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The Rise of Far-right

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The Rise of Far-right

The danger not of bombs but ballots

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many societies around the world faced the phenomenon of far-right extremism or right-wing radicalism. The infamous Ku Klux Klan, an American white supremacist, right-wing terrorist organization that perpetrated homicides and other heinous crimes – against, mainly, African Americans – is one such example. Later on, Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany emerged as the biggest challenge humanity had ever faced, igniting the fire of the Second World War that claimed an estimated 85 million lives and cost governments more than one trillion dollars. The bloodbath, destruction, deprivation and human miseries well-documented during WWII caused disillusionment among the masses with far-right ideas, and post-war years witnessed little or no far-right activism in Europe and beyond. It remained underground, relegated to the fringe of many societies including the European, Asian and American ones. The advent of globalization and neo-liberal economic and political policies did provide some dividends that further marginalized far-right politics but the situation got complicated in the wake of the Financial Crisis of 2007-08. The ensuing widespread unemployment, privation and failure of governments to tackle the crisis provided breeding grounds for the resurrection of far-right ideas and politics. Fast-forward 15 years, the picture of world politics looks different today. Far-right ideology and their reactionary and demagoguery political ideas no longer belong to fringe elements of society, they have become mainstream and poised to threaten international peace and security as well as undermine the whole edifice of new liberal world order.
Before moving ahead to discuss the causes and implications of the overwhelming tide of reactionary populism that is sweeping across the globe, it would be pertinent here to understand what core ideas define far-right extremism or populism. Broadly speaking, the far-right encompasses the worst of European political traditions: exclusive nationalistic essentialism, Counter-Enlightenment dogmatism, and political authoritarianism. As per Foreign Affairs, a US-based magazine, modern far-right exists on a broad spectrum including neo-Nazis, white supremacists, self-described Western chauvinist groups, alt-right provocateurs, conspiracy theorists, and misogynists. They all have a conspiratorial worldview and share a common adherence to anti-democratic and illiberal ideas. The central tenet of radical right politics is the emphasis upon the mythical purity of “our people”. Therefore, every strand of far-right politics (white supremacists, violent anti-government libertarianism, Christian extremists, Hindutva, and so on) stands in firm opposition to liberal immigration policies. Xenophobia is another major defining characteristic of far-right politicians, they do believe that unchecked immigration would end up turning them into the minority, in particular, Muslim immigrants are opposed fiercely. Muslim immigrants are depicted as being incapable of integrating into Western culture and they are termed as intractable opponents of Western civilization and Christianity. Chauvinistic and ethnic exaltation of the nation underpinned by racism is another pillar of hard-right political thoughts. The propagation of anti-politician, anti-establishment, and anti-globalization stances as well as fierce opposition to gender rights and multiculturalism are also some political values that define far-right politics in the contemporary era.
The explosive growth of hard-right politics and ensuing far-right violence and, more worryingly, growing normalization and mainstreaming of these once-fringe ideas have become a global issue. Particularly in Europe, the scary rise of far-right has become a Pan-European problem that has rattled moderate right, center, center-left, left, and other shades of the political spectrum. From Sweden, Europe’s far north, to Italy in the Mediterranean in the south, far-right parties are on up. Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi and anti-immigration roots and being alleged as neo-fascist brown shirts, won the second position in Sweden’s national election held in September 2022. Similarly, Italy’s insurgent populist far-right party, Brother of Italy, surprised many pundits and managed to set up the first far-right government in Italy since the fall of Mussolini in 1943. The situation in France is equally alarming; in the presidential election run-off, the far-right candidate of National Rally (formerly National Front), Marine Le Pen, gained record 13.3 million votes, which is 41% of the total votes. Germany is also reeling under the rising tide of populism, though Alternative for Germany, an ultranationalist and anti-immigrant far-right party, secured 11 % of representation; it has so far failed to get the status of mainstream political force. Hungary, Poland, Netherlands, Australia, Spain, Belgium and Serbia have also their far-right groups and are experiencing political polarization along ideological lines. So much so that populist, radical right political parties have secured representation in more than three dozen national parliaments and they make up almost 33% of members of the European Parliament with an agenda of either complete disbanding of the European Union or downgrading its status to a mere economic union. The situation in the USA is even more worrisome. The electoral triumph of Donald Trump proved both cause and effect of growing right-wing extremism in the US society. His nationalistic, nativist, populist rhetoric during the presidential campaign and tenure in the White House meant that far-right discourse and activities became mainstream. Particularly, his campaign of Stop the Steal for undermining the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election led to increasing far-right violence and the normalization of ring-wing radicalism in US politics and society. That eventually culminated in January 6 attack on Capitol Hill, an ugly blot on the US democracy that would continue to haunt it for decades to come.
