Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) chant slogans as they protest against the arrest of their leader in Lahore, Pakistan on April 16, 2021. Photo: A.M. Syed

Religious Populism and Vigilantism: The Case of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

Abstract

Religious populism and radicalism are hardly new to Pakistan. Since its birth in 1947, the country has suffered through an ongoing identity crisis. Under turbulent political conditions, religion has served as a surrogate identity for Pakistan, masking the country’s evident plurality, and over the years has come to dominate politics. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is the latest face of religious extremism merged with populist politics. Nevertheless, its sporadic rise from a national movement defending Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws to a “pious” party is little understood. 

This paper draws on a collection of primary and secondary sources to piece together an account of the party’s evolution that sheds light on its appeal to “the people” and its marginalization and targeting of the “other.” The analysis reveals that the TLP has evolved from a proxy backed by the establishment against the mainstream parties to a full-fledged political force in its own right. Its ability to relate to voters via its pious narrative hinges on exploiting the emotional insecurities of the largely disenfranchised masses. With violence legitimized under the guise of religion, “the people” are afforded a new sense of empowerment. Moreover, the party’s rhetoric has given rise to a vigilante-style mob culture so much so that individuals inspired by this narrative have killed in plain sight without remorse. To make matters worse, the incumbent government of Imran Khan — itself a champion of Islamist rhetoric — has made repeated concessions and efforts to appease the TLP that have only emboldened the party. Today, the TLP poses serious challenges to Pakistan’s long-standing, if fragile, pluralistic social norms and risks tipping the country into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of religous political party Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, speaks to supporters during a protest against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders in Lahore on August 29, 2018. Photo: A.M. Syed.

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Introduction 

Pakistan’s history with populism dates back as early as the 1960s. The first populist was neither a mullah nor a military dictator seeking to legitimize his rule. Fatima Ali Jinnah, the younger sister of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was the first leader to adopt a populist playbook when she ran against the military-led coalition of General Ayub Khan (1958–1969). Jinnah became the face of “real democracy” against the “elite” in the 1965 general elections. The “real democracy” she promised was rooted in a commitment to represent the “people’s will” (Zaheer and Chawla, 2019). However, while largely secular in outlook, General Ayub—in addition to widespread electoral rigging—ran an orthodox Islamist campaign to delegitimize Jinnah’s political ambitions by arguing that Islam prohibits women from serving as head of a state (Ahmed, 2019The New York Times, 1964). Religious orthodoxy blended with military authoritarianism defeated a populist democrat in 1965. In the 1970s, history repeated. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a left-wing populist whose program featured traces of Islamic welfarism, lost the premiership (and his life) to Islamist elements who demandedNizam-e-Mustafa (the system of governance under the Prophet Muhammad) be imposed in Pakistan. 

During the decade-long regime of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978–1988), religious factions were empowered enough to become fixtures in the parliament, judiciary, and the law itself, not to mention the daily lives of Pakistanis (Ahmed & Yilmaz 2021Yilmaz, 2014). This is known as Pakistan’s period of “Islamization” and continues to shape the country’s politics to this very day. Today, it would be unimaginable for leaders like Jinnah or Bhutto to run for office. The public is now more responsive to “pious” populism than to a generic “anti-elitism” that promises an end to corruption. A decades-long strategy of tolerating (and indeed nurturingreligious fanaticism as part of the military-led establishment’s quest for “strategic depth” has created fertile soil for “pious populism” at the grassroots (Meher, 2012). Compared to voices emanating from the remote and “corrupt” political system, the ordinary working-class or rural Pakistani citizen has unquestioning faith in the guidance and direction from the mullah of his or her local mosque. 

In the last three and a half years, growing disillusion with the democratic system has peaked. The party of Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has promised a utopian vision recalling the Riyasat-e-Madina (the early period of rule in the city of Medina under the Prophet Muhammad), through welfare schemes, promoting piousness in society, and an end to corruption. Needless to say, these promises have not materialized (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). With skyrocketing inflation, the PTI walking back many of its promises, and the government proving mostly unable to govern effectively, many citizens have lost hope in the promised political “tsunami.” Against this backdrop, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has evolved from a movement to defend Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws into a populist radical right-wing political party. In less than a decade it is able to challenge the ruling political party and the state apparatus itself, on several occasions.

The instrumentalization of religion that the TLP has proven so adept at is scarcely novel in the Pakistani political firmament. Founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi in August 2015, the TLP has its origins and largest base of support in the Barelvi sect, a broad, Sufi-oriented Islamic revivalist movement with a long history of mobilizing conservative factions in South Asia and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the TLP is unique in the sense that it uses a highly appealing form of religious populism. The leadership provides a “moral” Islamism that seeks to address the issues of “corruption” in politics and society. With a sense of victimhood, it presents itself as the “defender” of faith and nation laced with vigilante-style vindictive rhetoric. Since 2015, the party has rallied thousands on the streets, leading to violent clashes, and loss of life and property. Each event has led to temporary arrests and bans on the party, only for the state to eventually cave into supporters’ demands and release vigilantes and lift sanctions on the party.

Emboldened by its successive victories, the TLP has grown in power. Its followers have become independent vigilantes engaging in cyber-harassment of critics, physically roughing up opposing voices, hurling in-person targeted abuse, and in the most extreme cases lynching people they accuse of blasphemy to death. This ability to mobilize and attack opponents combined with a voluble rhetoric that panders to a “pious” and wronged “true people,” allowed the TLP to score 4.2 percent of the vote (some 2.2 million votes) at the 2018 general elections, putting it in fifth place, although without any seats in Pakistan’s parliament (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020). 

Despite its sporadic rise to power and mushrooming growth, very little scholarly analysis has been published on the TLP. This paper seeks to address this gap in the literature by analyzing the TLP’s religious populism. In doing so, it offers a comprehensive review of how this populist Islamist populist movement has leveraged emotion and religious devotion to mobilize supporters. The first section of the paper provides an overview of the theoretical framework through which religious populism has been understood and the two central features of the phenomenon: the use of pro-violent narratives and vigilantism. This is followed by a discussion on the TLP’s genesis and the group’s evolution since 2015. In this section, statements by TLP leadership and the party’s dynamic relationship with the Pakistani state are reviewed to shed light on the conditions for its growth and its core mobilizing tactics. The closing section offers a set of conclusions about the role of religious populism in promoting vigilantism and sporadic acts of gruesome violence, the path ahead for Pakistan, and the risk that the country will descend into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization. 

 

Members of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are holding protest rally against amending affidavit of Khatam-e-Nabuwat, at M.A Jinnah road on November 12, 2017 in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Religion and Populism 

Loosely characterized as “confrontational, chameleonic, culture-bound and context-dependent” (Arter, 2011: 490), populism has become a worldwide phenomenon that directly challenges liberal democracy. A “thin” ideology, populism “thickens” and adapts by attaching itself to “thicker” cultural and ideological forms (De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017). By its very nature, populism is divisive in that it establishes an antagonistic division between “the people” and “the elite” while promising justice for the former, who are typically cast as “wronged” (Moffitt, 2020De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017Laclau, 2005: 154; Mudde, 2004: 543). It also goes beyond just criticizing “the elite” for their moral or political corruption and accuses the elite of advancing the interests of some favored “Other” at the expense of the “true people.” This “Other” can be defined variously in terms of political beliefs, skin color, gender, religious beliefs, or migration status (DeHanas & Shterin, 2018: 180De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017Zúquete, 2017: 446Moffitt, 2015). Essentially, populists thrive on divisional politics, and their sensationalist antics that “celebrate the low” in politics, ranging from utopian promises to crude language, add to their popularity (Nai, 2022).   

Religious populism is a form of cultural populism whereby embedded cultural forms are used to “thicken” the fundamental division between “the people” and “elites.” In the last two decades, religious rhetoric has become ever more prominent in mainstream politics (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020Peker, 2019Hadiz, 2018Jaffrelot and Tillin, 2017Zúquete, 2017Roy, 2016). In Europe, “civilizational” narratives that emphasize the role of religion in broad identity constructs have increasingly come to dominate the most influential forms of populism (Brubaker, 2017: 1211). This kind of populist rhetoric and narrative mobilization foregrounds civilizational distinctions, especially “religions and their cultural legacies” (think Viktor Orbán’s self-proclaimed mission to defend “European Christianity”), where “the people” and “the other” are distinguished based on religion, ethnicity, cultural norms, and the like. (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). 

In the twenty-first century, cultural populism has become widespread, especially in non-Western parts of the world, such as South Asia and Africa. In many such countries, religion is used by civilisationist populists to “thicken” their ideology, style, and outlook. As Yilmaz & Morieson (2021) note, there is an elective affinity between religious populism (which appeals directly to the faithful at a programmatic or electoral level) and identitarian populism (which draws on religious identity to make chauvinistic claims about the superiority of one culture over another). Specifically, the authors observe that:

“Religious populism encompasses both organised religion’s political and public aspects when they adopt a populist style and/or discourse, and populist political movement/parties/leaders that adopt an explicit religious programme. Identitarian populism is superficially similar to religious populism, but it does not possess a political programme based upon religious teachings, nor does it attempt to force religion upon a society or run a society according to the teachings of a particular religion. Instead, identitarian populism embraces a religion-based classification of peoples, often one aligned to civilisations (Western, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) or nations. It is not, however, religious itself, but is most often wholly secular, and therefore does not call for people to return to the faiths of their ancestors, or even to believe in God” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021: 10).

This framing of the phenomenon of religious populism speaks to the modus operandi of the TLP, which instrumentalizes Islam and uses faith to mold its narrative and style while emphasizing the goal of bringing Nizam-e-Mustafa to Pakistan, thereby reorienting the status quo. 

The Emotional Appeal of Religious Populism: Opening Space for Vigilante Aggression  

Religion is not only a tool for social categorization but also a highly emotive tool in the hands of populists. As Yilmaz & Morieson (2021: 1–10) note: “Similar to many other ideologies/movements, populists too construct narratives that paint the events, in-groups, and outgroups in certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitate strong emotions among the audience.” Such a strategy enables them to cast the ingroup as “good” and the outgroup as “wicked.” Added to this categorization of society is the emotion of fear which creates a crisis for “the people.” For instance, in the United States and across Europe, an emotional backlash against multiculturalism, gender rights, and overall progressive values has bolstered populists who seek to protect “Christian values” (Norris & Inglehart, 2019). 

In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, has also derailed democracy against a backdrop where communal tensions between various religious groups have reached a peak not seen since 1947 (Doffer et al., 2020Gandesha, 2020). In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has merged pre-existing social tensions and fears with Islamism, overturning eight decades of often aggressively imposed secularism (Yilmaz, 2021). Within Pakistan as well, Imran Khan’s populism hinges greatly on emotional appeal. Over the years, his promise of a Riyasat-e-Madina has given hope to “the people” that the country can adopt a model of Islamist welfare combined with economic and political self-sufficiency.      

Both religious and identarian populists use emotions to polarize society, gain merit in the eyes of “the people,” and promote themselves as “the only hope” against a hostile “other.”  (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021Salmela & von Scheve 20172018Brady et al., 2017Graham et al., 2011). Given the nature of religion, its importance in the lives of many, and its divinely ordained distinctions between “good” and “bad” conduct, the way religious or civilizational identities are drawn is often rooted in pre-existing collective feelings “of grievances, resentment, disillusionment, anger, fear, and vindictiveness” (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2022; see also Yilmaz, 2021Bonansinga, 2020). “The people” and their faith (or long-held cultures of worship) are positioned as being at risk from “the other.”

Alongside negative emotions of fear and anxiety, populists also use positive emotions of pride and love of one’s religion and the prospect that one will be rewarded for helping to “make society great again” and for defending one’s faith at all costs (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021Albayrak, 2013). Taggart (2004) uses the term “heartland” as a descriptor for this emotional space where, as he noted in a recent blog post, populists construct “a version of the past that celebrates a hypothetical, uncomplicated and non-political territory of imagination.” The heightened emotional resonance of “heartland” messages has triggered followers of these populists to undertake quite inhumane measures and overlook the increasingly undemocratic digressions of populists in power. Such acts are seen as just in a quest to reinforce the “heartland” for “the people” (Kissas, 2019Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018Pappas, 2016). 

One of the leading examples where Islamist populism has deployed a host of emotions in its mobilization strategy is Turkey. Erdoğan has successfully leveraged long-established fears of “Western enemies” and “internal traitors” that date back well over a century but are cast in a new guise to fit the current political context (Yilmaz, 2021). Since 2010 especially, Erdoğan, his party, and pro-AKP voices have systematically engaged in smear campaigns that transform into institutional oppression and discrimination toward “the other” (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 20212022). For instance, a former ally and spiritual group, the Gülen Movement (GM) and its leader, have been used as a scapegoats for all manner of sins within the AKP, including its rampant corruption and many governance failures since the mid-2000s (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 20212022Watmough, 2020).

Religious populist leaders outside of state institutions have also used emotions to galvanize support along these lines. One of the most prominent cases from Southeast Asia is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI—Front Pembela Islam), which is now formally banned in Indonesia (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021). With the narrative of victimhood inspired by fear of assorted “others” — non-Muslims, “Zionists,” the Western powers, China, and Ahmadis — the group has been encouraged to take matters into its own hands and “defend” Islam and the ummah (Facal, 2019Jahroni, 2004). Its massive appeal in the country has meant that while renaming a movement-driven organization, the FPI has played a key role in electoral lobbying and mainstreaming right-wing narratives. Its power to sway state institutions is visible by the fact that it was behind the introduction of 400 Shariah-inspired laws in the country and has the force behind blasphemy protests in 2016–17  (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021). 

The FPI has been able to replicate its presence online, and even though it remains banned, its cyber “warriors” and various websites remain active (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Moreover, using charged Islamist populist rhetoric, the FPI has inspired a generation of vigilantes in the country who continue to take part in local (and overseas) incidents of aggression toward various “others” to “protect” the Islamic faith. 

However, it must be noted that Indonesia’s democratic institutions, while often brittle, are much stronger than Pakistan’s. The government has succeeded in permanently banning the FPI and maintaining its outlaw status. In contrast, the TLP remains free to operate in a country with already fragile institutions and a population receptive to Islamist narratives. This paper thus looks at Pakistan’s context and understands the group’s working under the populism framework.

 

A regional office of a TLP in lyari. The Signboards are in Urdu and English in Karachi, Pakistan on January 2021.

The Historical Roots and Evolution of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

The Barelvi order was formed in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising in India against the British East India Company. Weakened, the company turned to the British government for assistance, and the conflict expanded into a full-scale war of independence against the British crown. The Indian defeat in 1857-8 led to the formal colonization of India by Britain when the last Mughal King, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed, and a series of “revenge” murders by the British troops was undertaken (Dalrymple, 2008). This ushered in the end of centuries of Muslim leadership of the Subcontinent. 

