has also been a vocal supporter of Trump and even endorsed Trump during his reelection campaign. As a result of Bolsonaro’s attacks on Brazilian democracy, marginalized groups in Brazil are becoming more involved in politics to reimagine the country’s civil society. Black women in Brazil are running for office on platforms focused on human rights and dignity, anti-racism, and equality

These examples all show that, rather than treating right-wing extremism as isolated incidents parochial to particular countries, it is time to recognize it as a global and evolving phenomenon. If the United States and the international community do not quickly mobilize resources to unite against this threat, they may lose an important chance to stem its spread. The actions that individual countries, local governments, journalists, and ordinary citizens have taken to combat right-wing extremism over the past decade offer examples for what an international effort might look like.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has an opportunity following the U.S. Capitol riot to marshal the international community around addressing right-wing extremism. The Biden administration should work with partner countries to expand the scope and mission of the Global Counterterrorism Forum to address right-wing extremism and its different permutations. This will not be easy, since the United States and other countries will have to confront historical and national biases and traumas involving race, religion, and ethnicity, making tough and strategic choices on how to move forward. But it is necessary.

A key to battling right-wing extremism will be addressing disinformation. Social media, chatrooms, and websites (along with algorithms tracking an individual’s internet behavior) enable people around the world to construct their own reality and reinforce existing beliefs while making them susceptible to influence from different groups and individuals. Anti-democratic ideas are able to spread more rapidly and find audiences across national borders. Biden had the right idea when he suggested holding an international conference on democracy to discuss the challenges the world is facing. However, such a conference will make little progress if disinformation is not a part of the discussion and plan of action. That’s where an existing network like the Global Counterterrorism Forum, which has experience facilitating the sharing of ideas, improving international digital literacy, and offering a united front, could come in.

As the global population continues to become younger, it is imperative to develop international approaches to address extremist ideas that make individuals, societies, and institutions vulnerable. Between the economic shocks of 2008 and those resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, young people are demanding change from Chile to Hong Kong. As a result, the Biden administration should work with the United Nations to better assist these generations through vocal and financial support for organizations advancing an inclusive civil society, democracy, and equality. That should help protect them from falling prey to extremism to begin with.

Battling right-wing extremism will not be easy, as many politicians and political parties have incorporated elements of its ideas into their platforms, but democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights around the world are worth the fight.

Heather Ashby is a national security and foreign policy professional.