The situation in India is also testimony to the fact that far-right radicalism is holding its grip firmly worldwide. The rise in far-right in India deserves particular attention because here the far-right ideology has started to threaten international peace and security. The link between RSS, the parent organization of the ruling BJP, and Hitler’s Nazi party is undeniable and well-established. MS Golwalkar, the second chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was deeply inspired by Hitler and admired his treatment of minorities. MS Golwalkar wrote a book “We or Our Nationhood” in which he asserted that India belonged to Hindus and Hindus alone, and minorities, particularly Muslims, should be treated on the lines of Nazis’ treatment of Jews. In other words, he suggested that Muslims should be rounded up and systematically killed through gas chambers or other means of mass murder. This book made MS Golwalkar the most influential and prominent figure within Sangh Pariwar. RSS still holds him in high esteem as does BJP and its leaders including Modi. Since his swearing-in in 2014, PM Modi, who was once banned from entering the USA for his role in the Gujarat riots that devoured the lives of more than 1000 Muslims, has taken multiple political, legal, cultural and diplomatic measures to implement the Hindutva regime in India. He has helped mainstream the idea of India as a Hindu state and integrated RSS ideology into Indian internal security policies. As a result, minorities in India are facing discrimination in areas like employment, housing and education. Muslim representation in Indian parliament and state assemblies has been declining rapidly since 2014 when BJP took over. Currently, there are fewer than 5 % Muslim representatives in the Indian parliament, and for the first time since 1947, there is no representation of 20% Muslims in the Indian Union Council of Ministers. This systematic denial of political rights and representation, coupled with the complicity of state apparatus in fanning anti-Muslim riots like the Delhi Riots of 2020, have made the lives of minorities, particularly Muslims, very hard and miserable. By all means, the BJP-RSS regime in India has made it manifestly clear that the far-right poses serious threats to the peaceful coexistence of communities and the pacific settlement of disputes.
These examples indicate that far-right extremism is no longer an isolated incident; it has become a global phenomenon and is fast evolving into an existential threat to international peace and security and neoliberal economic and political order. Therefore, understanding the factors responsible for the rise of far-right radicalism is important for suggesting some remedial measures to stem this fast-developing trend.
The factors that are driving the wave of violent far-right radicalism are multiple. First and foremost the crisis of neoliberal order at the political, economic, and ideological levels has been a major contributor to the rise of far-right movements across the globe. The failure of neoliberal democratic regimes to deliver on their promises has provided some space for illiberal political forces to march on the road. For instance, the BJP under Narendra Modi preyed on the grievances long harboured by the Hindu population to defeat the pluralistic Congress party. Similarly, in the Philippines, the 30-year rule of liberal democracy did nothing to provide employment, reduce poverty and end economic discrimination. Resultantly, people turned to authoritarian leaders — Rodrigo Duterte and now Bongbong Marcos — for resolving the problems left unaddressed by liberal democratic parties. The same is the case with Hungary, where radical far-right leader, Viktor Orbán played politics over long-held public grievances and turned Hungary into an authoritarian state.
The growing influx of immigrants and refugees, particularly, Muslim immigrants, provided a fertile ground for extreme-right ideologies to spread unfettered. US-led War on Terror in the wake of the 9/11 incident and ensuing ‘jihadist’ attacks led to the springing of the Islamophobia industry into action. A conspiracy theorist, Bat Yeor, wrote a book in 2005, named Eurabia, in which she argued that the profound demographic changes taking place in the US and Europe were not coincidental; in fact, Muslims were orchestrating these changes by immigration and high birth rate to revive Caliphate in the West and establish the land of Shariah, Eurabia. Since then, Eurabia has caught the imagination of far-right movements and it has been a biblical notion for them. The far-right groups, as a solution to defeat this non-existent threat from Muslims, used metaphors and iconography from Christian Crusades, for launching and gaining popularity. Nationally Rally of Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Generation Identity in the UK, Alternative for Germany in Germany, and Proud Boys in Canada have frequently used the words “Islamic Invasion”, “Spanish Reconquista” and other metaphors to colour their activities as a defence against perceived threats from Muslims. So, immigration has played a vital role in broadening the influence of hard-right movements and it would continue to do so if the economic miseries of inflation-hit citizens remain unaddressed.