In the wake of the establishment of the British Raj, a broad-based, Sufi-oriented Sunni Islamic revivalist movement, the Barelvi, emerged to “protect” Islam and restore Muslim “glory” in the region. Over the years, the movement has inspired jihadism against the region’s perceived “others.” For instance, Syed Ahmad Barelvi[1] launched a guerrilla war against the Sikh Empire of Punjab in the early nineteenth century; over two hundred years later, thousands of young men were sent as mujahideen to fight the Afghan war in the 1980s. As a result, Barelvi religious doctrine draws on a deep sense of victimhood that extends back to the colonial past. Over time, the movement has adapted, and its definition of “other. Nevertheless, the centrality of jihadist ideas and the movement’s defining motivation to “protect” Islam against hostile forces have been constants. 

In recent years, Pakistan’s commitment to the US “war on terror” has seen the influence of hardliner Deobandi scholars decline. However, the state’s tolerance of madrassa culture and its cultivation of right-wing radicals continues. Indeed, the Pakistani state has embraced the benefits of pandering to a supposedly “victimized” population by supporting the “softer” Sufi elements in Islam, of which Barelvism is a part. As a result, Barelvi clerics have been placed in important positions, their madrassas have received state funding, and the Barelvi identity, which had been solidified due to exclusion and deprivation, has strengthened through state patronage. For their part, the Barelvis have publicly condemned terrorism and, by all accounts, have consciously avoided inciting political chaos in recent decades. Nevertheless, despite its Sufi roots, the movement hues to very strident positions, seeing the Holy Prophet as a divine being (Noor Mohammadiya) who is omnipresent (Hazir-o-Nazir) and arguing that insults of the Prophet (Namoos-e-Risalat) should be punished by death. Emboldened in this way, the movement has become more assertive and has turned violent of late. 

The origins of the TLP movement are in the Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri), which came into existence after the arrest of Mumtaz Qadri in 2011 on charges of assassinating Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, ostensibly for the latter’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Following Qadri’s trial and execution, the movement renamed itself Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolallah (TLYP), later transforming into the TLP (Sabat, Ahmad, & Qadar, 2020). This movement advocated for Qadri and portrayed him as a hero even after this execution. The movement derives its core support from Barelvi madrassas dotted across the country. 

In the conducive environment for the Barelvis, supporters of Mumtaz Qadri grew in numbers. The movement consolidated at his funeral and later rituals associated with chehlum (the traditional forty days of mourning after death), branding him a martyr of Islam. The movement grew rapidly, affording the largely dispersed Barelvi community a publicly expressed collective identity. Opposition to blasphemy became the central aspect of the movement’s motivation, and where the judicial system was seen as too slow in its prosecution of violators (at times even acquitting them), the TLP applied direct and swift mob justice.

The incumbent government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) did nothing to reprimand this vigilante behavior at the time, especially following Qadri’s hanging. Embroiled in its own corruption scandals and confronting civil unrest led by Imran Khan and his PTI, the government lacked the will and resources to act. In addition, the PML-N, which draws on the tradition of General Zia-ul-Haq’s political Islam in Pakistan, did not wish to alienate its pious supporters by being seen to be heavy-handed against Islamic groups in society. More importantly, the military-led establishment —which had nurtured Sharif and his party in the 1980s as a counter to the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)  — now settled on the Barelvi as a useful counterweight to the PML-N’s growing independence. After returning to the prime ministership for a third term in 2013, Sharif and his party were increasingly asserting their independence from the establishment, driving the latter to seek ways to “break” the party’s political base. To that end, the establishment began to foment rifts between the PML-N and its right-wing supporter base in Punjab, including the Barelvi. Careful political engineering behind the scenes laid the ground for the formation of the TLP. 

Many TLP members are former PLM-N supporters. A 2018 Gallup survey found that 46 percent of those who voted for the TLP in 2018 had voted for PML-N in the 2013 elections. Nawaz and his party keenly felt this loss of support. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, the Punjab exploded in sporadic province-wide protests led by Khadim Rizvi calling for the resignation of the then Minister of Law and Justice, Zahid Hamid, over changes to the wording of the Elections Bill 2017 drafted by the government in the run-up to the elections.  

Specifically, the government had changed the wording of the oath concerning commitment to the finality of Prophet Muhammad from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe.” The TLP cast this “weakening” of the oath’s wording as undermining Pakistan’s Muslim identity and values, which hinge on the belief in the finality of the Prophet. Zahid Hamid’s home was attacked, and TLP vigilantes staged sit-ins until he was forced to resign over the alleged “blasphemy.” Rizvi and his followers blocked all main roads in Islamabad for twenty days, demanding the original wording be restored and the minister’s resignation. Clashes with police injured some 200 and killed four

The TLP remained undeterred, and the protests turned into highly ritualistic public displays of political piety. Day and night, on the orders of Rizvi, the protesters chanted nats (lyrics praising the Prophet Muhammad) and slogans expressing love for the Prophet and hatred for those considered gustakhs (blasphemers). Passions ran so high that protesters armed with simple sticks were recorded tossing their shoes at passing state patrol helicopters while Rizvi hurled all kinds of abuse at the government. Finally, with the PML-N on its knees, the military was called in to “arbitrate.” The TLP was forced to retreat to its stronghold in Lahore (albeit with its demand met), and the government retreated with its tail between its legs. However, it would not be the last time the radicals would best Sharif before the 2018 elections. 

The 2017 events only emboldened the TLP, which now evidently had the establishment’s blessing. As much was proven when a video surfaced of a high-raking army official disbursing money to TLP protesters in 2017. The establishment claimed the funds were used to disburse the protesters by giving them funds to return to their homes. However, many speculated that this was part of the military’s long-run strategy of “strategic depth” — namely, fomenting unrest to keep the elected government on its toes. 

These suspicions were further confirmed when the Supreme Court finally released its judgment on the sit-ins in February 2019. The judgment held that all protesters be tried under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and called upon Pakistan’s electoral commission to scrutinize the TLP’s status as a political party. Interestingly, the court issued a warning to the armed forces to cease meddling in the country’s political affairs, noting: “The Constitution emphatically prohibits members of the Armed Forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction or individual. The Government of Pakistan through the Ministry of Defense and the respective Chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are directed to initiate action against the personnel under their command who are found to have violated their oath.”

By 2018, the TLP had become a household name. It had garnered wide media attention and the sympathies of radical elements in the country. Rizvi’s crude language and earthy charisma proved quite effective. His blunt use of Punjabi jokes and coarse language resonated with the sentiments and approach of the masses. Thus, he could cast himself as “one of them” rather than a phony politician. His speeches went viral on social media, and attendance at the seminary at Multan Road in Lahore blossomed. Like all populists, Rizvi’s rhetoric was unapologetic and provided “simple” solutions. For example, as a “solution” to the problem of Dutch “blasphemers” mocking Islam and the Prophet, he suggested Pakistan attack the Netherlands with nuclear weapons, berating the government for its inaction and its warehousing of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as if they were “firecrackers” (i.e., just for show). 

When quizzed about the party’s economic policy on a popular television show, Rizvi showcased both his political acumen (using the language of people’s everyday experience) and apparent lack of economic expertise (eschewing detailed policy commitments), noting that when the Nizam-e-Mustafa was established, the country would prosper because the government would, like any ordinary household, just live within its means. He explained this by saying that if his government were ever short of resources, everyone would make do for a while without yogurt and instead eat chilies with roti. However, when further pressed for a specific policy, he launched into a classic rant against the state and blamed banks charging interest and a lack of piety among the elite as the source of all problems. 

Enabling a New Vigilante Jihadism

Despite its apparent disconnect with reality, TLP won some 1.8 million votes (National Assembly seats) in Punjab (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020). The same year they also successfully campaigned to remove Atif Mian from the Pakistan Economic Council because he was a member of the Ahmadiyya community. This was the first compromise by the PTI government as it gave into the demands of the TLP. 

At a micro level, more disturbing events occurred even before the elections. Young impressionable children going to TLP mosques and hearing Rizvi’s sermons showed early signs of vigilantism. On January 23, 2018, Sareer Ahmed, a student, killed his school’s principal, who had reprimanded him for skipping classes to attend a TLP sit-in. The boy who showed no remorse after killing his teacher justified his actions in the name of safeguarding the Prophet Muhammad.

In May 2018, PML-N politician and National Assembly Member, Ahsan Iqbal was critically wounded by Abid Hussain,who charged Iqbal with committing blasphemy. It is believed that Iqbal was returning from a meeting with a Christian group when he was shot. In March 2019, Khateeb Hussain, another young student, killed his professor over allegations of blasphemy. The boy did not show any signs of remorse after using a knife to kill his teacher in his classroom. 

On October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the previous conviction of a Christian woman Aasiya Noreen (popularly known as Asia Bibi), accused of blasphemy. The TLP called for the three judges to be killed for the judgment. Mass protests erupted in retaliation, and roads in major cities were blocked as protesters stormed the streets and destroyed public and private property. On November 2, 2018, the new government agreed to put Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List, which barred her from leaving the country in an effort to subdue the protests. To neutralize the growing resistance on November 4, 2018, Rizvi’s Twitter was also suspended at the government’s request. Bibi’s lawyer also left the country fearing his own life. On November 7, Asia Bibi was secretly flown on a military plane out of the country. 

In 2020, a bank manager from the Ahmadiyya faith was shot dead in broad daylight by the bank’s security guard in the town of Khushab in Punjab. What was more disturbing was the guard being taken handcuffed by the police with a smirk on his face as the mob chanted in support of him for heroism. In 2021, the lynching of the Sri Lankan factory manager by a mob in Sialkot was also TLP inspired. The key culprits in the cases expressed pride in their actions. All these attackers were linked with TLP or inspired by their narrative, yet the TLP chief was quick to disassociate himself from them. 

While TLP has served the establishment (and the PTI) as a valuable counterweight to the PML-N, the party’s freelance vigilantism has become an issue. Now that the PTI is firmly in power and towing the establishment line, the state apparatus has again mobilized against the TLP. As mentioned, in 2019, the Supreme Court openly questioned the party status of the TLP and asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to investigate. In reply, the ECP has informed the court that the party had failed to provide the required campaign finance reports for the 2018 elections, blunting the party’s political ambitions. Additionally, there were also rumors of a split between the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his heir apparent, Pir Afzal Rizvi, and the movement began to show cracks. 

However, another “crisis” emerged in the winter of 2020 that opened up a space for the TLP to fall back on its tried and tested strategy of leveraging supposed “threats” to Islam to mobilize supporters in vigilante violence. 

In October 2021, a French history teacher who had brought sketches of the Prophet Muhammad allegedly printed in a 2012 edition of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo into his classroom was decapitated; the assailant was shot dead by French police as they tried to arrest him. In the days that followed the beheading, the same sketches were projected onto the facade of a building in another French city, and people displayed them at protests around the country. The French president Emmanuel Macron criticized Islamists and was accused of inciting Islamophobia. This led to a call within Pakistan to boycott French products. Khadim Hussain Rizvi went a step further, calling on followers to block the Shahrah-e-Faisal, the main road in Karachi, until the government cut all diplomatic ties with France and banned all French products. He even urged the government to announce jihad (Islamic holy war) against France. During this period, his sermons were increasingly hostile toward France, and in one, he declared, “we must eventually die of some disease, be it diabetes or some other ailment […]. It is better to die with the name of the Prophet on our lips […] it does not matter if France perishes if the world perishes or we perish.” 

Rizvi has been adept at using the coarse language of his region to castigate opponents. He has labeled the Supreme Court Chief Justice a “dog,” referred to Prime Minister Imran Khan variously as an “animal,” a “duffer,” a “barking dog,” a “pimp,” and mouthed many anti-Semitic slurs. When confronted with his behavior, he has defended himself by declaring he is merely a cipher of the words and vision of the Prophet Mohammed.  

A large numbers of people gathered to attend funeral prayer of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Chief of TLP, held at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore on on November 21, 2020. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Rizvi’s death in 2020 did not end the movement. His eldest son, Saad Rizvi, who was relatively unknown to the public before taking over the movement’s leadership, has since continued his father’s path. Thus, the death of the elder Rizvi has not derailed the party’s anti-French jihad. On January 3, 2021, he called on the government to expel the French ambassador by February 17, 2021 as per their previous agreement. 

On April 12, 2021, police arrested Saad Rizvi on charges of terrorism. Protests erupted, and a member of the group’s leadership, Syed Zaheerul Hassan Shah, called on supporters to “jam the entire country.” Tensions became so high that the French embassy asked French nationals to leave the country temporarily. Law enforcement agencies tried to clear out TLP supporters from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but at least four policemen were killed in clashes. This proved to be the final straw for the government, which announced it had “reasonable grounds to believe that Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan is engaged in terrorism.” On April 15, 2021, the government banned the TLP under anti-terrorism legislation. Fearing a backlash from the party supporters, the government also temporarily banned social media. Despite the move to outlaw the party, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on national television to call the crackdown on the TLP “regrettable,” thereby showing his sympathy for the group’s criminal acts.

By November 2021, the PTI government appeared to be walking back its hardline approach to the TLP. First, Saad Rizvi’s arrest mobilized unprecedented protest action across the country that the government of Imran Khan struggled to control. Then, at the end of 2021, Saad Rizvi was released from prison. Moreover, many TLP supporters accused of vandalism and violence against police walk free, even as the party prepares to contest the 2023 general elections. Yet, rather than seeing the renewed mobilization of the TLP as a defeat, Imran Khan’s strategy appears to be to placate the movement, pointing to the shared Islamist objectives of his PTI and the TLP.

Illustration by: Khurram Shayzad.

Conclusion

The present article has sought to analyze the foundations on which the TLP has risen to prominence in Pakistan. Our analysis indicates that the group has leveraged the victimhood narrative, jihadism, vindictiveness, and revanchism of the Barelvi sect. While Islamic populism is not new in Pakistan, the TLP is set apart by its ability to ride the populist wave by speaking to the fears and anxieties of the public. In addition, it has mainstreamed radical Islamist and pro-violence ideas. Having evolved from a proxy created by the establishment to a political force in its own right, the TLP poses a serious challenge to the very fabric of Pakistani society through its championing of mass vigilante violence.  

