Six people were killed and eight wounded when Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year old university student, entered the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec and opened fire during prayer. Bissonnette is like many other young men who have committed acts of terror in the name of a fundamentalist ideology, but represents what has long been ignored: the white, Christian, conservative terrorist. Nationalism is at the forefront of Western and European politics, a proposed ideological solution to the challenges of globalization and multiculturalism. The emphasis of a strong, homogeneous identity resonates with populist ideals, but seems to often to be accompanied by the demand for a domineering state, the active persecution of dissidents, and the need to alienate those outside of its limited confines. Nationalism allows for the most prejudiced views to be cloaked in the language of collective principles: anti-LGBT prejudice becomes a battle for “traditional values,” ethnocentric beliefs manifest as an impassioned concern for immigration reform, and the targeting of Muslims for security purposes masks an imagined crusade for Christian hegemony. Given its efficiency at masking prejudice as noble populism, it makes sense that racist, authoritarian, and theocratic organizations are using it as a conduit for political influence and radicalization.
For the rightwing, Bissonnette is a call for self-evaluation, but this opportunity to confront internal extremism is being steadfastly rejected. Various conservative outlets have begun a campaign of denial, eager to portray Bissonnette as an extremist outlier, with Muslims being the only justifiable target of concern by intelligence agencies and citizens. His Facebook likes and online activity encompass the random, inane interests and favorite brands of a late twenties male, but with a particular emphasis on right wing politics and figures that include President Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, French politician and president of the National Front—both of whom he is alleged to be an outspoken supporter of.
These details are already being dismissed, but Bissonnette’s daily life and interactions with others provide a clear portrait of a militant in the making: university peers describe him as timid and generally conservative in person, but online, an offensive and militant troll consumed by the idea of a culture war between Christian and Islamic values. Others alleged that he openly self-identified as a white nationalist. When his identity was revealed, Bissonnette was immediately recognized by activists throughout the area; his targeted online harassment and explicit statements against refugees, liberals, women, Muslims, and Arabs was already well known.
Nationalist Extremism Is Alive And Well
After an eight month FBI investigation, three men in Kansas were arrested for directing the plot of a large-scale terror attack on an apartment complex and mosque in late 2016. Muslims, Somali migrants, and refugees were the primary targets. The three militant hopefuls were white, Christian, family men—the sort of people who just simply can’t do such a thing. They were members of a larger group, referring to themselves as “crusaders” and Muslim as “cockroaches” while calling for acts of terror on civilians to instigate a great awakening in white, Christian America. “When we go on operations there’s no leaving anyone behind, even if it’s a one-year old, I’m serious,” one was quoted as saying in a meeting. “I guarantee you if I go on a mission those little f—— are going bye bye.”
The story was a minor footnote in the news cycle. Perhaps they, too, were exceptions, along with the dozens of other rightwing militants who executed, justified, or attempted to carry out acts of terror throughout the world in recent years. The violence perpetrated by Alexandre Bissonnette is merely a symptom of the resurgence in conservative extremism occurring at a global level. In Canada, radical right wing groups continue to expand throughout key regions of the country. Ku Klux Klan materials have been routinely distributed in neighborhoods overnight. Posters directing abuse at Muslims and Sikhs have appeared at universities and public spaces. “Burn Your Local Mosque,” one sticker read. Migrants, immigrants, native peoples, and Muslims are the most common victims of hate crimes. As is often the case, polarized conversations around immigration and identity continue to empower the most fundamentalist voices.
Within the United States, the steady expansion of nationalist and right wing violence is unceasing. Nationalism and authoritarian movements have donned the cloak of populism: since Obama’s election in 2008, “patriot” groups—advancing a narrative of white, Christian hegemony in the United States and the world over—have grown rapidly. The Trump administration and modern conservatives may deny such affiliations, but the language in which it advances policy objectives, along with an ambiguous disposition towards the radical right, has helped legitimize what once were obscure aims of Neo-Nazi and skinhead organizations.
A recent report by The Intercept details the role of the F.B.I. and other organizations in investigating white supremacist and nationalist groups within the United States. The revelations are both alarming and predictable: law enforcement organizations have been repeatedly compromised by police officers and staff who are associated with racist groups and Neo-Nazi beliefs. Terror investigations skew towards Muslims, whereas white militants have a higher probability of receiving leniency or being labeled low-priority. Investigations and reports by the Department of Homeland Security have been routinely stifled by public and political backlash by those who find it in contradiction with their worldview. The fact that potential terrorism of any kind can be tolerated reveals the danger of bias and perception.
The violent, fantastical imagining of militant fundamentalists tends to share core, contemptible traits. The language, motivations, and objectives of white supremacists and Salafist jihadis for example, become remarkably similar, albeit in different contexts. Rejecting the reality of nationalist and white supremacist violence is essential for those who have chosen ideology over human rights. How could someone admit that even patriotic, Christian belief systems could become conduits for terrorism? To do so would be to bankrupt the political narrative, but the question is obvious: how many lives must be taken before the moment of self-awareness is allowed to happen?
An Enabling Administration
How will the Trump administration address the issue of the emerging radical right? Thus far, it seems content with enabling it. At Breitbart—a media company and digital network that serves as a bastion of nationalistic, far right views—Steve Bannon was both lead editor and the key force in shaping the company’s message. Originally C.E.O. of the Trump campaign, he is now Chief Strategist for the President and was recently declared an essential member of the National Security Council, with influence above leading intelligence officials and generals in every level of policymaking, including military action. From Bannon’s worldview, he perceives a global war through the familiar binary of Christian nations united against an invasive, authoritarian Islamic threat—a struggle he imagines being core to America’s very foundation. During his career at Breitbart, Bannon seemed to operate in a familiar ethical ambiguity, at times denouncing racism, but all the while providing a platform for it. He doesn’t identify as a traditional Republican; his policy interests are steeped in a sense of populism that escapes the party, but he too is a de facto theocrat who views government as a conduit for establishing traditionalist Christian values. Bannon openly rejects being called a white nationalist, but clarifies: he is a nationalist.