The laser-focused attention on Muslim jihadists in the wake of the US-led War on Terror provided far-right groups space to grow unchecked and unnoticed. Counter-terrorism agencies concentrated their efforts to counter Jihadist activities and they remained oblivious to the growing threats of home-grown extreme-right radicalism throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Even the gruesome and spectacular attacks failed to receive as much attention as Jihadist terrorism and counter-terrorism agencies often treated these incidents as isolated events committed by mentally unstable lone wolfs. For example, Oslo mass killing in 2011 which claimed more than 77 lives was carried out by Breivik, a far-right extremist, who wrote a manifesto and warned Europeans about Eurabia. The tremendous imbalance in the allocation of resources to thwarting terrorist plots by Jihadi organizations provided far-right groups huge opportunities to forge connections at a global level, and broaden their influence through platforms offered by megaphones of social media. Resultantly, far-right ideas soon normalized and became mainstream as well. The Global Terrorist Index reported in 2019 that the West witnessed a shocking 320% rise in far-right terrorism in the five years preceding the report.
Different aspects of globalization like international trade and global finance have also contributed to the emergence of the far-right phenomenon in recent decades. The free flow of finance across borders and the build-up of liabilities are some consequences of economic globalization. So, whenever there are external shocks and depression, anti-globalist forces begin preying upon the prolonged unemployed segments of the population. For instance, the Hitler-led Nazi party secured significant electoral gains due to Great Depression which was wreaking havoc in Germany and other European countries at that time. The Financial Crisis of 2007-08 provided the opportunity for anti-globalists and ultra-nationalist to peddle far-right ideas. The recent rise of far-right ethnic-nationalist populist parties across the world is also being attributed to Covid-19-generated shocks that rocked the global economy and finance in 2020-21. Economic distress, income loss, economic insecurity, and other impacts of economic crises were exploited by far-right groups to spread misinformation and they twisted facts for enhancing their outreach and influence. And they have succeeded in doing so in many countries.
The rise of the far-right should be dealt with head-on. If these trends are left unaddressed, the fight against climate change, the development and implementation of international law, pacific settlement of disputes, and liberal trade and economic exchanges would be under serious threat. Politicians and government officials should undertake remedial measures for countering this threat. Addressing the disinformation on various social media platforms would be a major area to concentrate on. Social media, despite all claims of content moderation and regulations, is still a major mouthpiece for far-right organizations to help build alternative realities and propagate alternative facts. Therefore, the Global Counterterrorism Forum should be given the responsibility of battling both misinformation and disinformation being spread by far-right populist organizations to influence public opinion. Furthermore, President Joe Biden, who has pushed back modestly far-right candidates as well as Republicans in US mid-term election held in November 2022, should work with other partner countries to expand the scope and mission of Global Counter-Terrorism Forum to address right-wing extremism and its different permutations as well, along with countering conventional manifestations of terrorism. The structural changes to the neoliberal economic order to reduce worsening income inequalities (the richest 10% owns 76% of wealth as compared to the bottom 50% who owns 2% of global wealth — remaining is shared by the middle class, a report by IMF), should also be given utmost significance.
Far-right is no longer a phenomenon restricted to a particular community or nation; it has become a global issue with the potential to undermine the fight against climate change and global efforts to preserve global commons. Not since the pre-World War Two period of the early 20th century have there been as many far-right governments in offices as today. With every national election in every country, there is likelihood that the new government in office can be described as authoritarian, anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, racist and even sexist. The failure of the neoliberal regimes to resolve economic and political problems, growing economic inequalities, erosion of cultural, linguistic and religious values, perceived or real problems associated with unchecked immigration and free trade, economic uncertainties and miseries, and deliberate neglect of West to reign in the domestic far-right extremism have contributed to this dangerous phenomenon. The fact that this form of politics can undermine international cooperation and institutional arrangements to resolve inter-state political and economic disputes does warrant that politicians and policymakers put in place proactive and well-deliberated policies to stop these radical thoughts from metastasizing and polarizing societies all over the world.

The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.

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