It is clear that the Pakistani establishment has been key to emboldening the TLP through its early support. Now, the TLP has gained so much clout that it appears to have outgrown the state. Moreover, the political environment is ripe for exploitation. Inflation rates keep skyrocketing, the value of the Pakistani rupee has plummeted, and Imran Khan’s promised Islamic welfare state is nowhere to be seen. While Khan employs his own version of Islamist populism to appease the religious sentiments of the masses, there is a growing sense of distrust toward him within the electorate. Only a few years ago, Nawaz Sharif and his PLM-N lost a hefty chunk of their votes to the TLP; the PTI now confronts a similar fate. 

What emerges is a kind of Islamist “bidding war” in which the PTI seems to be losing ground to the TLP. While the former has bolstered religious authorities, funded right-wing groups, and constantly advocated for a boycott of “Western values” (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021), the TLP seems to be constantly outmaneuvering it. Its unchecked and uncensored content is creating a new generation of vindictive jihadists. And unlike the Taliban, this group operates in plain view. Students, shopkeepers, and even family members appear ready to kill in the name of “safeguarding” Islam. Most of these people know that the legal system is too corrupt and slow to prosecute them. 

It is unclear whether a new “crisis” will emerge (or be fabricated) that will allow the TLP an open space for mobilization in the lead-up to the 2023 elections. What is clear is that the playing field of Pakistani politics has shifted decisively in favor of extremism and vigilantism. While the TLP is hardly the first outfit to exploit religion in Pakistan, it is arguably the most threatening to the stability of the social and political order in the country’s 75-year history. 

References

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Albayrak, Ismail. (2013). “The Other” Among Us: The Perception of Khārijī and Ibāḍī Islam in the Muslim Exegetical Traditions.” Ankara Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi. 54:1, 35-63.

Arter, David. (2011). Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigration Parties in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barton, Greg; Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “Religious and Pro-Violence Populism in Indonesia: The Rise and Fall of a Far-Right Islamist Civilisationist Movement.” Religions. 12, no. 6: 397.

Bonansinga, D. (2020). “Who thinks, feels. The relationship btw emotions, politics and populism.” Partecipazione e conflitto. 13, no.1, 83-106.

Brady, W. et al., (2017). “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks.” Proceedings of the NAS. 114, no.28, 7313-7318.

Brubaker, Rogers. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism: The European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40: 1191–226. 

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De Cleen, Benjamin & Stavrakakis, Yannis (2017). “Distinctions and Articulations: A Discourse Theoretical Framework for the Study of Populism and Nationalism.” Javnost: The Public. 24: 301–19.

DeHanas, Daniel Nilsson & Shterin, Marat (2018). “Religion and the rise of populism.” Religion State & Society. 46: 177–85.

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[1] Barelvi was a revered figure with origins in the Ahl-e-Hadith factions (another hardline Sunni order). His name is derived from his hometown of Bareli (in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh) and not the Barelvi movement itself. 

RedMilk1

Red Milk: A Cautionary Tale

This piece reviews Sjón’s novel Red Milk, now available in English translation. The book depicts a young man’s absorption into a neo-Nazi group in Iceland in the 1950s. 

By Heidi Hart

The Icelandic writer Sjón is known for surreal tales on topics as diverse as “whaling, alchemy and the history of cinema” (Anderson, 2022), as well as for his opera libretti and collaborations with Björk. In his introduction to the 2017 anthology Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland, he writes that the subject of philosophy was not introduced for university students there until 1971. “In place of philosophy, the Icelanders had poetry and tales … Debates on the interaction of body and soul, for example, could be conducted through the medium of verses or stories about birds” (Mitsios, 2017: X). As a novelist, Sjón finds inspiration in the creatures outside his fisherman’s cottage, as he imagines a fox that multiplies into four of itself or a man transformed into a butterfly. 

But Sjón’s work is not just whimsical. In his recent novel Red Milk, he confronts two painful discoveries: that his grandfather was a spy for the Germans in World War II, and that a neo-Nazi movement took root in Iceland in the 1950s. In an afterword to the book, he acknowledges that his previous novels dealing with the Nazi period and its aftermath (The Whispering Muse and CoDex 1962) took an “ironic” and even “flippant” approach to characters’ “obsession with Nordic culture to inflate their own sense of importance in the world” (Sjón, 2021: 141). He also recalls an episode in his childhood when, perhaps as a way to push against the painful, silent story in his family, he found himself drawing swastikas. 

Though Red Milk does not tell Sjón’s grandfather’s story but imagines a semi-fictional young man who gets caught up in toxic nationalism after the war, it is haunted by the writer’s own grappling with history. Gunnar, an ordinary child growing up in the war years, is later found dead on a train in England, with a swastika on a paper found in his pocket. In order to tell this tale with both critical distance and narrative intimacy, Sjón changes positions. The novel begins with the train scene and moves backwards into Gunnar’s childhood, described in third-person past tense. As Gunnar grows up and acts on his right-wing fascinations, he does so in the book’s middle section, written as letters – so that the main character’s “I” is clearly separate from the narrator’s. 

Sjón’s magic-realist bent only shows in glimmers in this brief, dark book. In one striking scene, Gunnar the child overhears his father sobbing over his radio through a closed door. But instead of simply including this scene in the trajectory of a boy’s life on the edge of Reykjavik, Sjón slips it forward, as a dying memory. One moment Gunnar is describing a birch stick that his father kept, ostensibly to remember his own father’s beatings, and the next, “now that death has freed the grandson’s body from its incurable disease and Gunnar is slumped lifeless on a seat in a train compartment in a siding at Cheltenham Spa Station … his brain is still working” (Sjón, 2021: 16). This passage reads less like writerly sleight-of-hand than like the actual mystery of consciousness, with one last pang of conscience, too: what Gunnar recalls last is this exchange with his sister, when overhearing their father’s sobs: “Daddy’s looking at the birch.” “No, you idiot; Daddy’s frightened of Hitler” (17). 

Gunnar is not just an “idiot” in thrall to the local German teacher and cycling enthusiast, however. He is ordinary in the same sense Hannah Arendt described in her 1963 reports on the Eichmann trial, using the “banality of evil” term that became controversial for downplaying the “demonic” or “monstrous” aspects of Nazism (Kirsch and Galchen, 2013). Showing how easily average citizens can become agents of evil is Sjón’s project as well, however painful it may be to “look for what I have in common with my characters” (Sjón, 2021: 143). At the same time, his “clinical” strategy in shifting narrative positions and beginning with Gunnar’s death (“It is easier to deal with a dead Nazi than a living one” [Ibid.]), offsets too much sympathy. The anti-Muslim and antisemitic passages in Gunnar’s letters would be even more difficult to read if spoken in dialogue or overheard in his third-person head. 

The neo-Nazi group that Gunnar joins in the decade after the war is based on Sjón’s research, which also turned up the group’s wide-reaching supporters, including “Savitri Devi, George Lincoln Rockwell, Colin Jordan, and Göran Asser Oredsson – the very people who laid the foundation for the international network of far-right movements as we know it today” (Sjón, 202: 142). Gunnar is based on “one of the main actors” in this group, “who died from cancer at a young age while fanatically working on the foundation of their World Union of National Socialists” (Ibid.). His fictional letters show him to be as uncomfortably human as he is fanatical, writing humorous, simple notes to his mentally disabled brother and then rhapsodizing to Oredsson that “We, the Icelandic Nationalists, greet you with arms raised high and palms outstretched …” (76) before complaining, “Nothing is being done to safeguard our Icelandic cultural heritage” (79).

Much of Gunnar’s language in his letters (at least in English translation) sounds like current xenophobic, populist rhetoric in Europe and the US. Even phrases like “criminal hordes” (80) are not surprising in the age of Trumpian crudity, though some 21st-century right-wing groups have attempted to show a veneer of respectability (Silman, 2016). What is most frightening about Sjón’s novel is how mainstream many of Gunnar’s epistolary opinions have become (Feffer, 2019; Miller-Idriss, 2022). Though this character and his cohort may be “under the spell of Hitlerism, racism, and white supremacy” (Sjón, 2021: 142), they are not “special” (145) in that many ordinary people (including most of my neighbors in the American West) continue to find themselves hooked by xenophobic news propaganda, conspiracy theories, and resistance to public health measures, often linking this with far-right ideology. 

Like the “negative example” of Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s play, which used a mercenary character from the Thirty Years War to speak to 1930s Germany, Gunnar Kampen is a cautionary figure for our time. The danger in good storytelling, though, is that even a bad example can become appealing (as has often been a problem in Mother Courage stagings, for all Brecht’s efforts at distancing effects). Narrative itself is not a saving strategy in times of fascist threats; even Eichmann was an “avid storyteller,” as Hannah Arendt discovered, for all of his clichés (Norberg, 2013). At its best, Red Milk evokes a sense of threat through its slips in time and striking images, as in this moment in Gunnar’s childhood, on a car trip to Raudavatn or “Red Water”: “Halfway between the west end of Reykjavik and their destination, this unintelligible word finally conjured up a picture in his mind: A glass, brimming with red milk” (Sjón, 2021: 21). Beware the conjuring. 

References

Mitsios, Helen (Ed.) (2017). Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland. University of Minnesota Press. Sjón. (2021). Red Milk. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

English Defence League (EDF) stages a rally in Birmingham on April 8th, 2017 to protest the "Islamisation" of the UK amongst other issues. UK is suffering divisions between locals and foreigners. Photo: Alexandre Rotenberg.

Reciprocal populism: The interaction of right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups in Europe

Despite their ostensible opposition to one another, extreme right-wing, anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups like “Sharia for Europe” share a common dynamic of “reciprocal populism.” This emerges when antagonistic actors embedded in the same social context draw on similar themes and images in performing a populist political style based on symbolic action. Through this contestation, each casts the other as the principal threat to the survival of a morally “pure” community. While the focus is on the opposition between right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups, “reciprocal populism” is best understood not as a binary process but rather as co-evolution among multiple actors who forge coalitions and display a range of tactics and strategies in their ongoing performance of populism.

By Erkan Toguslu

In this commentary, I briefly analyze two extremist groups in Europe that have been feeding one other by drawing on the same themes and images in the pursuit of their agendas: right-wing, anti-Islam movements and the radical Islamist outfit “Sharia for Europe.” Despite their apparent ideological opposition, these two networks have exhibited what Eatwell (2014) calls “reflexive hybridity,” which describes the phenomenon whereby contesting groups borrow intentionally from each other as they battle it out in the public sphere. While these extreme movements are very heterogonous and would not necessarily define themselves as “populist” in terms of ideology (instead adopting labels such as “religious” or “patriotic”), the symbols, discourses, and narratives they evince reflect a certain populist political style and performance.

Both the anti-Islam movements and the “Sharia for Europe” groups are committed to a pure understanding of authentic community, expressed variously in national, cultural, or religious terms. Both groups charge that an immoral cosmopolitan “global” elite threatens the “pure” community’s way of life, requiring defensive action “before it is too late.” This reflects the central premise of ideational approaches to populism, which claim that the central feature of the phenomenon is a moral division between the “pure” people and a corrupt elite (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017). In this school of thought, populists will delineate the concrete referent for the “pure” people in various ways, be it a particular social stratum (“the workers” or the “hardworking middle class”), “the nation,” or a specific ethnic group. Whatever referent is selected, the result is an idealized conception of the “pure” community (Taggart, 2004).

In short, the approach of populists toward the moral construction of a “pure” people set against a “corrupt” elite involves a high degree of idealization and the cooptation of imagery and symbolism that can be deployed flexibly and often strategically in an ongoing process of discursive construction. When opposing groups are pitted against one another in a public sphere characterized by plural media and information affluence, dynamic reciprocal interaction emerges, the result of which is a form of mutual radicalization. The present analysis explores this dynamic as it has emerged between anti-Islam and Islamist groups in Europe in recent decades. Specifically, it analyzes the symbols and narratives underpinning the production of populist performativity across such groups.

Theoretically, the analysis draws on Roger Eatwell’s (2006) notion of “cumulative extremism,” which refers to the escalation of violence between two antagonistic groups—in his research as in the analysis here, militant Islamists and groups opposed to Islam. Drawing on this idea, we adopt the term “reciprocal populism” to explain how opposing movements reinforce each other’s populist discourse and style through sustained interaction. These styles and discourses are reinforced through socially embedded interconnectedness — namely, the mechanisms and micro-processes of reciprocal exchanges between groups embedded in a shared social environment. More specifically, they take the form of embodied social practices both online and offline, targeting the opposing group through propaganda.

The extremist group “Stop Islamization” was founded in Denmark in 2005 by the far-right politician Anders Gravers Pedersen. It soon morphed into a transnational network in various countries under the label “Stop the Islamisation of Europe” (SIOE). The SIOE organized the so-called “Counter-Jihad” summit and many other international conferences to mobilize members from across Europe. Some of the most infamous right-wing, anti-immigrant movements in Europe of recent years feature in the SIOE network, including many groups under the banner of the so-called Identarian Movement, Germany’s far-right anti-migrant Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), and the neo-Nazi organization Vigrid, as well as the so-called Pro-Cologne Movement (which was rebadged as the Pro-Germany Citizen’s Movement), Pax Europa, the Cities against Islamization (CAI) initiative, and the “Casuals United” protest group in the UK, which later rebadged itself as the “Pie and Mash Squad.” All these groups have identified Islam and the supposed threat from the spread of shariʿa law as pressing problems for Europe. They are also linked to other far-right organizations and parties across the continent and beyond.

A woman holds a placard reading “Muslims will destroy the crusade and estabilish the Islamic State!” outside the Regents Park Mosque in London, UK on 24 January 2014.

As a response to the activities of the SIOE network, a highly diffuse and non-hierarchical Salafī jihadi network made up of various individual preachers as well as militant groups and organizations has sprung up with the explicit goal of spreading and promoting the imposition of shariʿa law in Europe. Transnational outfits like Al-Muhajirun, Islam4UK, and Sharia for Europe have connected with local groups like Forsane Alizza in France, Einladung zum Paradies (Invitation to Paradise, EZP) and Millatu Ibrahim in Germany, and Profetens Ummah in Norway, to promote the Islamicization of Europe.

Both sets of identity-based movements organize and participate in rallies and demonstrations and seek to persuade public opinion against the other through propaganda in the public sphere. Alongside this “spectacle” mobilization and “street populism,” both sets of networks share common features that belie their strident opposition to one another. First, they are, for the most part, transnational in their aims and their reach. Second, they bring together diverse people from all walks of life, many of whom do not share the same primary ideology and whose opinions on various issues may differ. Third, they hone in on an evident vision of moral community, dividing the world into a “pure” people under threat from an “enemy” Other, and then mobilize into protest action based on such a division.