How will these values guide the policy decisions and interests of the United States? Already, it’s quite clear. According to internal sources reported by Reuters, the White House recently announced that the CVE program (“Countering Violent Extremism”) will be transitioning its focus and be renamed: “Countering Islamic Extremism.” The program was created to proactively prevent acts of extremist violence by coordinating efforts with community organizations, technology companies, and multimedia campaigns. Donald Trump and his extended administration have eagerly criticized Democrats for, in their view, refusing to name the threat of Islamic extremism due to political correctness. It was this narrative, too, that became a primary charge against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and one she could never properly recover from amongst certain voters. But now, that courage to speak earnestly of threats to global democracy and freedom has vanished from the White House, instead having been exchanged for the simplicity of silence.
In an act of de facto denialism after the shooting, Press Secretary and bubblegum enthusiast Sean Spicer was quick to use the attack to justify the recent Executive Order banning refugees, visa holders, and permanent residents in varying capacities, despite the fact that Bissonnette wouldn’t have at all been affected by the order. “It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant. And why the president is taking steps to be proactive, not reactive,” he was quoted as saying.
Since its very inception, the Trump team’s entire stance towards Muslims—American and otherwise—has thrived in its hostile ambiguity, relying on standard tropes of alienation and binary framing. It makes sense that this administration, so dependent on scapegoating Muslims in its ascension, would continue relying on it to excuse sweeping, mediocre policymaking. Trump and his ideological allies have demonstrated that even when a human life is lost for no other reason than having been Muslim, they will still rush to advance a political narrative atop the victims of a terror attack.
Despite being steadfast in their denial, the question remains for Bannon and other influencers: why do people with such beliefs perceive this new administration as the ultimate conduit for implementing their worldview? Surely, these ethical anti-racists would be concerned about their role in enabling violent prejudices. Richard Spencer, outspoken white supremacist and the appropriately punchable face of the radical right, is keen to acknowledge how useful the Trump presidency will be: “Trump is a white nationalist, so to speak, he is alt-right whether he likes it or not.”
Narrative Above All
When reality doesn’t confirm the biases of one’s beliefs, many retreat into the comforts of rhetoric and misdirection. As news of the attack emerged, Breitbart—and other outlets of its kind—was true to form, posting an article that emphasized the role of Mohamed Belkhadir, a 29-year old engineering student and attendee of Moroccan descent, who was initially named as a suspect by Quebec police but quickly cleared. He had in fact returned to the mosque in an attempt to save people upon hearing the gunshots. When Alexander Bissonnette was later concluded to be the sole shooter and all motivations pointing to right wing sentiments, the article was updated but neglected to mention any details of the terrorist’s political sympathies and noted disdain for feminism, refugees, immigrants and liberals.
Ambiguous and sheepishly clinical, this strain of intellectual cowardice allows for journalists and public figures to engage apologetics by omission for rightwing terror. In the wake of the attack, Breitbart Jerusalem’s coverage consisted of allegedly interviewing a former member of Islamic State on why the shooting represented the persecution of Muslims worldwide. Of all the pieces that could be run in the wake of a human tragedy, Breitbart chose to mockingly acknowledge the victims of the attack by elevating the voice of an extremist. The intersection of bias and content is, of course, intentionally obvious, and the comment sections—vortexes of explicit racism, calls to violence, genocidal fantasies, and irreverent redundancy—are a crisp reflection of what drives the platform and others like it. Just as many leftists have eagerly fallen onto the sword of identity politics, so too will their conservative peers.
A Comprising Blindspot
Anti-Muslim prejudice is a global security threat as it allows militant fundamentalism outside of its narrow confines to thrive while ignoring the most blatant acts of terror and attempting to retrofit brutality into a self-serving political narrative. The probability of violence from nationalist and far right sources is downplayed because politics of white, Christian ideologies—even in their most radical forms—are normalized by the policymakers, representatives, and members of the public who can only fathom terrorists as being Muslim, brown, and preferably foreign. The ways which people collectively communicate about issues will shape how they respond to them, and communal indifference is the incubator of extremist ideas that empower militant organizations and their subsequent actions.
Fascism and militant extremism come in many forms, with every facet of human identity—from ethnic to religious traits—being a potential conduit for their emergence. Applying an exceptionalist lens to militancy of any sort creates a potentially compromising blind spot for national security. Ideas and the movements that form around them can’t be defeated in the traditional sense. Belief systems outlive the people who uphold them. A white supremacist or Christian nationalist as a shooter, hijacker, terrorist? Many would dismiss such concerns as relics of bygone eras where Timothy McVeigh or Southern lynch mobs haunted headlines, yet the intellectual spectre of the West’s most authoritarian and oppressive ideologies is thriving in the modern day. Through the radicalization of people like Alexander Bissonett, the extreme right will uphold this authoritarian mission at the consequence of innocent lives and their own. In nations where white identity movements have pioneered terroristic campaigns of slavery, genocide, and all manners of atrocity, silence and misdirection are the foremost tactics of denialists who reject the reality of rightwing extremism. When those in power are incapable or unwilling to confront fundamentalism at the expense of human life, indifference must be recognized as malice.