Radicalized online

In the wake of the terrible events in Charlottesville, there seem to be a lot of people who are still amazed by such a brazen, public display by white nationalism, and by an act of terrorism by a white nationalist being all but disregarded by the President.  I have to admit, as someone who has spent the last several years trying to convince other white people that we should be at least as concerned about the re-emergence of the far right in America and Europe as we are about Islam and ‘creeping Sharia,’ it’s actually sort of refreshing, not in an “I told you so” sort of way, but more in an “at least everyone can see the bear now” sort of way.  To start with, if you are horrified and want to do something, here are some resources of how you can help people in Charlottesville.  

I also think there are a couple of things we can learn from Charlottesville that can help shape how we respond to the far right moving forward.  One of the most important is that while we’ve been right about how we’ve been approaching counter-terrorism for the last decade, we’ve probably been looking in the wrong places.  Or more specifically, in the wrong chatrooms.

About this time last year, I was at the Religion News Association annual meeting (as I will be again in a few weeks, if anyone wants to meet up!), and one of the panels was on counter-terrorism and particularly the radicalization of Americans who were going overseas to join groups like ISIS and Boko Haram.  One panelist, an imam, talked in particular about his experiences of having lost several young people from his community, who went to fight in Somalia, so I asked the panel if they were aware of what effect these American imported fighters were having on the ground in Somalia or elsewhere.  They agreed it was an interesting question, but none of them could answer it – indeed, it’s a topic I’ve continued to look into, but with little success (although an interesting article was just published on a related topic on Americans fighting against ISIS in Syria, and not always helping).

I had asked the question because it had been a point made to me about the IRA and the Ulster agreement from someone who worked on the British side, that one of the major obstacles to peace in Northern Ireland was actually the American Irish, who continued to fund the IRA and to come to Ulster and create trouble even when the locals were no longer invested in continuing the violence, and that, in some ways, it was easier to motivate the American Irish because they didn’t have to live with the day-in, day-out realities of life in Northern Ireland.

It’s something we see in Charlottesville, as well.  This Virginian town isn’t Neo-Nazi, USA – this was an organized march that people traveled in for.  So what motivates people to travel across country or around the world for a cause?  Well, like most things in life – the internet.  The idea of people becoming “radicalized online” has become nearly synonymous with most terrorist organizations, and a quick google search will pull up dozens of articles about how ISIS depends of their polished youtube videos and live streams.  Indeed, the panel at RNA last year was largely about how counter-terrorism programs were trying to address the ease of internet recruitment, often with slightly outmoded ideas of monitoring chatrooms and forums (in all seriously, do chatrooms still exist?  I know I’ve used the term three times now, but I’m honestly not sure.)

However, using the internet to bring together like-minded people to your movement – in particular, isolated young men – has been a cornerstone of the far right in the US for decades, long before the term “radicalized online” cropped up.  Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have been highlighting the danger of online associations for far right organizations for nearly three decades now – hell, there’s even a West Wing episode about it.

So why weren’t we doing something about it?  Well, racism, for one thing.  Also, we’ve spent a surprisingly long time thinking computers and the internet were just kind of a fad.  It was barely a decade ago when an actual, elected, US Senator stood up in front of a bunch of other actual, elected, US Senators and described the internet as “a series of tubes,” when they were all supposed to be writing laws deciding how it was going to work, so it’s maybe not surprising that we can’t manage to effectively legislate how people might use it to cause harm when our elected officials think it’s the thing Mario uses to get between levels.

However, I think it’s important to recognize the pattern that appears to emerge when we look at how people are actually radicalized online.  The concern among counter-terrorism programs seems to be that young people (predominantly Muslim, non-white young people) will be radicalized online and commit acts of terrorism in support of that agenda within their own neighborhoods and communities.  Although there have been a handful of cases where that has happened (such as the Boston bomber), it seems much more common for the outcome to be either that Muslim, non-white young people are radicalized by a foreign ideology and go overseas to where that ideology is dominant or that white young people are radicalized domestically by the far right and stay here and commit acts of domestic terrorism.  I would argue that this makes perfect sense because terrorism, as I’ve argued before, is essentially abuse but on a community-wide level, and it’s most effective in a setting in which it already has some social standing, like with white supremacy in the US.

So what then?  Well, for one thing, the far right exists, in the US, and has done, continuously, for decades.  We need to be aware of it, and pay at least some attention to it.  We already have counter-terrorism programs aimed at tracking people being radicalized online, and that is the same process that convinced all of those young people to travel to Charlottesville, including the one who decided to drive a car into a crowd of innocent civilians.  We need to recognize that these are also acts of terrorism, or potential acts of terrorism, in the making, and use the counter-terrorism infrastructure that we already have in place to address this exact problem.  And we should probably be honest that if our ultimate concern here is that a terrorist organization might be successful in overthrowing either the government or just our communities and our society, that white nationalist movements, that have decades or even a century more of social integration on the ground are probably a bigger threat than terrorist organizations that come from foreign nations with foreign traditions and customs.  We need to be more vigilant in part because they seem more familiar, and it’s easier to believe that they’re just marching, or it’s just about white pride, or it’s just about expressing their freedom of speech, and that familiarity is, in and of itself, part of their danger.  As John Oliver well put it, we need to keep telling ourselves, “this is not normal.”

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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