Spectacle Activism and Street Populism

One way to gain analytical purchase on populism is to examine its discursive manifestations — namely, the narratives, discourses, and symbols that populist actors and movements use to challenge the “corrupt” elite or antagonist Other in the name of the “pure” people. Here, we can usefully draw on Benjamin Moffitt’s understanding of populism as a “stylised milieu of contemporary politics” and a public performance designed to mobilize the people, typically against a backdrop of manufactured crisis (Moffitt, 2016). The street performance of extremist actors can be viewed as a salient example of such stylized populist mobilization. In Moffitt’s schema, populist performance breaks into several elements — the “performer” (i.e., the populist leader or movement), the “audience” (voters or the population at large), and the “stage,” comprising both traditional (print, radio, TV) and new media (the internet and social media). Understanding performative populism in this way allows us to see how the reciprocal populism of the far-right anti-Islam and Sharia for Europe movements has emerged and consolidated over the last decade.

Both sides value public clashes as a central aspect of their populist performance, with mutual contestation in public space serving as propaganda to mobilize supporters. For example, Salafī preachers have organized street activities called da’wa in various European cities, where copies of the Qu’ran are distributed, and Islamic preachers give strident sermons on busy street corners to large groups, partly to provoke a negative response. This often results in clashes with both the police and far-right militants, which are then badged as public displays of resistance to an oppressive state (represented by policy) or bigoted citizenry (the far-right thugs). The Islamists upload photos and videos from these clashes as evidence of their bravery, assertiveness, and resistance to those social forces seeking to “oppress Islam.” Black clothing and flags feature prominently, as does militant attire. One prominent propaganda video features a Salafist leader dressed in a djellaba (traditional North African robe), army jacket, and a turban announcing the group’s intention to attack and demolish the Atomium, a landmark monument in Brussels built for the 1958 World Fair, as a symbolic act of resistance.

The far-right, anti-Islam groups are equally adept at using this kind of public clash as a symbolic performance. For example, Les Identitaires (formerly Bloc Identitaire) — a French anti-migrant, nativist, and anti-Muslim movement — has deployed propaganda and public performance techniques to rally support and create a narrative of crisis around the supposed challenge of Islam in Europe. The group, founded in 2002 in Nice, has since become active across Europe and engages symbolically in various social debates by organizing street demonstrations. They target primarily young people to promote anti-migration and anti-Islam ideas. Its founding members have links with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (Rassemblement national). Its members occupied the rooftop of a mosque in Poitiers in 2012. It regularly references totemic historical events and symbols to gain visibility and recruit impressionable people, especially the young. They distribute so-called “identity soup” (“La soupe au cochon”) containing pork meat (which both Muslims and Jews are forbidden to eat) in various cities in France and Belgium in collaboration with the Antwerpse Solidariteit group, which is close to the far-right Vlaams Belang in Belgium. Other very provocative public actions by the network have included very public consumption of non-halal food products in Muslim-populated areas, members dressed in pig costumes occupying a halal fast-food restaurant, broadcasting the call to prayer in Montluçon, a small town in central France in the middle of the night using a loudspeaker to protest plans to open a mosque there, and defacing a street sign in Brussels to read “Sharia Street” to denounce the apparent Islamization of the city.

In the UK, the English Defense League (EDL) has presented a master class of public propaganda techniques designed to perform symbolic opposition to Islam and to galvanize anti-Islam movements. The EDL was established in 2009 in the English town of Luton with the stated aim of “protecting” non-Muslims from radical Islam (Goodwin et al., 2016). The EDL has organized demonstrations in areas with large Muslim populations and draws heavily on classic Christian iconography — particularly the crucifix and the imagery of the crusaders of the middle ages — in its flags and banners. This kind of visual antagonism through the heavy use of Crusader imagery actually bolsters the radical Islamist mobilization because it highlights the Islamist propaganda that Western countries (especially the United States) have been waging a modern-day crusade against Muslim lands, especially since the First Gulf War in the 1990s. Thus, we see cumulative extremism at work in its purest form, with the EDL and Islamist groups pointing to the salience of the Crusader image in public demonstrations and propaganda campaigns. Both sides — the anti-Islam extremists and the Islamists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda and Salafist groups in Europe — can thus point to the Crusader images as emblematic of an ongoing conflict between the Islamic East and the Christian West that is playing out on the streets of Europe today. In this way, opposing networks paradoxically settle on the same techniques and symbolism in their campaigns of populist mobilization, each pitting an “enemy” Other against the “pure” community they are seeking to defend.

The role of women is another crucial symbolic resource in the mobilization of both networks. Pro-shariʿa groups deploy a narrative based on the apparent decadence of Western societies in which women are supposedly exploited as objects of sexual desire and their role in the traditional family undermined. Fully covered Muslim women feature prominently carrying banners and voicing slogans in the public demonstrations sponsored by Islamist groups. In opposition to this image, anti-shariʿa movements emphasize the supposed subordination of women in Islam and use the sexual liberation of women in Western societies as a central symbol of propaganda. For example, the EDL makes extensive use of Angel imagery during its demonstrations, with these icons depicted in a highly sensual way. Indeed, the overt sexuality in the EDL portrayal of women in demonstrations is designed to contrast with how women participate fully covered in the Salafī extremist milieu. Again, in a classic example of “reciprocal populism,” both sides point explicitly to the way women are publicly depicted by the other as evidence of their opponents’ “moral degradation.”

Despite their ostensible opposition to one another, extreme right-wing, anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups like “Sharia for Europe” share a common dynamic of “reciprocal populism.” This emerges when antagonistic actors embedded in the same social context draw on similar themes and images in performing a populist political style based on symbolic action. Through this contestation, each casts the other as the principal threat to the survival of a morally “pure” community. While the focus is on the opposition between right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups, “reciprocal populism” is best understood not as a binary process but rather as co-evolution among multiple actors who forge coalitions and display a range of tactics and strategies in their ongoing performance of populism.

References

Eatwell, R. (2006). “Community Cohesion and Cumulative Extremism in Contemporary Britain.” The Political Quarterly. 77(2), 204–216.

Eatwell R. (2014) The Nature of ‘Generic Fascism’: Complexity and Reflexive Hybridity. In: Pinto A.C., Kallis A. (eds) Rethinking Fascism and Dictatorship in Europe. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137384416_4.

Goodwin, M. J., Cutts, D. & Janta-Lipinski, L. (2016). “Economic Losers, Protestors, Islamophobes or Xenophobes? Predicting Public Support for a Counter-Jihad Movement.” Political Studies. 64(1), 4–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.12159

Moffitt, B. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style and Representation. Stanford University Press.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Taggart, P. (2004). “Populism and Representative Politics in Contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 9(3), 269–288. https://doi.org/10.1080/1356931042000263528

Man surrounded by crowd holding a banner with the message about racism in a peaceful protest against racism and US police brutality in Palma de Mallorca, Spain on June 07 2020.

Why Race Still Matters?

Alana Lentin’s book Why Race Still Matters offers key insights on how racism is denied and why naming racism is seen as offensive based on cases in politics and media across US and Australia. These cases, Lentin clearly explains, underlie the systemic redefinition of racism to serve white agendas and make it challenging to bring racial literacy into public discourse.

Reviewed by F. Zehra Colak

“How to be both free and situated; how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?” Toni Morrison asks this question in her essay called “Home,” published in 1997. More than two decades after Morrison, Alana Lentin, a race critical scholar, partly answers this question as she calls on her readers to be race-cognizant while defying its terms of reference: “How do we explain race and oppose the dehumanization and discrimination committed in its name if we do not speak about it?” This is the key question that Lentin thoroughly engages with in Why Race Still Matters.* Her main argument draws on the view that dismantling racism and unpacking its impact can only be possible by speaking about it as leaving racism out of the conversation harms those exposed to it. Most importantly, she does this at a time when there is increasing backlash against academic studies of race, gender, post-colonialism, and scholars working in these fields are being targeted by right-wing governments across and beyond western Europe (Colak & Toguslu, 2021). 

Drawing on the work of influential scholars like Stuart Hall, Lentin defines racism as “a technology for the management of human difference” which produces, reproduces, and sustains white supremacy at various levels (p. 5). Her work underlines how approaching racism as a pathology fails to acknowledge the role of institutions, structures, processes, and practices in upholding a racially categorized view of the world. More and better racial literacy pedagogy among public, Lentin rightly argues, can challenge such individualized notions of racism and normalize conversations about (institutional) whiteness. Racial literacy “emphasizes the relationship between race and power … [and] constantly interrogates the dynamic relationship among race, class, geography, gender, and other explanatory variables” (Guinier, 2004: 114–15, as cited in Lentin, 2020: 11). Nevertheless, western educational systems fail to acknowledge the importance of racial literacy as they attempt at practicing neutrality and color-blindness that reproduces Eurocentric notions of race. This, Lentin underlines, deprives us from acquiring the tools that we need to counter pseudoscience racial ideas and myths (e.g., White genocide) that are taking a strong hold on social media and in the public sphere.  

How can then an anti-racist discourse challenges the recent resurgence of ‘race realists’ and their false premises of racial science beyond proposing that race is a social construct? This is an especially relevant question that offers valuable insights to move beyond the limited explanatory frameworks that are currently adopted by anti-racist scholars and activists. 

As noted by Lentin, “antiracists are very good at denying the biological facticity of race, but not very good at explaining what is social about race” (p. 31). Entering an insightful dialogue with scholars of race, Lentin discusses various critiques of social constructionist approach, which emphasizes that race needs to be discussed within the political context that reproduces it along with ideas about how it can be dismantled. Still, Lentin shows how race is present in medical practice, biomedical research, and genetics as can be seen in associations of certain diseases such as sickle cell anemia with the Black people despite obvious evidence to the contrary. At the same time, Lentin recognizes the ways racialization processes unequally impact on groups, requiring specific forms of treatment. In other words, race is not biology, but racial rule has biological effect due to persistence of white supremacy, colonization, and structural inequities. Increasing control of migration along racial lines and discriminatory policies that reproduce race by western governments exemplify nativist racialized body politics that construct ‘Others’ as out of place, which is also noted by scholars of far right and nationalism (Wodak, 2021).

Why Race Still Matters offers key insights on how racism is denied and why naming racism is seen as offensive based on cases in politics and media across US and Australia. These cases, Lentin clearly explains, underlie the systemic redefinition of racism to serve white agendas and make it challenging to bring racial literacy into public discourse. As such, “the question of who can control the definition of racism has grown in importance almost as a function of the lack of control that many racialized people have over the determination of their life course” (p. 58). Lentin critically engages with the historical roots of racism in Europe, showing that the commitment to racial equality was mainly associated with critiquing antisemitism and did not imply rejection of racism against colonized peoples. The current understanding of racism in Europe still relies strongly on the associations made between Holocaust and racism, leading therefore to the rejection of racism as a system of power and domination that explains ongoing anti-blackness, Islamophobia, and the criminalization of immigrants. Such common views of racism in public, Lentin suggests, are informed, and shaped by a group of academics who psychologize race and equate racism to individual attitudes while presenting critical race studies as unempirical and unscientific. 

“Why do you always make it about race?” This, Lentin explains, is a question asked not only by the right but also by ‘the white left,’ to criticize the centralization of race, gender, and sexuality in making sense of complex political questions. However, refusing “to see race is to choose simplicity and ignore the layers of power in and resultant complicity required in dealing with what race continues to do” (p. 96). Exposing the ignorance among the ‘white left’ about the challenges of antiracists, Lentin underlies the little-understood diversity of the antiracism movement. By construction of racism as a concern of ‘aloof cosmopolitan urban elites’ and racialization of working classes as white, the question of how racialized power structures function at the intersection of class, gender, and nationality is overlooked. Lentin’s thoughtful engagement with issues around anti-racism movement and identity politics drawing on discussions around contemporary Islamophobia and ongoing settler domination of Indigenous lands provides unique insights into ongoing academic and media debates. Particularly noteworthy in this discussion is her emphasis on how demands by racialized groups of people are treated as “victimhood performances” by those in power who then call themselves “victims” struggling with such demands. 

One of the interesting contributions in Lentin’s Why Race Still Matters relates to the question of how antisemitism and Islamophobia feed off one another as two forms of racism. While antisemitism is politically instrumentalized in the name of defending Jews from Muslims and anti-Zionists, Islamophobia is often seen invalid. Lentin underlies, for instance, the adoption of “Judeo-Christianity” by the right to construct Muslims and Islam in opposition to European values while concealing Christianity’s own antisemitism. At the same time, rising antisemitism in Hungary, for instance, and the attacks against the well-known Jewish philanthropist George Soros are often accompanied by anti-refugee and anti-Muslim racism. Still, “antisemitism is excused if opposition to Muslims and support for Israel are present” (p. 145), as shown by various vignettes discussed in the book. She furthermore engages deeply with questions around ‘Cultural Marxism,’ internal struggles within Jewish communities, and the persistence of antisemitism in different forms such as reduction of “the Jews” to a homogenous identity. Lentin’s insights on how European states declared their commitment to fight Judeophobia after Holocaust while continuing racial colonization abroad and exploitation of migrants at home are particularly insightful.

The conclusion offers a powerful summary of contemporary debates on racism by outlining differences among race realists (i.e., racists), race-critical anti-racists who are fighting racism, and those who remain silent about race as a way of challenging it. Lentin addresses this silent group when she argues that “talking in euphemisms or pretending that race belongs to the past” will not make race matter less (p. 172). Engaging with the root causes of why race is a difficult subject to study and talk about, she particularly underlies the role of white fragility, methodological whiteness, epistemic Eurocentrism and institutional racism, all of which contribute to the lack of racial literacy among public. For instance, an epistemically racist positivist stance argues that race cannot be understood objectively by those who experience it while imposing certain boundaries around what counts as (superior) knowledge. While calling on its readers to be attentive to race as a tool of analysis, the book ends with a hopeful message noting critical conversations that are taking place and being attended by white people engaged in challenging racial hierarchy. 

Overall, this is a valuable contribution and resource for scholars and students of race studies interested in a critical, engaging, and deeply informative analysis of historical and contemporary academic and public debates on race and racism. 


(*) Why Race Still Matters, by Alana Lentin, Polity Press, 2020. 184 pp., €17.00 (paperback), ISBN: 9781509535712


References 

Colak, F. Z. & Toguslu, E. (2021). “France’s attack on academics is an attempt to silence debate on race.” ECPS. https://www.populismstudies.org/frances-attack-on-academics-is-an-attempt-to-silence-debate-on-race/

Guinier, L. (2004). “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma.” Journal of American History. 91(1): 92­­–118.

Morrison, T. (1997). “Home.” In: The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain. Edited by Wahneema Lubiano. 3–12. New York: Pantheon Books.

Wodak, R. (2021). The politics of fear: The shameless normalization of far-right discourse. London: SAGE. 

