LONDON — While the world was still reeling from the self-starter jihadist atrocity in Orlando, and as people everywhere were still trying to process one of America’s worst-ever mass shootings, a far-right extremist accosted, shot and stabbed British Member of Parliament Jo Cox, who tragically succumbed to her wounds later that same day.
Jo Cox was a mother of two, a tireless campaigner for refugees, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group “Friends of Syria,” and the former head of policy at Oxfam. In other words, she cared a great deal about vulnerable people. One of Parliament’s brightest lights has just been extinguished by nothing but hate.
Her suspected killer, whose name is Tommy Mair, has been arrested, swiftly charged and put on trial in one of London’s highest courts. Mair had been a supporter of various far-right extremist groups. Eyewitness accounts state that the suspect shouted “Britain First”—the name of a far-right direct action group in Britain—as he attacked Jo Cox. He had also been a longstanding member of the white-supremacist group, White Rhino, and according to documents obtained by the U.S. far-right extremism watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center, Mair was a longtime supporter of the neo-Nazi group, National Alliance.
In 1999, Mair bought a homemade weapons manual from the National Alliance, and in total sent $620 to their publishing arm for titles including “Incendiaries,” “Chemistry of Powder and Explosives,” “Improvised Munitions Handbook” and Ich Kampfe, published by Hitler’s Nazi party.
On Saturday, Thomas Mair was asked to confirm his name in court for the charge. He replied only to say “Death to Traitors, freedom for Britain.” Not much more can be said of this man, for a trial is ongoing, but what has already been reported appears to suffice.
It has been a terrible travesty of a week. But what the two cases—the attack on Orlando and the attack on Jo Cox—come to symbolize is what worries me more.
The 1930s have returned. The world seems to be sliding into a repeat of that grim decade before World War II: a decade that beheld the ascendance of Italian Fascism, Soviet Communism and German Nazism; a decade in which “the establishment” was to blame for everything, the status quo was rejected and radical change was demanded.
It was the age of identity politics, conspiracy theories, dehumanizing rhetoric and total solutions— the age of populist demagogues and competing extremes. And while nationalist populism hasn’t gone away, the ideological project of Communism has given way to the theocratic project of Islamism, supported today by the regressive left.
The one common ingredient that all of these “total solutions” require is for their partisans and recruits to identify themselves primarily as “victims.”
The feeling of “victimhood” is one of the most blinding, counter-productive, human soul-destroying and degenerative conditions to afflict society, and all political discourses. Once it has consumed its host, “victimhood” immediately renders anyone outside of its group as the aggressor. It leaves no room for human empathy for the “other,” because that “other” is seen to be locked in a competition for rights with the “victim.” And by definition, there can only be one “victim.”
This is why “victimhood” demands a “special status,” and whispers to its host that hers is a “special people.” The Nazi Aryan race, the Communist international proletariat, the Islamist global ummah, none of these “special” people, requiring a “unique” state for which they must agitate through a “historic” revolution would thrive if not for first and foremost seeing themselves as “victims”.
The duplicitous response by today’s populist right, Islamists, and the regressive left to last week’s atrocity in Orlando and to the murder of Jo Cox showcases the problem well.
Let us begin with Orlando. Immediately, ideological talking points became the predictable standard response from both sides to the tragedy.
For Islamists, the regressive left and some of their supporters among liberals, Omar Mateen was judged a madman, a loner, a traumatized Afghan angered about American foreign policy in his ancestral home, a confused and a closeted gay man in denial. Of course, they insist that he also should not have had such a ready access to guns.
Many also focused on the fact that Mateen did not appear devout in the traditional religious sense, thus arguing the slaughter had nothing to do with Islam. As well as resting on a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of radicalization, this approach contained serious logical errors. We liberals cannot simultaneously oppose profiling as I do then say Mateen couldn’t be radicalized because he "didn’t fit the profile.” Likewise, we can’t also claim that jihadism has “nothing to do with Islam” if suspects must be devout for us to consider them jihadists in the first instance.
