By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
After the apparent terror attack in Charlottesville, there were a lot of condemnations of the white supremacists who held the rally. There was also condemnation for US President Donald Trump for seeming to claim both sides were at fault. The debate over condemnations of terror remind us of equally strident debates about condemnations for other terror attacks, particularly Islamist terror.
In the last decade many US government institutions have embraced the term “violent extremism” to describe what is actually Islamist supremacist terror. Richard Stengel articulated why the former US administration embraced this term.
“But the reason was a much more practical one: To defeat radical Islamic extremism, we needed our Islamic allies — the Jordanians, the Emiratis, the Egyptians, the Saudis — and they believed that term unfairly vilified a whole religion. They also told us that they did not consider the Islamic State to be Islamic, and its grotesque violence against Muslims proved it. We took a lot of care to describe the Islamic State as a terrorist group that acted in the name of Islam.”
Furthermore ” behind the scenes, our allies understood better than anyone that the Islamic State was a radical perversion of Islam, that it held a dark appeal to a minority of Sunni Muslims, but it didn’t help to call them radical Islamic terrorists.”
So what would our fight against white supremacism look like if we treated it like we do Islamist supremacist terror?
First of all we wouldn’t call it white supremacism. We would call it violent extremism. The “violent extremist march in Virginia,” is how we would term it.
Commentators would explain that “the KKK isn’t white” and we would hear how it isn’t Christian either. “It doesn’t help to call them white supremacists because that alienates white people. We need our white allies and white moderates to confront white supremacism. Why labelling it ‘white’ we offend them and we are whitophobic and that drives many people to become members of violent extremist organizations.”
We would also say that “whiteness is a race of peace.” And we would say that “white supremacists seek to divide us, we can’t let them.” We would say that condemnations of “white supremacy” serve the interests of violent extremists by “othering” white people and white moderates and “giving them little choice but to join extremist organizations.” We would argue that poverty and marginalization and lack of hope drive people to join the KKK.
Our politicians would speak about unity against violent extremism and say that “the KKK does not represent white people nor Christians, Christianity is a religion of peace and Christianity is a great religion.” As Theresa May said about attacks in the UK “It is ‘Islamist terrorism’, it is a perversion of a great faith.” So our politicians would say that the white extremism is actually “a perversion of a great race.”
Then we would be told that race and racist supremacy were not major factors in why people join the KKK or Nazi organizations. Organizations such as the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point which have “revealed that the vast majority of almost 1,200 militants surveyed had no formal religious education and had not adhered to Islam for their entire lives,” would study the KKK and conclude that “formal white supremacist education is not a motivated factor and most supremacists have not adhered to supremacist ideology for their lives.”
In the end we would conclude that the real message of violent extremist terror in Virginia is to come together in unity and to reject extremism and work with white moderates to confront extremists. We would blame poverty, lack of education and marginalization and other factors than racism for the rise of violent extremism.