Photo: Netflix.

Youth Populism and the Aesthetics of Dread in Je suis Karl

Right-wing populism does not need staged violence to attract new recruits. Online rabbit-holes and the “smart branding” of a new “hipster image” in place of skinhead aesthetics were more than enough to set Generation Identity in motion. The world is still not safe for young people – not because of immigrants, but because of genuinely dangerous and far less graspable forces. This commentary reviews the 2021 German-Czech film Je Suis Karl, about far-right agitation and radicalization among young people. 

By Heidi Hart

“Just crossed the border!” squeals a middle-aged Frenchwoman in a car, in English, filming herself. She and her German husband have just smuggled a Libyan refugee out of Hungary; his face jumps into the screen from under a blanket. This jittery, found-footage effect carries over into the next scene, as the couple’s teenage daughter returns home to Berlin from visiting her grandparents in Paris. The family, with two young sons they call “the Bonsai,” have a comfortable, bourgeois life that seems a bit smug in their “multikulti” do-gooding and cooking with fresh herbs. 

After the father Alex (Milan Peschel) accepts a package delivered for an elderly neighbor, tragedy strikes as a bomb inside the box decimates half of the apartment building. Outside in the street, Alex struggles to stand up in the falling ash and cradles a dead blackbird in his hand. A pulsing soundtrack follows emergency vehicles onto the scene. Alex’s wife and sons have been killed in the explosion. 

Filmed partly around Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, Je suis Karl (2021) recalls the protests and counter-protests there in 2015-16, when I lived in that area and passed rows of police vans every Monday night to lead a Quaker vigil for nonviolence and inclusion. After the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, tensions were high all over Germany, as the populist PEGIDA organization drew supporters who feared the “Islamification” of Europe. My community’s own do-gooder impulses felt small in response to the rising wave of nationalist fervor, especially in the former East Germany (Jegic, 2018).

Je suis Karl also recalls the “Je suis Charlie” slogan popularized – and polarized in right-wing circles – after the 2015 attack. As the film’s plot unfolds, Maxi (Luna Wedler), Alex’s daughter who has survived the bombing, finds herself recruited by a confident young man involved in a pan-European youth group armed with pamphlets, YouTube videos, concerts, and conferences that stoke young people’s socio-political anxieties. Maxi’s father has identified the courier of the explosive package as having a “dark beard,” unintentionally feeding the xenophobic biases of groups like the film’s fictional Re/Generation Europe, based on the “hipster” far-right group Generation Identity in Germany. 

The truth turns out to be even more twisted, when group leader Karl (Jannis Niewöhner) reveals that Re/Generation planted the bomb to stir up anti-immigrant fears. Because this is genuinely multicultural Berlin, however, public reaction has been more compassionate than enraged. At a conference in Prague, where Karl seduces Maxi to win her over more completely to the cause, plans emerge for more staged violence. 

Karl plots his own shooting in France, amid campaign events for a far-right female candidate who comes across as a younger version of currently embattled Marine Le Pen. Named Odile (like the “evil twin” ballerina in Swan Lake), this seemingly fun and engaging young woman draws Maxi into her circle of approval and influence, with a campaign slogan that reads simply “POUR” (“FOR”). 

After the shooting, the feel-good, ostensibly female-friendly, rhetorically upside-down appeal of Re/Generation Europe (their pamphlet includes language about “protecting diversity”) explodes into openly racist attacks in the streets. Maxi escapes with her father and his refugee rescue Yusuf (Aziz Dyab), who have tracked her down and cradle her in an underground tunnel while Yusuf sings soothingly in Arabic.

As several reviewers have noted, the film’s plot is contrived and Maxi’s conversion not entirely convincing (Van Hoeij, 2021Kenigsberg, 2021). German director Christian Schwochow’s efforts to frame a tale of right-wing infatuation is strategically similar if ideologically opposite to the left-wing teenage drama Wir sind die Welle (We Are the Wave, 2019), in its treatment of rising political zeal amid hormonal surges and generational resentments. In that case, students who feel their comfortably liberal parents are not doing enough to counter environmental and racial issues take things into their own increasingly radical hands. 

While this youthful phenomenon is nothing new, right-wing populism does not need staged violence to attract new recruits. Online rabbit-holes and the “smart branding” of a new “hipster image” in place of skinhead aesthetics (Somaskanda, 2017) were more than enough to set Generation Identity in motion, though the movement’s various iterations have faced de-platforming and outright bans in the past four years (Hume, Langston, and Bennett, 2021). Conceived before the Covid-19 pandemic, Je suis Karl seems even more contrived today, when anti-vaccine sentiment has joined with far-right ideology seemingly overnight, especially in German-speaking countries (Morris, 2021).

Photo taken from Netflix.

 

What Je suis Karl does convey effectively, aside from plot, is a material sense of dread in an uncertain world. The film includes several overt visual references to the German series Dark (2017-20): dead birds falling from the sky, and a feathery black mask that Maxi wears, recalling the pattern over young people’s burned eyes in that complex time-travel series. Particularly striking moments occur when Maxi’s father Alex keeps trying to answer his cell phone and sees instead the dead bird, over and over, in his hand, or when he buries the bird in a flowerpot under the bonsai that recalls his dead sons’ joint nickname. 

Just as Dark is not only about time and missing children (its sidelong theme is environmental-existential dread), Je suis Karl is also, by unavoidable default, about the malaise and anxiety facing those coming of age in a time of climate crisis and seemingly unbridgeable political divides – even before the pandemic threw school and social life into numbing disarray. Recurring visual motifs like the dead bird might seem heavy handed, but the film’s cinematography treats those moments with equal parts jitter and blur, creating a palpably unsettling quality. 

The sound of dripping water in the tunnel in the film’s final scene recalls similar aesthetics in Andrei Tarkovsky’s sensually rich work, for example in the toxic chemical plant where he filmed Stalker (1979) near Tallinn, Estonia. This final sound, more than Yusuf’s singing, undermines what would otherwise be an easy or sentimental ending. The world is still not safe for young people – not because of immigrants, but because of genuinely dangerous and far less graspable forces. 

Je suis Karl is now available for streaming on Netflix.

Reclaim Australia Rally against Islam in Australia held in Newcastle CBD leading to multiple arrests in Newcastle, Australia in 2016. Photo: Man Down Media

Islamophobia and the pandemic: How these two salient public issues have invigorated the contemporary Australian far-right

The anti-Islam groups have played a significant role in the trajectory of far-right activity in Australia. However, the way these groups operate signifies a shift away from traditional far-right tactics. By casting themselves as part of a populist defence against a threatening Islam they have sought to legitimate their ‘supposedly righteous action’. Thus, they have been able to connect with mainstream concerns, bringing these groups and their ideologies closer to the Australian public. Since these groups have tended to attack Muslims under the guise of liberal ideals and the ‘protection’ of Australia, they experienced a level of success in escaping being written off for being too extreme.

By Chloe Smith*

Far-right activities are influenced by prevalent mainstream discourse in society. This article will analyse how two highly salient contemporary public issues —Islamophobia and the COVID-19 pandemic —have functioned as catalysts for the evolution and visibility of far-right actors and groups.[1] Two distinct and arguably crucial phases of growth in the Australian far-right over the past decade are identified.[2] The first occurred in the mid-2010s when a number of anti-Islam groups and movements formed in response to widespread Islamophobia. The second phase encompasses the current surge in far-right activity and cohesiveness due to the COVID-19 global health crisis. 

The Australian far-right is quite disparate and has often been described as difficult to categorise because of the complexity and diversity demonstrated in its ideologies and organisation (The Australia Institute, 2021). Nevertheless, far-right groups and members in Australia share some fundamental ideological commitments[3] while tending to be, as Dr. Mario Peucker (2021) notes, in ‘fierce disagreement and competition with each other’. Consequently, the two aforementioned public issues are interesting to study because they have evidently triggered renewed far-right activity in Australia and have created a point of ideological convergence between traditionally disparate and contentious actors. 

Public discourse about Islam and Muslims in the mid-2010s (and more recently about the impacts of the pandemic) have also offered windows of opportunity for the far-right in Australia to connect with people and narratives in the mainstream. The global and domestic rise of populism has been a crucial factor in mainstreaming far-right narratives over the last decade. Populist politicians in Australia like Pauline Hanson[4] have demonstrated a capacity to popularise far-right ideas that were once discredited as ‘naive, taboo, backward, unscientific, isolationist or unethical’ (Fenton-Smith, 2020). 

This article employs the definition of populism as a ‘style’. Defining populism in this way is best suited to the Australian context, because of its ability to capture the range of political leaders, movements, and parties who use populism in the nation (Moffitt, 2020).[5] Moffitt writes that populism as a style encompasses appeals to ‘the people’ and the dichotomous division of society into ‘the people’ and ‘the Other’ (usually a racial or racialised minority) as well as claiming to be distinct from (or in total opposition to) the ‘establishment’ or ‘elite’ (Moffitt and Tormey, 2014). Importantly, this view of populism specifies the ways in which appeals are stylised via the performance of crisis, breakdown and threat, attempting to elicit emotions among the public (mostly anger and fear) that can be used to construct binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). The weaponisation of heightened public emotions (e.g., fear of Muslims and distrust of the government) by populist politicians helps create and fuel the type of polarisation in society that bolsters far-right ideologies (McNeil-Wilson et.al, 2019).

This article will study each of these public issues in turn and demonstrate how members of the far-right are able to become more visible during these times because their objectives intersect with widespread anxieties and populist politics (‘us’ versus ‘them’, anti-establishment sentiment, and the purposeful elicitation of crisis).

The Formation of Anti-Islam Groups

In the first phase of growth identified in this article (the mid-2010s), many new anti-Islam groups formed in Australia. This was a time when the mainstream discourse was heavily invested in perpetuating fear about Islam and Muslims in Australia.[6] This discourse was intensified by national and overseas developments, including the increased securitisation of Muslim communities, the rise of ISIS, and domestic developments such as the 2014 Sydney Martin Place Siege,[7] an event that was immediately followed by the creation of new far-right groups in Victoria and New South Wales (Peucker and Smith, 2019). Pauline Hanson, Australia’s best-known populist politician,[8] has exploited these fears about terrorism, extremism and threats to dominant Australian culture as a way to spread the ‘rhetorical tropes’ of the global far-right and legitimise broader exclusionary politics (McSwiney and Cottle, 2017 & Fenton-Smith, 2020). For instance, during the height of anti-Islam activity, she claimed, ‘We will be living under sharia law and treated as second-class citizens with second-class rights’ if Islam is allowed to spread (Fenton-Smith, 2020). This statement was an extension of her party’s anti-Islam and anti-Muslim policies that revolved around an ‘absolute opposition to any more mosques, Sharia law, halal certification and Muslim refugees’ (Akbarzadeh 2016).

The perpetuation of Islamophobia in Australian mainstream discourse peaked with the opportunistic formation of new far-right groups such as Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front, Rise Up Australia, Stop the Mosque in Bendigo and Aussie Angels against Shariah, which all define themselves in terms of explicit anti-Islam and anti-Muslim ideas and objectives, and disseminate narratives that position Islam and Muslims as a threat to the culture and/or safety of Australians (Peucker and Smith, 2019). For these groups, Muslim immigration and increasing visibility in Australian public life function as a metonym for broader cultural and demographic change (Pertwee, 2020). These groups hold much more extensive (and radical) ideological views, including opposition to immigration and multiculturalism and cultural and racial superiority. However, they have cunningly leveraged mainstream discourse about the rise of ISIS and the widespread vilification of Muslims to justify and legitimise their rhetoric (Lewis et.al, 2017). Even though the overwhelming majority of Australians have no direct experience with the types of physical harm that extremist groups like ISIS perpetuate, these far-right groups have gained traction because of global and domestic fears about terrorism, extremism and foreign fighters[9](Lewis et.al, 2017).

The anti-Islam groups formed in this period have played a significant role in the trajectory of far-right activity in Australia. The way these groups operate signifies a shift away from traditional far-right tactics to what Kristy Campion describes as a ‘more concerned citizen persona’ that is achieved via a reframing of stated objectives. Thus, by casting themselves as part of a populist defence against a threatening Islam, these groups have sought to legitimate their ‘supposedly righteous action’ (Campion, 2019). In other words, because they have mobilised around a salient public issue, the far-right has been able to connect with mainstream concerns, bringing these groups and their ideologies closer to the Australian public. Finally, because these groups have tended to attack Muslims under the guise of liberal ideals and the ‘protection’[10] of Australia, they experienced a level of success in escaping being written off for being too extreme (AMAN, 2021). 

This phase is defined by the construction of Muslims as the racialised ‘Other’.[11] However, anti-establishment messaging played an equally important role during this phase of mobilisation. The Australian far-right has used populism to attack the government, claiming that they allowed the interests of minority and religious groups to override the interests of the majority (‘the people’) (Lewis et.al, 2017). Because of this framing, these groups were able to convey anti-establishment ideas without being dismissed as anti-democratic (Rydgren, 2005). Although intense hostility towards those ‘above’ has become a more defining feature of the far-right in recent years, these anti-Islam groups were sowing seeds of distrust through their insistence that Australia’s national interests are being diminished by international treaties about refugees and immigration (Lewis et.al, 2017).

The formation and then dismantling and splintering[12] of these anti-Islam groups has played an instrumental role in the contemporary landscape of the Australian far-right. The recent CARR-Hedayah Radical Right Counter-Narratives (RRCN) project report highlighted the movement of members of anti-Islam protest movements to more extreme ‘fight clubs’ and neo-Nazi cells (Allchorn, 2021). The report also noted the radicalisation of narratives from the populist anti-Muslim rhetoric described in this article to more explicitly white supremacist and chauvinist narratives witnessed in recent years. One demonstration of the evolution of these groups can be seen in the 2017 formation of the Lads Society, from members of the disbanded anti-Islam protest group the United Patriots Front (UPF) (Allchorn, 2021). Although the UFP’s discourse was centred around the supposed threat that Islam and Muslims posed to Australian society, the CARR-Hedayah report noted that the Lads Society expressed a more overtly white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology. In 2020 the Nationalist Socialist Network formed as an offshoot of the Lads Society (led by former UFP and Lads Society member Tom Sewell) and incorporates known members of the far-right group, Antipodean Resistance), promoting explicitly racial supremacist, anti-democratic and antisemitic ideas. (Besser and Whalan, 2021 & Allchorn, 2021). 