It was, for this camp, anything but a problem of Islamist radicalization, of religious fundamentalist shame around gay sex, and of deeply entrenched cultural intolerance. To dare suggest such a thing would be seen to be aiding the narrative of the opposing conservative camp, and that would be akin to scoring liberal and Muslim own-goals against our “victim” scorecard. President Barack Obama even entered the fray, making remarks to reassert why he would not be naming the ideology Islamism.
And for the far-right, anti-Muslim bigots and some of their populist-right supporters among conservatives, the problem in Orlando was not mental health, the problem was not the very same homophobia promoted for years by some within their own ranks, and the problem was certainly not gun laws. No, Omar Mateen was nothing but a Muslim terrorist and to suggest anything else was to apologize for jihadist terror.
Neither camp stepped back from their own dogma to consider that mental health, poor social integration, closeted homophobia, Islamist radicalization and the ability of civilian extremists with all the above problems to access assault rifles after they are already suspected of links to terrorism, are not mutually exclusive. Far from it. Individual radicalization cannot be boxed into neat fitting ideological categories. It was probably always a mixture of all those reasons. But to concede such a thing would be to concede some points to the “other,”and a “victim” must never do that, for it lets the side down. It betrays the tribe.
Orlando would have been sufficient to make the point. But by serving as its mirror opposite, the brutal killing of Jo Cox in Britain hammered the same lesson home in a way that is too poignant to ignore.
Here, Islamists, the regressive left and their liberal sympathizers, in an eerie and Orwellian backflip, traded places with the far-right, anti-Muslim bigots and their populist-right supporters. Suddenly, the same group among Muslims and the Left who had argued so vociferously that Omar Mateen had been nothing but a loner with mental health problems, were arguing that Thomas Mair was a neo-Nazi ideologue and pointing to why the ideology of white supremacism must be challenged wherever it is found.
Talk of mental health problems and foreign policy grievances gave way to pious pronouncements about the scourge of racism and xenophobia, and questions around why “white people” are never deemed terrorists by mainstream media, as if our entire history of Irish Republican terrorism and many other such examples, hadn’t happened at all.
Not to be outdone, in the case of Thomas Mair the far-right, anti-Muslim bigots and many of their populist-right supporters developed overnight a newly discovered yet profound awareness of mental health problems, social isolation and the economic grievance narrative around jobs being lost “to foreigners.” For them, it was anything but white supremacist ideology.
Of course, as in the case of Omar Mateen, the truth probably lies in a mixture of all of these factors. As I’ve been arguing for years, radicalization occurs due to a combination of perceived grievances, an identity crisis, charismatic recruiters and an ideology, and in all cases probably involves mental trauma.
There is a negative symbiosis between Islamist and far right extremism.
It is no revelation that jihadist terrorists use far-right posters in their own propaganda to prove that the world is at war with Islam. And it is no surprise that the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik cited al-Qaeda writings in his own manifesto to validate his murder of 77 innocent people. Each faction relies on the other to exist. Each needs the “other”—the enemy—to point to as the cause of all its ills.
But the world of politics has become—quite horrifically—like a football game. Each of us cheers for our own tribe and disparages the opposing team even when they have a reasonable point to make. We are always the "victims”; they are always our oppressors.
People are playing politics with evil while human lives are lost to hate. We must take stock, and recognize that by raising our political pompoms every time an event appears to confirm our narrative, and by playing up our own victimhood, we are only feeding into the recruitment narratives of all terrorist groups. The first stage to the emancipation of any community is to shed this perpetual state of victimhood, and begin to take responsibility for our own actions, and our own advancement.
We have reentered an era of competing extremes. The 1930s never looked so close, from so far. It didn’t have to be like this. Islamists and far-right extremists, a plague on both your houses.