Argument

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Failed Governance Has Created Extremists in the United States Too

The Islamic State and the U.S. far-right share the same roots.

By , a historian of the modern Middle East and deputy director at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
New Confederate State of America members separate themselves from counter-protesters.
Armed members of the Tennessee-based group New Confederate State of America pile into their pickup truck that had its tires slashed while trying to separate themselves from counter-protesters in Richmond, Virginia, on Sept. 16, 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images

After the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, commentators were eager to deploy the language of terrorism, from noted scholars like Jessica Stern to lawmakers pushing a domestic terrorism statute to homeland security experts like Chris Rodriguez, who argued “the threats we now face are arguably as dangerous as they were in the immediate post-9/11 environment.”

Comparisons to al Qaeda and the Islamic State abounded, with Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, going as far as comparing then-U.S. President Donald Trump to Osama bin Laden on account of their roles as “spiritual leaders” to extremists. Meanwhile, the CIA’s former station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan called for a domestic counterinsurgency strategy, making the case for a home front counterpart to the global war on terror.

Despite well-reasoned counterarguments cautioning against this framing—including those that call attention to the ways in which expansive domestic terrorism legislation will likely be turned on communities of color and leftists—the terrorism paradigm has emerged the dominant one for understanding and addressing the threat posed by the domestic far right.

After the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, commentators were eager to deploy the language of terrorism, from noted scholars like Jessica Stern to lawmakers pushing a domestic terrorism statute to homeland security experts like Chris Rodriguez, who argued “the threats we now face are arguably as dangerous as they were in the immediate post-9/11 environment.”

Comparisons to al Qaeda and the Islamic State abounded, with Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, going as far as comparing then-U.S. President Donald Trump to Osama bin Laden on account of their roles as “spiritual leaders” to extremists. Meanwhile, the CIA’s former station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan called for a domestic counterinsurgency strategy, making the case for a home front counterpart to the global war on terror.

Despite well-reasoned counterarguments cautioning against this framing—including those that call attention to the ways in which expansive domestic terrorism legislation will likely be turned on communities of color and leftists—the terrorism paradigm has emerged the dominant one for understanding and addressing the threat posed by the domestic far right.

Having recently completed a book about the Islamic State—one that charts the uncanny points of overlap between that group and far-right, reactionary movements in the West—I have reached a different set of conclusions. There are real points of comparison to discuss that go well beyond the shared penchant for cosplaying and an evident love of flags. Like their U.S. far-right counterparts, Islamic State fighters desire individual agency in the face of interlocking systems of control, community in the face of atomization, and action in lieu of deliberation. Perhaps above all, they desire the reassurance that someone is in charge of this mess and that it might still be undone through the concerted efforts of a brave and clear-headed group of elect warriors.

However, the terrorism label often precludes the type of careful analysis we need in favor of pathologizing its targets as the embodiments of evil. It is far more important to examine the structural forces that produce reactionary political mobilizations than to bemoan them as instances of individual moral failing. Most distressing, the global war on terror is a case study in how the pursuit of security through force has failed. Political analysts and lawmakers desperately need to rethink policies that proffer more coercion and state violence as the answer to every social and political crisis.

Setting aside superficial commonalities, what truly relates the U.S. far right to the Islamic State is the legitimation crisis that lurks behind each. Both movements are symptoms of a breakdown of “politics as usual,” and the destructive alternatives they offer have proven increasingly attractive to those exasperated by the dim prospect of change through traditional political means. These crises manifest in multiple ways: in anti-elite sentiment and attacks on traditional sources of authority, in faux-populist critiques not of power structures but of knowledge, in the allure of conspiratorial thinking, in the conceptual hollowing out of freedom and corresponding shift toward authoritarian governance, and in the embrace of violence as the premier mode of civic participation.

Lacking a forward vision, they fixate on the lost authenticity of the past and self-consciously perform traditionalism in a way that is wholly modern. From crafting poetic odes to jihad in classical Arabic verse to impersonating U.S. revolutionaries (“We’re walking down the same exact path as the Founding Fathers,” in the words of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes), revival is contingent on returning to an earlier era, where founding principles were revealed in their eternal glory. Yet however much they lay claim to the past, such movements are neither the holdovers from a less enlightened era nor a genuine attempt to return to it but are rather products of the modern world and its crises.

Given the similarities between the two, it might be tempting to treat them equivalently. As Neumann remarked, “It doesn’t make sense to me why if you commit a crime in the name of white supremacy or you commit a crime in the name of an ISIS ideology that you get more jail time for ISIS versus a violent white supremacist act.”

Yet a call to root out white supremacy and advance an agenda of equality should begin by shrinking the ways the terrorism label is applied, not expanding it. It might be satisfying to think of white insurrectionists being subjected to the harassment and scrutiny directed against the Muslim communities they target—but expanding these punitive ideas is no way to build a more just social order.

Before moving to embrace a domestic war on terror, it is useful to survey the legacies of its foreign counterpart: millions of people dead or displaced; decades of chaos, war, and state repression in countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Philippines; astronomical spending levels that make domestic investment in health care, housing, and education more difficult; and destructive blowback in the militarization of U.S. policing. There is also the inculcation of a fear-based social order I have dubbed the “culture of constant vigilance”—a mode of affective politics that views true patriots as constantly under siege from without and within. Authoritarian governance and arms manufacturing have emerged as the chief victors of this two-decade-long pursuit of security through force. It is hard to regard this as a success story in need of expansion or emulation on the home front.

