Reciprocal rage: why Islamist extremists and the far right need each other

How two complementary extremisms are defining global politics.

Global politics in the early 21st century is being defined by two complementary extremisms: Islamist extremism and the far right.

This is the argument that Julia Ebner, a research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, makes in her new book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far Right Extremism. Islamist extremists like ISIS and al-Qaeda claim that the West is at war with Islam, and far-right groups like the English Defence League and Generation Identity claim that Muslims are at war with the West. This makes Islamist extremists and the far right rhetorical allies, Ebner argues, as they desperately need each other in order to push their narratives.

I spoke to Ebner about the book and why she worries that these two ideologies are trapping us all in a spiral of mutually reinforcing hatreds.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing

What’s the thesis of your book?

Julia Ebner

The main argument is that far-right extremism and Islamist extremism feed off one another, and that if we don’t combat both of them, the situation will deteriorate because they create a vicious circle of escalating divisions.

So what we have is the far right depicting Islamist extremists as representative of the whole Muslim community, while Islamist extremists depict the far right as representative of the entire West. As the extremes creep more and more into the political center, these ideas become mainstream, and the result is a clash-of-civilizations narrative turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sean Illing

The concern, then, is that these narratives are mutually reinforcing and therefore hard to escape?

Julia Ebner

That’s exactly right. There is an interdependency between the two; neither can fully exist without the other. And the louder both sides get, the more they do, the more extreme they become, the more we get trapped in this dynamic of action and reaction.

Sean Illing

Both sides, in other words, are invested in the success of other?

Julia Ebner

I actually think this is the goal. Both the far right and Islamist extremists benefit when their professed enemies engage in a terror attack or do anything that confirms their narratives. They want to see more rifts and more chaos in society. When communities are scared, when they’re driven apart, they’re vulnerable to the extremist narratives.

So in a really fundamental way, each side has good reasons to celebrate when something horrible happens. If ISIS blows up a shopping center in some Western town, the far right points to that and says, “You see, we were right all along. Muslims are at war with the West.” Likewise, right-wing terrorism or rhetoric gives Islamist extremists more fodder to sell their narrative about the West being hostile to all of Islam.

Sean Illing

Do you see these competing narratives as morally or politically equivalent in any way?

Julia Ebner

Yes, I’d say they are very similar both in terms of the nature of their ideologies, their moral deductions, and their potential political impact. Both are based on the victimization of an in-group and the demonization of an out-group; both blame the “corrupt political establishment” and “rigged mainstream media” for all that is going wrong and aim to bring about radical societal change by creating countercultures.

On both sides, you find groups that embrace violent solutions — including terrorism and hate crimes — to reach this goal, and others who resort to strategies such as hate preaching, information warfare, vigilantism, or street activism. Ultimately, both tend to encourage apocalyptic thinking and conspiracy theories, which can incite violence and in some cases inspire terrorism.

Jihadist attacks have claimed many innocent lives in recent years and attracted much media attention because of their sensationalist nature. Far-right attacks against minority communities, refugee camps, and political opponents have been more frequent but less spectacular — as a result, they were often not labeled as terrorism.

The inconsistency we apply when talking about and reacting to different forms of extremism is understandable but can be harmful. Unfortunately, it seems to be much easier to denounce something that is as alien as jihadism as evil, whereas condemning something that is born out of our culture — and worse, claims to defend “our” people, nation, or culture — takes much more courage and self-criticism.

Sean Illing

How did we get here? How did these two extremisms come to define our politics?

Julia Ebner

That’s a difficult question. One of the major problems is that both have been able to tap into rising grievances in the aftermath of the [2008] financial crisis. But I think some of the grievances precede the financial crisis and were latent since the war on terror started post-9/11. We’ve had these creeping divisions between communities, and those divisions have been expertly exploited by extremists on all sides.

Sean Illing

You call this the “age of rage,” but is it really that unique? Haven’t there always been dueling extremisms of one sort or another?

Julia Ebner

We’ve always had this dynamic of reciprocal radicalization, and there have always been competing ideologies. But I think it has never been on such a transnational level. What I find most distressing about this current dynamic is how easily and how widely people can spread their victimization narratives online. The speed of communication today has really changed the way politics works. People can form broader coalitions across borders in a way they couldn’t before.

Sean Illing

Information technology has no doubt evolved, but there’s nothing new about the transnational dynamic, right? The entire Cold War was defined by a global bipolar conflict between conflicting ideologies.

Julia Ebner

What’s different from the Cold War era is how civil society has been transformed by online networks. People can create their own narratives, their own alternative news networks, their own realities. We didn’t have anything like that during the Cold War, and it’s given extremists an extraordinarily powerful tool.