The study of these formal groups is important. However, it is also important to reiterate that the Australian far-right has characteristically diverse and disparate, particularly between these periods of mobilisation. A recent assessment of the structure explains that in Australia (even more so than the United States and Europe), far-right organisation is increasingly based on the leaderless resistance model, a framework of small, disparate cells and a large number of ‘loosely connected individuals, online communities and connections that occasionally spill into the offline world’[13] (Grossman et.al, 2021). These highly networked, interconnected cells and individuals include populist politicians, alternative news representatives, and international movements (Gregoire, 2021). The discussion that follows will examine how the far-right have mobilised around the COVID-19 pandemic. It seeks to offer clear evidence of an evolution of the far-right from the formal groups of the mid-2010s to a more connected framework of small groups and leaderless networks. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The preceding discussion identified widespread Islamophobia as having created a conducive environment for far-right activity. Similarly, a range of disparate far-right ideas, groups and supporters have come together during the pandemic and attached themselves to fears and hostilities expressed in the mainstream. Civil agitation combined with dissatisfaction with government measures has ‘elicited a keen reaction by the Australian far-right’, with actors demonstrating a willingness to take these anti-establishment sentiments and exploit them to promote their own political agendas (Jones, 2021).

Australia’s intelligence organisation ASIO assessed that ‘COVID-19 restrictions are being exploited by extreme right-wing narratives that paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing’ and further that the pandemic has ‘reinforced an extreme right-wing belief in the inevitability of societal collapse and a “race war”’ (Christodoulou, 2020). The far-right have opportunistically exploited government measures (such as closing borders and enforcing isolation) to support narratives that promote ethnic segregation and extreme immigration restrictions (Khalil and Roose, 2020). This is a fascinating and complex period of mobilisation and demonstrates a noticeable expansion from a predominant focus on the nativist-constructed ‘other’ (Muslims, people of African descent, and those of Asian appearance)[14] to also incorporating attacks on ‘The System’. Dr. Mario Peucker’s recent work (2021) details this shift clearly, noting that these new far-right narratives encompass attacks on the global elite, agencies and sources of information such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, as well as national ‘tentacles’ including the Australian government and the political elite, mainstream media and universities.

Populist politics have been re-energised by the circumstances of the pandemic and have mirrored the far-right in combining nativism with attacks on the government and ‘system’. An example is Hanson’s recent claims that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese laboratory and then ‘unleashed’ on the world (Sengul, 2021). She has also exploited the pandemic to further her populist rejection of the ‘elite’, attacking international organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the United Nations, claiming they are ‘corrupt globalist bureaucracies’ that are using the pandemic to‘squeeze more money from “struggling Australians” (Sengul, 2020). In addition, the promotion of distrust towards the national government has been evident in Hanson’s condemnation of introduced measures to counter the pandemic (e.g., lockdowns and social distancing laws) (Sengul, 2020). Political contemporaries have similarly been pushing similar ideas. For instance, the One Nation Party’s NSW leader Mark Latham claims that ‘our country’ has become ‘a dictatorship of the health bureaucrats’ (Sengul, 2020). 

During the pandemic, conspiracy theories have been a vital ideological and discursive tool. Different conspiracy theories have been recycled that convey antisemitic tropes of a global Jewish cabal running the world (Peucker, 2021) or promoting distrust and hatred towards Muslims and people of Asian descent (Macklin, 2020). The far-right has also been observed strategically expanding their narratives online, and consequently merging with existing conspiracy theorists and their subscribers in a way they had not before – such as QAnon, ‘anti-vaxxers’, anti-5G activists, and ‘sovereign citizens’, a broad membership that proclaim independence from state laws and regulations (Khalil and Roose, 2020). This expansion of narratives was demonstrated by the far-right Australian Protectionist Party—a group established on standard far-right ideologies of anti-immigration and white supremacy. A recent study found that the APP held one of the most active Australian Gab[15] accounts. Recent activity on this platform found that the group was combining its established ideological narratives with other QAnon, anti-vaccination and pandemic-related conspiracy theories, including the idea that global elites are supposedly seeking to annihilate large parts of the global population and that vaccines contain microchips (Guerin et.al, 2021).

Recent anti-lockdown protests in various Australian cities have also resulted in different groups in society intersecting. Although there are many ties between the protests and the far-right, senior research fellow in extremist Joshua Roose explains that these protests have attracted people from a broad section of society (Knaus and McGowan, 2020). Widespread fear, the impacts of long-term precariousness to income and business, and distrust in the government and medical industry have resulted in significant overlap between frustrated citizens, conspiracy theorists and far-right actors (Knaus and McGowan, 2020). This overlap is not accidental. For example, the Australian chapter of the Proud Boys became more active during the pandemic and engaged in anti-lockdown protests and vigilante-style activism against left-wing opponents[16] (Allchorn, 2021). Leaders of the Nationalist Socialist Network[17] have also been reported as being in attendance and attempting to recruit new members at a recent anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne  (Kelly, 2021).

There is also evidence of extremist far-right members using anti-lockdown protest groups to mobilise an online community[18] and gradually introduce more radical ideas. For example, known far-right actor Harrison McLean used an alias to run an anti-lockdown and ‘freedom’ group on the encrypted messenger app Telegram, gaining more than 2,000 followers and attracting hundreds of people to street protests (McGowan, 2021). The activities of this group may seem to revolve around democratic concerns about lockdowns and freedom rights. However, this group—and others like it[19]—operate in a space where conspiracy theories, anti-establishment messaging, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Sinophobia and other expressions of racism are readily shared (McGowan, 2021).[20]

Conclusion

This article tracked the ways in which salient public issues have granted the Australian far-right opportunities to become more cohesive in its activity, mobilise a broader audience, and converge with mainstream narratives and populist politics. Islamophobic and anti-Muslim discourses continue to be a significant component of far-right ideology. However, they are not the primary source of mobilisation, as witnessed in the mid-2010s. With the passing of time, research has been able to identify the impacts of this period of mobilisation, notably the splintering of these groups into more extreme cells and the normalisation of racial supremacist—and (to a lesser degree) anti-establishment—narratives. 

This article was written during the second salient public issue identified, the COVID-19 pandemic. It and the heightened anti-government and anti-establishment rhetoric around it, continues to unfold. The longer-term consequences of this period of far-right activity and increased interaction with the mainstream public will become more apparent with time and the intensified focus on the Australian far-right. 


 

(*) Chloe Smith recently attained a Master of Islamic Studies from Charles Sturt University, Australia. She also holds a bachelor of counterterrorism, security and intelligence from Edith Cowan University. Chloe’s research interests include radicalisation and extremism studies, Islamophobia, and populism.


 

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Footnotes

 

[1] The ‘far-right’ is applied in this analysis as an umbrella term that captures a range of populist political, radical and extremist ideas, narratives and actors.

[2] Dr Mario Peucker, referenced in this paper, has also identified these two periods of mobilisation as highly salient. He views the public debates (first around Islam/Muslims and then the pandemic) as providing new discursive opportunities for the far-right. 

[3] Similar to international groups, the Australian far-right mobilise around anti-Muslim, populist, ethno-nationalist, white supremacist and chauvinist narratives (Allchorn, 2021).

[4] Pauline Hanson is a good case study because of her strongly populist style – however the Australian political system is recognised as housing a number of controversial, populist figures that have current or former ties to the major parties (Dorling, 2020).  Ben Moffitt (2017) describes populism being diffused into mainstream discourse, because the nation is an ‘accepting home of populist, populist style, discourse and issues.

[5] Other well-established definitions of populism such as the ‘ideational’ and ‘strategic’ approach are more limited in their ability to describe the widespread presentation of populism in Australian politics. These definitions are recognised to be more accurate at describing populist parties like those in Europe (using the ‘ideational’ approach) or populist leadership prominent in Latin America (using the ‘strategic’ approach) (Moffitt, 2017). 

[6] The far-right has proven to be adept at mobilizing around a range of public fears and resentments, and this has been most noticeable in different nativist, exclusionary discourses towards ethnic and culturally defined ‘Others’ in recent history (Peucker, 2021). For instance, prior to the widespread targeting of Muslims in the 1990s, there was a growth in far-right political parties, social movements and groups that formed around anti-Asian immigration narratives, correlating with higher levels of immigration from Asian countries at the time Macquarie University, 2020). More recently, people of African descent have also been targeted because of media-led moral panics around ‘crime gangs’ (Peucker, 2021).  Far-right hostility towards Islam and Muslims in Australia (and globally) is recognised to be a distinct topic of research because of the prolonged nature, institutionalisation and normalisation in public discourse, and the unique opportunities it has afforded the contemporary far-right to grow Poynting and Briskman, 2018). 

[7] A hostage situation by a self-styled Islamic State supporter that gained a huge amount of media and political attention (Macquarie University, 2020). 

[8] Pauline Hanson re-emerged in 2016 after a long break from politics, re-energized by the global rise of populism, and a political environment that was becoming increasingly more tolerant of the xenophobia that is characteristic of her politics. Hanson’s populist style is also characterised by her claims that she speaks on behalf of the ‘everyday’ Australian, her unsophisticated and transgressive ’plain speak’, and using this style of communication to prove she is unlike other politicians (Fenton-Smith, 2020).  Hanson is a highly visible fringe politician – it was recently recorded that she has 340,000 followers on Facebook, which is the second highest following of any Australian political leader after the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Sengul, 2021).

[9] Australia’s media organisations have heavily influenced the public perception of fear and distrust towards Muslims. For instance, One Path Media observed five Australian media outlets during 2017 and found 3,000 news articles linking Islam or Muslims with words like ‘terrorism’, ‘radicalism’ and ’violence’ (Esposito and Iner, 2018). 

[10] For instance far-right groups and politicians stoked fears of an ‘Islamisation’ of society, a collection of conspiracy narratives that claim the visible manifestations of Islam (e.g., headscarves, halal products and mosques) are a threat to dominant Australian culture and the physical security of Australians (e.g., from terrorism) (Akbarzadeh, 2016). 

[11] As Laura Cervi (2020) explains, racialisation entails ‘ascribing sets of characteristics viewed as inherent to members of a group because of their physical or cultural traits. Islamophobia has emerged as ‘racial’ because it amalgamates all Muslims into one group and ascribes a set of characteristics supposedly associated with Muslims to the entire Muslim population’. 

[12] These groups are noted to have splintered into different, often more extreme, groups. For instance, in 2015 alone, Reclaim Australia formed then splintered into the United Patriots Front, which in turn splintered into the True Blue Crew. Similarly, the Australian Defence League (founded in 2009) later splintered into the Sons of Odin and also remained strongly anti-Muslim during this time (Macquarie University, 2020). 

[13] The authors of this report note exceptions to this model, such as the aforementioned National Socialist Network.

[14] This is not to suggest that racialised minorities and non-white groups have become less of a focus for the far-right. For example, the pandemic has been used to reinforce anti-Chinese, anti-Muslim, and broader anti-Asian agitations. (Peucker, 2021). 

[15] Gab is an alternative social networking platform with a reputation for hosting the far-right and being permissive of far-right content. 

[16] Far-right extremist researcher Dr Kaz Ross noted that the Proud Boys have become increasingly active during 2020 – growing in members on their encrypted channel on the Telegram app, and becoming more brazen in their protesting at anti-lockdown rallies (with some members being pepper-sprayed, arrested and fined at a particular event) (Ross, 2020). 

[17] In his detailed analysis of Australian far-right groups and networks, William Allchorn (2021) recorded the Nationalist Socialist Network to have a combined platform followership of 3,231 users. They have also gained some notoriety for offline activities including camping, burning crosses and Nazi symbology (Besser and Whalan, 2021).

[18] The globalization of violent white supremacy has been accelerated by social networking sites like Twitter, Gab, Minds, Telegram and message boards like 8chan, 4chan and Reddit, which have created an echo chamber where racist and anti-Semitic ideologies are seen, repeated and reinforced by like-minded people (‘Hate Beyond Borders’, 2021). 

[19] Such as the Telegram Account ‘Australia Awakens,’ which describes itself as a channel ‘designed especially for your friends who are either on the fence or questioning the mainstream narrative’ about the pandemic. On the surface this may imply the activity on this channel is relatively benign, the content shared (memes, videos and posts) is often exclusionary, extreme, and racist (Sparrow, 2021).

[20] There are indications that these protests and groups have connected themselves to a global movement and agenda; recent anti-lockdown protests were not only branded as an opposition to Australia’s pandemic restrictions, they were also presented as a ‘World Wide Rally for Freedom’ (Bogle and Zhang, 2021). 

White nationalists and counter protesters clash in during a rally that turned violent resulting in the death of one and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. Photo: Kim Kelley-Wagner.

Homegrown Hate – Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists are Waging War Against the United States by Sara Kamali

Dr. Sara Kamali’s book illustrates why strategies to countering extremism are not effective and how they lead to the surveillance of entire Muslim communities, uncovering the complex ways such measures and policies reinforce the injustice and oppression of minority groups.

By F. Zehra Colak

In her timely book Homegrown Hate (University of California Press, 272 pg.), Sara Kamali scrutinizes the identity of White nationalists and militant Islamists, examines their grievances, hatreds, and the acts of terrorism, and lastly asks how these threats can be addressed. Drawing on in-depth interviews with key figures, as well as other primary and secondary source documents, Kamali shows how, despite differences in their motivations and goals, both White nationalists and militant Islamists share a narrative of victimhood, a shattered sense of belonging and alienation, and a perception of self-righteousness while instrumentalizing their theologies to express their disenfranchisement through violence. 

Homegrown Hate is a book of four parts. The first focuses on the beliefs, worldviews and ideologies of White nationalists and militant Islamists, offering a rich outline of their historical backgrounds, organizational structures, and shared methods. Kamali details how The Fourteen Words serves as a mission statement for all White nationalists, defining their supremacist beliefs and honing their identities and political aims while perpetuating the need for militancy to prevent the so-called racial annihilation of Whites by people of colour. The book offers an insightful glimpse into the complex and overlapping stories, anti-government sentiments, and strongly interwoven affiliations of White militant nationalists as well as the most impactful ideologies shaping White nationalist discourse, including Christian IdentityCreativity, and Wotanism. The book then offers a comprehensive overview of the political strategies and the complex and intersecting connections and theologies of prominent militant Islamist organizations, including al-Qa’ida and Islamic State (Dã’ish), which share a political desire to establish a global caliphate. Key terminology and concepts (e.g., jãhiliyya) exploited by militant Islamists to determine who is deserving of loyalty and disavowal and to justify their war as God’s command are well described.  

