Rampant populism, identity politics, widespread disinformation, xenophobia and Islamophobia that fuel growing far right extremist violence around the world have created one of the most complex security challenges in recent years. The US considers white supremacist violent extremism a major domestic terror threat. US intelligence and security analysts called the January 6, 2021 insurrection against the election results that led to Joe Biden’s presidential victory the perfect storm of a xenophobic ideology combined with armed extremist violence and mis/disinformation spread at scale through online platforms. In Britain, at least five anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant Neo-Nazi groups have been banned under terror laws since the UK government first proscribed the white supremacist National Action in 2017. Members of the Canadian government have called anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-Muslim white supremacist extremist violence a harsh reality. As kindred individuals connect with each other across borders and continents, propagating conspiracy theories such as the great replacement, for example, the white supremacist threat is fast becoming transnational.
According to Canadian terrorism analyst Jessica Davis, current counter-terrorism tools, geared to tackling threats from global jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State under UN sanctions regimes, are proving to be outdated because far right actors have understood the impact of existing counter-terrorism frameworks and how to evade them. And yet, in spite of the growing evidence that emboldened ultra-right wing ideologies are becoming a significant threat to safety and security, there is no international agreement on either the definition of far right extremist violence, nor on the terminology of the catchall term of racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism.
While the West grapples with violent white supremacist extremism that seeks to overthrow elected governments and push for racially and religiously homogeneous nations, the South Asian story is more complex, because right wing groups acting in their home countries across the region don’t act against elected governments but, in fact, receive their ideological support. Sri Lanka’s or Myanmar’s Buddhist majoritarianism, for example, have thrived on a hyper-nationalist, hyper-masculine religious or ethnic identity politics that aims to create homogenous societies in linguistically, religiously and ethnically diverse countries.
At home [India], the populist BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) government thrives on the propagation of this brand of muscular politics that seeks to alienate and marginalise religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians. As a result, lower down the food chain, local individuals and groups aligned with Hindutva politics have increasingly assumed the State’s silence and/or failure to stringently punish crimes like mob lynchings, or tackle calls for genocide made by self-styled religious leaders and right wing politicians, to be ideological and political sanction for their crimes.
The breakdown of political consensus around defining terrorism is itself an age-old problem, especially at the UN. This is further complicated by the reality of our digital world, in which tensions can travel across borders with ease, as we saw most recently in Leicester, UK, last September in the aftermath of an Indian cricket victory in September 2022. The vandalization of a local mosque, the procession of Hindu men chanting “Jai Shri Ram” and heckling British Pakistanis and causing retaliatory incidents, rang alarm bells in the UK security establishment. The Indian government condemned the violence against the Indian community and vandalization of Hindu symbols, significantly equating religion with national identity.
India’s unwillingness to categorise militant Hindutva actors as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists has been hardened by strong domestic political resistance to the linkages between violent actors who perpetrate hate crimes and their subscription to the ideology of Hindu supremacy as national identity. In fact, while taking charge of the UN Counter Terrorism Committee for 2021-2022, India’s permanent representative to the UN TS Tirumurti had said, “We are now seeing attempts to divide us once again by adopting new terminologies under the guise of ‘emerging threats’ such as racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism, violent nationalism, right wing extremism,” and called it a dangerous tendency. “Member states must remain united against the tendency of labelling acts of terrorism based on their motivation,” he said. That position remains unchanged.
Further, though, terrorism scholars Naureen Chaudhury Fink and Tanya Mehra write that Indian diaspora communities in the US and Britain have aligned with right wing politics in their settled countries. For example, Hindus rallied to form the Republican Hindu Convention that supported Donald Trump in 2016, and more recently, in 2019, the BJP’s supporters amongst the Indian diaspora in the UK actively campaigned for the Tories in over 45 parliamentary seats. Both Trump’s Republican Party and the current avatar of the British Tories have swung further to the right, against inclusivity and pluralism in their respective countries.
Whether in the West or in the South Asian region, the far right “loves extremist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda because they make non-Muslim societies fear Muslims,” argues Bethan Johnson, a terrorism expert looking extensively at American white supremacist violent ideologies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. In fact, the parallels with ideologies and practices of white supremacist movements, with the significant exception of access to arms and ammunition, like violent actors in the West, especially in the US have, are obvious. But given global contestations, especially on identity-based populist politics that has led to a far right extremist awakening in several countries around the world (and India is no exception to extremist violence), it is next to impossible to designate far right individuals and groups as terrorists. Adding to the complexity is the nature of US laws. The First Amendment to the US Constitution protecting free speech doesn’t allow for the categorization of US citizens acting violently at home as terrorists, even though heavily armed white supremacists are challenging internal security around the country.
The world community is in a state of constant crisis, and the social contract that sought to prioritise harmony among communities is badly eroded. Whether it is the war over Ukraine, or the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, the arrival of the extremist Taliban in Afghanistan or the strain on civil liberties in authoritarian states, the world is littered with such examples, and it has become increasingly evident that violent extremist actors not only cut across the ideological spectrum, but also take advantage of the chaos.
The imperative now is for both honesty and political will amongst all UN member states, to accept that terrorism or violent extremism is no longer restricted to just jihadist violence, and accept that other factors fuel racially and ethnically motivated extremist violence in the world. By doing so, it may become easier to identify and designate far right groups and individuals as terrorists, who perpetrate violence on the basis of ideology and identity, even if the definition of terrorism globally remains elusive.
(Maya Mirchandani is Associate Professor of Media Studies, Ashoka University, and Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)