The far right and Islamist extremists have been early adopters of new technologies, and they’ve taken it to a whole new dimension. The propaganda being pumped out there every day is stunning, and it’s impossible to measure its full impact. But the impact is real and growing every day.

Sean Illing

Do these ideologies mirror each other in terms of how they radicalize people?

Julia Ebner

In many ways, they do. In fact, you can see far-right organizations copying the tactics and communication strategies that ISIS uses. The National Action Network, for example, which is the first far-right group to be banned in the UK, basically imitated ISIS propaganda by posting pictures and videos that look almost exactly like the propaganda ISIS creates. The only difference is that it reads “White Jihad” instead of “Jihad.” And some of their recruiting strategies and even their training camps have been modeled after those that were organized by ISIS.

You see overlapping strategies on social media as well. The far right and Islamist extremists have learned a lot from each other in terms of using Twitter and fake accounts to make their propaganda trend. They both hide behind anonymous accounts to push their ideas into the mainstream and to lure people, especially young people, into their camps.

Sean Illing

You spent a lot of time interviewing people on both sides of this divide. I’m curious what you learned from sitting down with these people that you could not have learned any other way.

Julia Ebner

One of the things I learned is that in the end, these people are extremely vulnerable. I sometimes caught myself feeling sorry for them, for what they had gone through, because some of their stories are truly heartbreaking. To be clear, I’m not sympathetic toward terrorists or extremists, but you have to try to understand these people if you want to make any sense of what led them to this place.

Again, I don’t mean to justify the violent actions of anyone, but it was quite striking to sit down with these people and hear how they were radicalized, how their narratives are built on compelling half-truths mixed with conspiracy theories that clearly appeal to a certain type of person.

My main goal was to understand how these extremisms relate to each other, how they interact with each other, and ultimately how they benefit each other. And actually talking to these people was a great way to do that.

Sean Illing

The irony is that these are really the same kinds of people, only they’re on opposite sides of a cultural divide.

Julia Ebner

Exactly. They’re also telling the same story, only from the opposite perspective. You talk to these people and you’ll hear the same themes, the same ideas, the same stories — only the heroes and the villains change.

Sean Illing

Can you tell me a bit more about those stories and how Islamist extremists and far-right extremists describe each other in their own narratives?

Julia Ebner

Both the far right and Islamist extremists use narratives that victimize their in-group and demonize the defined out-group, resulting in a worldview that frames everything through the lens of two inherently opposed homogenous blocs — in both cases, “the West” and “Islam,” or “Muslims” and “non-Muslims.” Their stories amplify each other because they use the same plot of an imminent or ongoing war between those two fronts as well as the same oversimplified depictions of its protagonists.

Sean Illing

Who did you actually talk to on both sides of this? What kinds of things did you hear?

Julia Ebner

In my undercover conversations with members of the global Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, ISIS sympathizers, and members of the extreme-right organizations English Defense League and Generation Identity, I noticed many parallels in their rhetoric. The way they spoke about each other was similar in that they both dehumanized each other.

For example, representatives on both sides spoke of “monsters” and “cockroaches” who are raping “their women,” taking over “their land,” or conspiring to wipe out “their civilization” — and sometimes they also mentioned the need to fight back preemptively to save their in-group.

Sean Illing

Despite all that, you said you began to empathize with these people after sitting down with them?

Julia Ebner

I honestly did, and that’s the hardest part of it, because I disagree so much with everything they stand for and everything they say. But at the same time, when talking to them, there is this basic level of empathy that I would not have felt if I had not made the effort to talk to them.

One of our deepest problems right now is that the middle ground is vanishing and the extremes are rising. I think we have to talk to each other. Even if it’s sitting down with extremists, I think that’s necessary in order to prevent them from further isolating themselves and from going further down the radicalization path. This is especially true for those people who are sitting on the fence, who are vulnerable to these fringe elements. We have to engage with them or we will lose them.

Sean Illing

When I think about how these fundamentalisms feed on one another, it’s hard to see how this loop gets closed. Are you similarly pessimistic?

Julia Ebner

On the night Trump was elected, I saw all the rejoicing from ISIS enthusiasts and from the far right — both saw it as a victory for their team, for their narrative. I’ve never been more pessimistic than I was that night.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. I think people are waking up to what’s happening and pushing back against the extremes. My hope is that this will lead to a stronger civil society that reengages in a way we haven’t seen in a long time. But I’m aware that the challenges ahead are immense.

In the end, the only thing that will defeat extremism is a groundswell of activism from everyday people who decide that they won’t let their societies be hijacked.