Instead of applying the global war on terror’s principles to domestic actors, its fundamental premises need to be dismantled: that so-called others are inherently threatening, police and military budgets should dwarf the provision of public goods, and surveillance and state violence are the best ways to achieve broad-based security. In this respect, the global war on terror is a close cousin to the belief that poor, Black neighborhoods in the United States require more policing rather than community investment—that the state should respond to its growing legitimation crisis through a greater reliance on force.

What should be done, then, if domestic terrorism legislation is not a proper course of action? Critics say enforce the laws already on the books and in a more even fashion than has historically prevailed. According to a detailed report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, “far-right violence, sometimes categorized as hate crimes or civil rights violations, is severely under-addressed as a matter of Justice Department policy and practice, rather than a lack of statutory authority.” Speaking to this troubling disparity, wrote, “for far too long, public officials and law enforcement have criminalized communities of color while they looked the other way as white nationalists and militias have organized, threatened and committed violence.” The problem with intercepting and prosecuting violent white supremacists has less to do with current laws than with officials’ willingness to use the tremendous authority they already possess to arrest and charge such assailants.

Ironically enough, even those calling for new legislation seem to recognize its limitations. In her testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, Neumann noted, “when it comes to prevention, what we’ve learned is that law enforcement agencies aren’t necessarily the best to do interventions.” Yet the conclusion is not that we need to pursue security through different means, but we must be patient as the Department of Homeland Security works to build more robust mechanisms to prevent radicalization and extremism over the next five to 10 years. The emerging paradigm involves both recognizing the deep-rooted social problems that give rise to far-right political formations but also suggesting they be addressed without making any fundamental changes to the existing social order.

Critics of contextualizing political violence often point out, correctly, that individual actors involved are usually not acting out of material desperation. For instance, in his seminal study of suicide bombers, co-authors Robert Pape and James Feldman found assailants tended to be better off in material terms than many others and also displayed no obvious pathology. So too, and despite countless invocations of the “white working class,” the base for Trumpism in the United States is demonstrably more comfortable than is often reported. Although there were economically marginal people among the Capitol Hill rioters, their ranks included “business owners, CEOs, state legislators, police officers, active and retired service members, [and] real-estate brokers,” a thoroughly “respectable” crowd, journalist Adam Serwer argued.

But this is not a question of individual privation but the ways in which the particular logic of neoliberalism undermines democracy both by generating widespread precarity and by discrediting politics as an arena of collective problem-solving. The resort to culture wars is part of this project, cultivating a sense of being under siege not from the whims of the free market but from those individuals deemed outside the so-called real national community.

Counterinsurgency and law enforcement are not the answer. Because there is a material and social basis to far-right ideologies, white supremacy included, coercion alone cannot quell a crisis of legitimation.

Right populist attacks on “the establishment” resonate because they contain a grain of truth: In the United States, elite power shapes almost every part of the political process; self-serving politicians and corruption are most unexceptional affairs; and a class of “post-ideological” technocrats believe governing is too complicated for the people. So, too, the Islamic State’s self-presentation as an ethical alternative to the tyranny, clientelism, and hypocrisy of existing regimes in the Middle East found a receptive audience in part because these critiques are broadly felt – which is not to say that all, or even most, who share this dim view of the region’s governments supported the Caliphate.

Particularly during the 2014 to 2016 period, what the Islamic State offered was less bad governance, as co-authors Mara Revkin and William McCants characterized it. Residents living under the Islamic State noted that garbage was collected, the streets were clean, and electricity flowed more regularly than when they lived under government control. A budding bureaucracy existed to support such services: Receipts were issued, records were kept, and fatwas (or legal opinions based on Islamic law) numbered and ordered. A populace that had grown accustomed to the absence of the state in material terms—infrastructure, security, public order—did not turn to the market to solve this lacuna. Rather, at least some portion of it supported a political alternative that promised to actually govern.

Over the past 40 years, conservative thinkers, politicians, and institutions in the United States have advanced a very different view of the state—justifying regressive taxation and the state’s retreat from social welfare by encouraging a dismal view of government as bloated, inefficient, and corrupt. As former U.S. President Ronald Reagan put it, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Within this framework, the Republican Party’s refusal to govern—becoming instead the party of grievance—is a means of undermining democracy’s social basis by discrediting politics as an arena of collective problem-solving.

Yet the idea that the state “owes you nothing” (and has nothing to give) is playing poorly these days. Facing a global pandemic and its economic fallout, natural disasters, and infrastructure meltdowns, the vast majority of Americans have made it abundantly clear that they do expect something from the state after all. And contrary to the wishes of neoliberalism’s champions, Trump’s base responded by embracing a would-be authoritarian who could cut through the red tape and finally deliver for the people. As one insurrectionists so plainly put it, “If we can’t get a country that we deserve to live in through the legitimate process, then maybe we need to begin to explore some other options.”

Addressing the present crisis requires movement on multiple fronts, but the most elemental need is to rebuild state capacity and democratize its responsiveness to the people as a whole. Ideas for what this means in practice abound, from robust campaign finance reform to delivering on policies that consistently draw bipartisan support, such as universal health care, greater spending on education and infrastructure, and drug decriminalization. Above all, it requires that Democrats and progressives make the case for government by actually governing at every level, using every tool at their disposal.

In sum, far bigger shifts are required to make politics a space for substantive democratic legitimacy and to undermine the related pivots toward authoritarianism and conspiratorial logic. However tempting it is to address this crisis through the familiar resort to policing and counterinsurgency, adopting the terrorism paradigm will do little to combat the legitimation crisis. Actually doing so is far more difficult and disruptive to entrenched interests than launching a domestic war on terror, but it is also the only way to counter the forces that assembled in January.

Suzanne Schneider, a historian of the modern Middle East, is deputy director and core faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is the author of Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine.

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