In the book’s second part, Kamali investigates White nationalist and militant Islamist grievances against the United States. The notion of White genocide is endorsed by the former to justify a narrative of victimhood and displacement and to support a call for a racial holy war, RAHOWA. The chapter sheds light on the role of demographic changes, economic shifts, and gun rights in understanding the grievances of White nationalists and delves further into how antisemitism, antiglobalism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and Queerphobia manifest and intersect within the White nationalist discourse. Interestingly, the role of women in upholding the norms of White nationalism is not sufficiently explored, although women have been key figures in designing a White supremacist system and promoting far-right groups like QAnon. 

In her analysis of the layered grievances of militant Islamists, Kamali shows how such narratives are rooted in a specific interpretation of Islam, US foreign policy, the Crusades, and colonialism to justify the need for self-preservation, defence against oppression, and the establishment of a global caliphate. Kamali addresses how the rhetoric adopted by many American presidents has contributed to the image of the US as a “Crusader” in alliance with Zionists, fuelling militant Islamist propaganda. Such propaganda claims that the US and its pro-Zionist allies aim to eradicate Islam and dominate Muslim-majority nations. The book acknowledges that while some of the grievances of militant Islamists regarding American foreign policy could be legitimate, their adopted methods to address such injustices are undemocratic. 

The third part of the book explores the legitimization of holy wars (e.g., RAHOWA and jihad) by White nationalists and militant Islamists who distort interpretations of traditional scriptures and theological concepts to fulfil their political ambitions. Kamali illustrates how White nationalists consider racial war essential to stopping White genocide and to establishing a White ethnostate in line with the aims of Fourteen Words. In the same vein, militant Islamists portray the West as a threat to Islam and propose holy war against all who they perceive as non-Muslim to establish a global caliphate. While many White nationalists imagine a White and Christian America inspired by the Founding Fathers’ divine vision and the sacred US constitution, militant Islamists envision a future where the US is part of a global caliphate. 

Kamali also illuminates how both movements utilize apocalyptic and violent eschatological visions to justify their terrorism. These grand narratives about the End Times, Kamali argues, offer a sense of belonging and meaning to members of both groups, who believe they play a central role in establishing God’s kingdom through fighting against evil. She explains the role of the internet in bolstering such narratives legitimizing violence and amplifying the voices of militant Islamists and White nationalists. Social media platforms, for instance, are often used to recruit followers and cultivate a sense of community feeding off a narrative of victimhood and hatred towards the “Other.” Questioning the myth of the “lone wolf,” the book highlights the key role of (virtual) communities, transnational ideological connections, and complex psychosocial and political dynamics in explaining the violent actions of an individual. 

In the conclusion, Kamali proposes a new approach to counterterrorism by critiquing the current counter-terrorism strategies as bolstering Islamophobia and failing to recognize White nationalism as a legitimate security threat. The framework, named holistic justice, is founded on principles of anti-oppression and empathy and aims at rectifying the systemic inequities (e.g., structural Islamophobia, institutionalized White privilege) underlying the current counterterrorism approaches. This approach, Kamali explains, holds White liberals accountable for using their privilege to enact institutional change and calls on Muslim Americans to organize at a grassroots level and build solidarity with minority groups. While Kamali’s holistic justice framework aims at rectifying systemic inequities, the role of empathy in bringing about structural change is not sufficiently explored. Although intergroup empathy might contribute to the formation of critical consciousness, encouraging individuals to reflect on their histories and privileges, it is not clear whether empathy is seen as a pre-condition for mobilizing for systemic change or an outcome of anti-oppression work. 

The book illustrates why strategies to countering extremism are not effective and how they lead to the surveillance of entire Muslim communities, uncovering the complex ways such measures and policies reinforce the injustice and oppression of minority groups. The lack of a federal statute criminalizing domestic terrorism, for instance, works to the benefit of militant White nationalists who cannot be prosecuted as terrorists on a national level unlike militant Islamists. Although racial disparities and injustices targeting people of colour are recognized in the book, the question of how systemic racism impacts the psychosocial circumstances of already vulnerable people who are driven to militancy remains insufficiently addressed.

Overall, Homegrown Hate is a valuable up-to-date resource not only for scholars and policymakers but for anyone who is looking to gain an in-depth understanding of current security threats and political violence facing the United States and many other countries around the world. The range and breadth of the complex layers of White nationalism and militant Islamism scrutinized are beyond comparison. The book is a significant contribution to the field—deeply informative and written in an engaging manner.

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes.

Dog Whistles vs. Slide Whistles: Humor as Weapon and Resistance

Today’s satirical landscape has become more complicated than the past decade’s pattern of journalistic provocations, physical attacks, and right-wing reactions. Katrine Fangen finds that: “Even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes.”

By Heidi Hart

At a recent demonstration by the anti-immigrant populist group SIAN (Stop the Islamisation of Norway) in Norway, painfully close to the ten-year anniversary of the far-right terror attacks in Oslo (Gjelsvik, 2021), a small far-right contingent voiced their vitriol through loudspeakers in front of Stortinget, the capitol city’s parliament building. Several hundred counter-protesters met them with chants, drums, a jazz trumpet, cowbells, an electric guitar, and (thanks to my son, Evan Hart, who has lived in Norway since 2016) a slide whistle. “It was a bit chaotic, but that was the point,” he said, recalling our talks about rhythmic disturbance as a way to interrupt lockstep behavior in far-right demos.

The syncopated chants “Vi er alle antifascister” (“We are all antifascists”) and “Ingen rasister i våre gater” (“No racists in our streets”) worked against any marchlike beats coming from the SIAN speakers. Off-kilter, improvisational noisemaking, along with homemade banners and Pride flags, certainly helped deflate SIAN’s racist, populist posturing – however protected by free speech concerns in Norway – and humor helped as well. I even caught a duck call whistle in the sound clips my son recorded. 

Humor in the form of satirical cartoons has long been a flashpoint in European immigration debates. In Denmark, the Netherlands, and France over the past 15 years, cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed have incited violent reactions, not only as caricatures but also as insults to a religion that is “iconoclastic” in that it “does not permit God to be anthropomorphized … and prizes textual scripture instead” (Taub, 2015). Attacks on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and on several sites in Copenhagen (related to another cartoonist, Lars Vilks) from 2010 to 2015, along with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, fed far-right populist reactions throughout Europe, from Pegida and the AfD party in Germany to SIAN and many online splinter groups; a 2014 study predicted this development, showing that particular, controversial events lead to spikes in anti-Muslim sentiment, which has not grown in a single, steady curve.  

Today’s satirical landscape has become more complicated than the past decade’s pattern of journalistic provocations, physical attacks, and right-wing reactions. Katrine Fangen, who has studied anti-Muslim views expressed in social media, finds that: “Even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes” (Fangen, 2021).  

Fangen has also noted the use of emojis to “camouflage” anti-Muslim and misogynistic views (“Gendered Images,”2021). Though far-right fanzines used similar tactics in the 1990s, she points out, the ease of viral spread on the internet has attracted far wider audiences, using humor as a seemingly harmless gateway to mainstreaming racial stereotypes and stoking fears that Muslims are “taking over” countries like Germany or Norway, failing to see that most immigrants are fleeing extremist governments in their own countries. 

In the memesphere, the American webcomic StoneToss has attracted controversy for its Holocaust-denial dog whistlesand other semi-coded references to white supremacist, homophobic, and misogynist thinking. On sites like Reddit (often politically problematic in its own right), critics have parsed racist, sexist tropes veiled in “edgy humor.” One reaction among leftist groups has been to appropriate and “remix” StoneToss comics (Gilmour, 2021), with what my son calls “layers of irony” that may escape not only less sophisticated populists but even older progressives like me. The “antifastonetoss” page includes completed remixes, blank-thought-bubble templates, and test runs for community feedback. Subreddit links and critiques of source StoneToss comics abound, as do comments that, under their clever snark, show real concern for the damage hateful content can do, and that offer what might incite a Gen Z eyeroll if I say this: kindness, as in “Trans people are biblically accurate angels.” 

Another surprising site of weaponized, white supremacist humor is the ostensibly “friendship is magic” world of My Little Pony. For the past decade or so, young men calling themselves “Bronies” have associated themselves with the toy-inspired cartoon series for various reasons, one of which is an incel-driven need to bond with other straight, white men who feel socially and/or sexually outcast. What could be, and is in some cases, ironic or escapist enjoyment of characters like Rainbow Dash and their sparkly adventures has morphed into a whole memeverse of trolling and counter-trolling, coded vocabulary, and some explicitly violent content, such as “a My Little Pony character presiding over three lynchings and one beheading of cartoons drawn to represent various marginalized groups” (Tiffany, 2020). Over the past several years, a virtual civil war has erupted over the “4chan ethos” of archiving everything, leading to some censorship of violent images but not of racist messages (Tiffany, 2020).

On the other side of the political divide, in the post-Trump, pandemic-exhausted, heatwave-traumatized US, humor still has its place as a site of coping and resistance, as in plague memes referring to anti-vaxxers or “Disaster Girl” memessatirizing climate crisis deniers. The point in both cases is not to incite hate for particular groups but to point out the costs of disinformation in a disarming way. Perhaps a small percentage of hoax theorists will find themselves laughing and, who knows, even reconsider their stances on “personal freedom” or (to use a strangely misappropriated word) “research.” Perhaps a SIAN hanger-on in Oslo last week noticed that his or her cowbell-clanging foes were having much more fun marching down Karl Johans Gate than those shouting racist rhetoric through loudspeakers. I’d choose the “anti-fascist slide whistle” any day.


(*) This essay follows up on the 23.06.21 interview with Anne Gjelsvik and on several commentaries on music in protest and in far-right populism. Thanks to Evan Hart for audio clips and internet culture insights.

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM" demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

The Islamic Defenders Front: The Face of Indonesia’s Far-Right Islamism

This commentary uses a case study of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) to explore crucial questions regarding the nature of populism in Indonesia. Some see the recent ban of the FPI by the administration of President Joko Widodo as a decisive clash between technocratic governance and right-wing Islamist populism. But while the banning of the FPI represents a significant move against Islamist populism, it will not necessarily weaken it in the longer run. Nevertheless, in a political environment largely devoid of competing forms of conviction politics, the campaigns for the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections will continue to see Islamist populism playing a significant role.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

Jokowi’s Ban of FPI: A Glimpse of Autorotation Paranoia?

Having been re-elected in April 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) had just settled into his second five-year term when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. Like the rest of the world, Indonesia saw adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic that crippled key industries such as tourism (Kelemen, 2021; Mietzner, 2020a). Jokowi’s government, like many others around the world, was seen as ill-prepared for the challenge, and the business-focused leader has been criticized for his mishandling of the virus. Within this context of uncertainty and resentment toward elected officials, Indonesia witnessed the return of one of its most outspoken Islamist populist leaders in November of 2020.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab had led the Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) since its formation in 1998 as its chairman and later as its “grand imam.” The return of Shihab from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia drew fresh attention to the populist right-wing opposition force when Jokowi’s government was struggling. Shihab exploited this with his call for a “moral revolution” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). This “moral revolution” was just the latest form of anti-government “political jihad” by the FPI as it advanced a familiar claim to be fighting for the Muslims of Indonesia to free the ummah from un-Islamic and “corrupt leaders” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). The FPI has a history of attacking Jokowi with anti-government and anti-elite rhetoric loaded with religious connotations. Such rhetoric casts Shihab as the representative of the “pious people” (e.g., observant Muslims) and the president and state officials a “sinister” and “morally corrupt” elite.

 

Parade Tauhid or Parade of Tawheed, muslim marched from central stadium to the central city of Jakarta and back. Habib Riziq Shihab was giving oration in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17 2015. Photo: Riana Ambarsari

Shihab’s call for a moral revolution commenced when huge crowds at the airport met him after returning from a two-year-old self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the FPI spread the word on its moral revolution through multiple mass rallies across the country. Many political analysts interpreted this as the beginning of an Islamist populist campaign attempting to build momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020). In a time of pandemic, it was easy for the FPI to sell its religious populism by arguing that the people’s suffering stemmed from unjust and un-caring rulers who did not want to correct their ways and “repent.” Thus, it is “up to the people” to bring about a “moral revolution” by leading more pious lives and adhering to religious principles more strictly.

As the FPI doubled down on its trademark rhetorical refrain, calling for the imposition of sharia law in Indonesia (Maulia, 2020), the government issued increasingly severe warnings against holding mass rallies and gatherings in the context of the worsening pandemic. It also asked Shihab and his team to regularly submit to tests for the virus, all of which were denied. Yet, even with meager rates of testing, multiple positive cases were reported among rally-goers(Singh, 2020). Shihab was finally arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was formally banned. Tensions peaked when six FPI members were shot dead in a police encounter in which they were described as a “threat” to the nation’s security and peace (Maulia, 2020; Singh, 2020).

While the FPI was hardly without blame, many observers have argued that Jokowi has used COVID-19 regulations and the alleged encounter to eliminate a growing anti-government political movement. This has reinforced the perception that the Jokowi administration is increasingly showing authoritarian tendencies (Kelemen, 2021; Parameswaran, 2021).

Is Populism New to Indonesian Politics?

Populist rhetoric is not new to Indonesian politics. The anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch led by the nation’s founding father, Sukarno, was inherently populist (Chalmers, 2019; Roosa, 2014). Given that the Dutch had exploited the Indonesian population and land for two centuries, it is hardly surprising that left-wing nationalist ideals were widely popular and that Sukarno is still remembered as a national hero, despite his later autocratic period of “guided democracy.”

Sukarno’s left-leaning “Old Order” government was followed in Indonesia by the anti-Communist “New Order” military-backed authoritarian regime of President Suharto. The previously little-known general emerged as a successor to Sukarno in the wake of a military takeover in October 1965 and subsequently bloody anti-Communist pogrom. In May 1998, after more than three decades in power, Suharto was forced to resign as his legitimacy faltered in the turbulence of the East Asian financial crisis. Calls for reform were led in part by the daughter of the very man whose power he had usurped, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She went on to become the first female leader of the country (Ziv, 2001).

For years, Megawati built her profile as a reformist leader channeling sympathy and respect for her larger-than-life late father. Much of her populism was based on a vague “anti-elitism” and “anti-corruption” agenda built around the promise of reformasi and returning power to “the people.” In the eyes of many, Megawati’s position enabled her to become “the face of the people” who felt increasingly oppressed through the 36-year-long military-backed dictatorship (Ziv, 2001).

The post-Suharto reformasi era not only opened the way for pro-democracy forces to participate in politics; it also saw a flood of right-wing religious parties. In the 1999 general elections, 48 new political parties took part in the democratic process, out of which 20 went on to formally contest the elections based on claims of being “Islamic” (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 434). Thus, from the beginning of this post-Suharto democratic period, right-wing populist parties have been a prominent element in the politics of Indonesia which is proud of its inclusive and open democracy (Tehusijarana, 2020).

