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First Person

The Global Rise of Right-Wing Extremism Ask the Expert: Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss Weighs In

Nazi flag and crowd demonstration

Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a Professor of Education and Sociology at American University, and a Senior Fellow and Director of Outreach at the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. As a cultural sociologist, she researches radical youth culture, most recently through a focus on how clothing, style, and symbols act as a gateway into extremist scenes and subcultures.

Miller-Idriss writes frequently for mainstream audiences, with recent bylines in The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, Le Monde, and more. She appears regularly in the media as an expert source and political commentator, most recently on The Washington Post Live, NBC's The Today Show, and France 24's The Interview.  

Here, Miller-Idriss shares her expertise on recent terrorist attacks and the rise of right-wing extremism across the world.

Is the threat of white nationalism growing beyond America’s borders?

White nationalism has always been a threat beyond the US’ borders. Europe has had a long-standing problem with right-wing extremism—not only under the Nazis but also in a wave of neo-Nazism in the 1980s and 1990s. Right-wing extremism is rising globally in three domains: through populist nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Islam street protests among ordinary citizens (like the PEGIDA marches—Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the Occident); through the electoral success of far right political parties; and through rising neo-Nazi and white supremacist youth violence and terror.

Were you surprised by the recent terrorist attack taking place in a country like New Zealand?

I was shocked, but not surprised. On the contrary: I see the attack as the entirely predictable outcome of years of rising nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-Semitic and white supremacist engagement globally. It was part of a pattern of attacks on houses of worship—following other attacks in a Canadian mosque, or in the United States in an African American church, a Jewish synagogue, and a Sikh temple. The scale of the attack was shocking, as was the fact that it was live-streamed. New Zealand would not have been the first place I’d suspect of being vulnerable to an attack like this—largely because it is known to be such a peaceful and multicultural place. But this violent fringe exists everywhere and no country is immune to it, especially now that radicalization can happen in large part on-line.

Why has the radical right movement gained traction? What are the forces behind it?

There are many different things happening all at once that have made radical right and right-wing extremist ideologies more appealing to a wider range of people. On the one hand, the extreme right-wing has become more mainstream, in part through new groups that appear less extreme aesthetically (e.g., wearing suits or khakis/polo shirts, working through electoral systems instead of against the government, and softening language to talk about ‘European heritage’ instead of race). This can help right-wing extremist ideas seem less extreme than they really are. But it’s not just that the extreme has gone mainstream; it’s also that the mainstream has moved more toward the extreme. We have mainstream, elected political leaders in the United States and Europe using derogatory language about immigrants and Muslims, reinforcing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and referring to migrants and refugees with language about invasion, infection, and disease. This kind of legitimation gives urgency to extremist claims and can push the violent fringe toward what they perceive of as heroic action to save their (white) people.

What makes it so appealing to people?

Right-wing extremist rhetoric does many things. It often pits elites against the ordinary people in ways that place blame for economic troubles squarely on the shoulders of governments. When people experience economic precariousness, they can be more vulnerable to that kind of rhetoric. But even more importantly, we are seeing extraordinary levels of isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety among young people. This is a generation that spends more time alone than any previous cohort. They are eager for connection and meaning, and are vulnerable to rhetoric that promises them a sense of belonging, purpose, and a way to contribute to a cause bigger and better than themselves. This is the same dynamic that motivates foreign fighters to join Islamist extremist groups—the idea that they can be a part of something and that their lives will have meaning and purpose, whether that is to restore a sacred geography like the Caliphate or rescue white people from dying out as a race. The language of ‘white genocide’ and ‘ethnic replacement’ (as cited by the New Zealand terrorist, for example) captures this quite clearly, because it is paired with a call to action. This is not to say that all young people are vulnerable to extremist rhetoric. But more young people than ever today are lonely, anxious and want a sense of connection. That increases the number who will be vulnerable to extremist promises of meaning and purpose.

Can it be stopped, and if so, how?

Stopping right-wing extremism will require a multi-pronged solution. Most governments are emphasizing increased law enforcement solutions, enhancing monitoring, surveillance and intelligence efforts. This is important, of course. But it’s also important to remember that intelligence solutions will always be a band-aid. We also need preventative solutions, which will require working within the mainstream to remind people what the core values of democracy are, and what it means to live in an inclusive democracy. We need school programs and educational initiatives that increase empathy and cross-cultural understanding. We need serious funding initiatives that will not only fund preventative programs, but will also fund research to investigate what works.