President Joko Widodo campaigned in Banjarmasin Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan on March 27, 2019. Photo: Iman Satria

What was the FPI’s Populist Appeal?

Despite opportunities for political participation, Islamist parties have tended to underperform in general elections and fail to become significant partners in government. Since 2014, radical Islamist parties have tended to align with opposition forces led by Prabowo Subianto (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 435). In such a landscape, the FPI forged a close alliance with Prabowo as their right-wing and anti-Jokowi stances coincided. Jokowi himself has led Indonesia with his own mild variant of populism. He is framed as a champion of the “common man” and as a down-to-earth, solutions-orientated politician—a low-key “man of action.” Jokowi’s administration merges “technocratic” and somewhat left-wing solutions as well as capitalist economic models with welfare-ism. This “technocratic populism” has seen him elected president twice (Yilmaz, 2020; Roosa, 2014).

In politics, the FPI played a catalytic role in gathering votes for the parties its forms alliances with (de Haan, 2020; Hookway, 2017). The group’s core narrative of Islamist populism aids its case. Led by Shihab, a cleric with solid links to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Salafi conservatism, the FPI leadership claims to be the embodiment of the volonté générale (the general will) (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Shihab and the FPI have maintained that an open political jihad against the government is essential since the democratically elected government is merely working in the interests of the “Western” and “Zionist” lobbies (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Not only are the elected officials in the ranks of “the elite and corrupt,” they are, allegedly, advocates of powers working against Indonesia and Islam. The solution that Indonesia needs is to implement sharia laws (in accordance with orthodox and rigid Salafi interpretations) and act against all un-Islamic actors in the country (Amal, 2020).

While Indonesia is a Muslim majority country, it is a highly diverse society not just in terms of faiths and ethnicities but also within the majority Sunni community. It is home to a small but economically influential ethnic Chinese community, composed mainly of non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and the non-religious). Over the years, the FPI has targeted the Chinese by evoking the “communist threat” (Seto, 2019). FPI posters have frequently warned people about the “evils” and “threats” from the “traitors within.” One FPI poster reads, “Attention! Zionism, and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Not only has the FPI targeted those well outside the Muslim community, but they have also targeted the marginal Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia, whose members, although living in most respects as Muslims, are condemned as being murtad (apostates). The FPI targets Ahmadiyya villages and incites violence (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016; Woodward, 2014).

Protester waving Indonesian flag and Habib Rizieq Shihab picture during President Election Protest in front of Constitutional Court in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 24, 2020.

The political jihad championed by the FPI draws upon many of the same elements of Salafi ideology as exploited by violent jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Still, it largely confines its actions to inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and the largely symbolic violence of mob intimidation. Before being disbanded, the FPI marshaled para-military vigilante groups across the country to “save” the Muslim faith from the “evils” of the “enemies of the faith” (Amal, 2020; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018). The highly organized militant branch of the FPI has been involved in ethnic-religious rioting, and its members have used force to close down “hot spots” such as nightclubs and parties that it considers “sinful.” Various members of the organization have been arrested over charges of Islamist vigilantism. Hadiz (2016: 112) notes, “[the FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.”

The notorious activities of the FPI have earned it a prominent media profile and helped ensure that its call for “saving Islam” has been heard far and wide, earning the group a stable and sizable followership. Selling a narrative of victimhood, FPI imams and other leaders have ensured that their followers are kept constantly anxious about threats to their faith and way of life, and thus incentivized to hate “the Other” and at times manifest that hatred and insecurity in acts of intimidation, symbolic violence and hate speech toward out-group members (Peterson, 2020). As Mietzner (2020b: 425) has observed, Indonesian far-right populists hoodwink “pious believers” into believing they “are victimised, in Indonesia and elsewhere, by non-Muslim or otherwise sinful forces, mostly in the West but also, increasingly, China. For the Indonesian context, this means that devout Muslims are kept away from power through an inter-connected conspiracy by non-Muslim countries and Indonesian elites.”

This narrative reached a strident crescendo in late 2016. The FPI gained unprecedented approval ratings and became a powerful force in Indonesian politics during the so-called “Action to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations. These country-wide protests were led by the FPI and various other right-wing political groups and parties against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta (Fealy, 2016). The nationwide protests climaxed with a call for Ahok to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy, based on statements in a heavily edited video from the campaign hustings in which the governor had criticized the use of Islam as a campaign tool against Indonesian minorities. The xenophobic strain of criticism directed at “the Other”—in this case, the Indonesian Chinese and Christian community—was designed to mobilize the “pious people” against an otherized non-Muslim minority (Seto, 2019; Fealy, 2016). The anti-Ahok movement was framed as “defending Islam” by the FPI. The movement’s head, Shihab, moved to assume the mantle of leader of the Islamist populists by calling himself the “Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims” who would defend the faith by clashing with the authoritarian state, which was attacked for being both pro-Ahok and pluralistic (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774).

At the same time, the influential, conservative Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI) issued a fatwa declaring Ahok to be a blasphemer. Eventually, the FPI-led protests resulted in Ahok losing his governorship and serving two years in jail following blasphemy trials that ended his political career (Nuryanti, 2021). Subsequently, the FPI-supported opposition candidate won the governorship of Jakarta. In the run-up to the April 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, the FPI became a formidable force supporting Prabowo. Even though this alliance failed in the elections continued to pose a threat to Jokowi and his government (Nuryanti, 2021; Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Is FPI the End of Islamist Populism in Indonesia?

Populist religious organizations in Indonesia such as the FPI exploit religious populism to gain the sympathies of “the people.” For the FPI, this was enabled by two decades of engagement with vulnerable communities at the grassroots level. The FPI has enhanced its reputation by providing voluntary-based welfare services in disaster-struck and poverty-stricken regions and neighborhoods by providing schooling, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid (Hookway, 2017).

This had helped FPI to position itself as a protagonist when the state was seen to have failed its citizens, thus becoming the ungiving and heartless antagonist. In contrast, the FPI became the altruistic and pious benevolent giver. Even after its ban, the FPI continues to court the support of a wide range of sympathizers. And despite the legal action he faces, Shihab’s populist influence has not diminished. This is evidenced by the fact that he is currently being imprisoned in an undisclosed location due to fears he could become the focus of protests and rioting. Thus, even behind bars, Shihab continues to effectively use Islamist populist rhetoric (detikNews, 2021). In an act of defiance against the “tyranny” of the amoral state, he refused to participate in an online trial in March 2021. Rather than responding to questioning in court, he engaged in theatrical non-corporation by constantly reciting verses from the Qur’an (detikNews, 2021).

The FPI might be one of the most notorious actors in Indonesian politics, but it is not the only right-wing Islamist group using populism. Prabowo has a strong alliance with various right-wing populist parties. The FPI’s culture of charismatic authority and considerable social capital means a high probability of the group being reborn in a new guise. Therefore, banning the FPI has done nothing to eliminate the threat posed by Islamist populism, particularly as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is bound to result in long-lasting impacts on already marginalized groups in Indonesia. Given high levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a myriad of post-pandemic economic and social uncertainties, Islamist populist groups are bound to play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.


(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.


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Mietzner Marcus. (2020a). “Populist Anti-Scientism, Religious Polarisation, and Institutionalised Corruption: How Indonesia’s Democratic Decline Shaped Its COVID-19 Response.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs. 39(2), 227-249. doi:10.1177/1868103420935561. 

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NMR6

NMR: A Nordic neo-Nazi organization with aims of establishing totalitarian rule across Scandinavia

Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) rests on this century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism. Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR which aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state, has become the primary force of white power in Sweden and other Nordic countries. 

By Bulent Kenes

Since the recent re-emergence of radical right-wing ideas across Europe (Mudde, 2007: 1), increasing numbers of security authorities warn of increased threats from the radical nationalist milieu. Terrorist attacks by radical nationalist lone wolves have been carried out in Christchurch (New Zealand), Poway and El Paso (USA), Baerum (Norway), and Halle (Germany), along with other attacks, have created a sense of urgency around this growing threat. In August 2019, the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) warned of an increased threat from violent right-wing extremists (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020). According to Säpo, extreme right-wing organisations are the second biggest threat to Sweden after Islamist terrorism (Swedish Security Service, 2018). This warning brought attention to the most dominant extremist actor in Sweden, the national socialist Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7).

Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Sweden has had organized Nazi movements since 1924, when the Furugård brothers founded the first Nazi party (Lööw, 2004). During the interwar period, and until the end of World War II (WWII), various Swedish Nazi organizations developed in accordance with their conflicting attitudes toward the German Nazi party. According to Helene Lööw (1999), this led to a state of constant fragmentation of the Swedish Nazi movement, which partly explains why there was never a strong united movement during that time period. In the wake of WWII, the Swedish Nazi movement might have faded away but for the Nordic National Party (Nordiska rikspartiet, NRP), which was founded in 1956. NRP became the institution that restructured the ideas, experiences, and aims of the pre-war and wartime Nazi movements to create contemporary Nazi movements, generally in the form of subcultural groups and parties (Lööw, 1999; 2004; 2015).

By the end of the 1970s, the NRP had adopted right-wing populist ideas. This led to a portion of the movement taking a less radical position on the white race and focusing instead on a culturally racist view aimed at criticizing immigration policy and immigrants. When the group split, a new organization emerged, called Keep Sweden Swedish (Bevara Sverige Svenskt, BSS) (Lööw, 1999). This created more polarization within the milieu and contributed to the construction of two fractions: one that remained faithful to the Nazi ideology and another that looked for support by addressing immigration issues. During the 1980s and 1990s, the right-wing movement was formed through both parliamentary aspirations and more violent revolutionary logic, as well as formal and informal groups, parties, and subcultural milieus (Lööw, 2015). 

From the early 1990s onwards, older national socialist organizations such as NRP, the New Swedish Movement (Nysvenska Rörelsen), and Sweden’s Nationalist Federation (Sveriges Nationella Förbund) started dissolving and were ultimately replaced by smaller underground groups and networks such as Vitt Arisk Motstånd (White Aryan Resistance, VAM), Nationalist Alliance (Nationella Alliansen), Aryan Brotherhood (Ariska Brödraskapet), and Combat 18 (Lööw, 1995). These groups differed from the NRP, which had roots back to the Swedish National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nationalsocialistiska abetarepartiet) of the 1930s (Kølvraa, 2019). Despite the dissolution of the NRP, during the 1980s it became the link between interwar National Socialism and a new generation of activists influenced by British and American White Power movements (Lundström, 2016; Hirvonen, 2013).

The Founders of NMR Came from Three Nazi Groups

Historically, Sweden has long been a global epicentre for White Supremacist activism and “intellectualism,” fuelled by an once world-leading White Power music industry in the 1990s (Teitelbaum & Lundström, 2017) and an extensive publishing industry (Lööw, 1999). With the recent rise in the visibility of extreme and openly violent groups and activities, Sweden offers a particularly interesting window into the media the media strategies and practices of violent extremists within liberal democracies—and why we should take this media seriously (Askanius, 2021a).

During the 1990s, the Nazi movement reconstructed itself and developed new exchange forums by adapting to the Internet and social media—moves that benefited a movement that struggled to gain visibility in more traditional public forums (Lööw, 2015). To attract members and sympathizers, the movement has used public demonstrations and local town rallies but also an intensified presence on social media (Kaati, 2017). By the beginning of 2010—and until 2013—there was small but significant growth in the Nazi movement’s followers, activities, and visibility. Two Nazi parties dominated the scene: The Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) and the NMR. Since 2015, the NMR, the only party remaining, has been the main hub for Nordic Nazi ideas (Lööw, 2015).

Klas Lund.

The founders of NMR came from three Nazi groups—VAM, the newspaper Folktribunen (The People’s Tribune), and the National Youth (Mattsson, 2018). The establishment of the NMR (then known as the Swedish Resistance Movement, or the Svensk motståndsrörelsen, SMR) was announced in the third issue of the Folktribunen in December 1997. The Nazi network Nordland, which has since closed down, was also included under the SMR (Harne, 2002)Folktribunen’s editor-in-chief, and one of NMR’s founders, was Klas Lund, who headed the organization for 18 years, between 1997 and 2015 (Ravndal, 2019). From 1997 to 2002, the Folktribunen was SMR’s communication channel, a place to communicate the organization’s positions and activities (Mattsson, 2018).

Apart from his lengthy leadership term, Lund’s played a role a series of dramatic events that preceded NMR’s establishment. Lund began his activist career as a militant skinhead, a form of militancy the NMR normally distances itself from because in an effort to emphasize political struggle over subcultural practices. In 1986, when Lund was 18 years old, he and a group of fellow skinheads beat and kicked to death a young man who had allegedly attempted to stop them from harassing young immigrants at a beach in southern Stockholm. Lund and two other skinheads were convicted of murder and received eight-year prison sentences. Lund’s sentence was later reduced to four years, and he was released after only two years (Ravndal, 2019). When he served his sentence, he became a leading figure in VAM which took its name from the American organization White Aryan Resistance, a group that carried out robberies and hoped to fund a “white revolution” (Hjälte & Kenny, 2011).  (Expo, 2019).

Lund and his associates carried out several bank robberies to finance their activities and to prepare for an armed revolution. In this endeavour, Lund’s VAM was inspired by another American group, The Order (Brüder Schweigen). While amateurish, VAM was certainly violent (Hjälte & Kenny,2011); however, one of these robberies landed the perpetrators in prison (Lööw, 2009; Strømmen, 2017) again. While in prison, Lund had plenty of time to contemplate the means that would be most effective at generating a revolutionary outcome. He arrived at the conclusion that terrorism carried out by loosely organized leaderless networks might not be so effective. Rather, a strong hierarchical organization with the long-term ambition of radicalizing people through steadfast propaganda and street activism was a better alternative. These thoughts were further developed in Folktribunen, which Lund created after his second release from prison (Ravndal, 2019). 

Folktribunen included material on Corneliu Codreanu, the founder and charismatic leader of the Iron Guard, an ultra-nationalist and violently antisemitic organization established in Romania in 1927. During the interwar period, Codreanu ran the violent underground fascist terrorist group, St. Michael’s Legionnaires—better known as the Iron Guard. As a Christian fanatic, Codreanu hated democracy and dreamed of a nation ruled by an elite—a country like a religious sect. The new society required a “new man,” and the Iron Guard would take the lead in the revolution. Codreanu’s organization was guilty of political assassinations and pogroms against, above all, Jews. Codreanu was imprisoned and executed in 1938 after his organization responded to his prison sentence with more assassinations (Poohl, 2014). 

In 1995, a group of young people in Bromma, an upscale Stockholm suburb, founded an organization called Independent Young Nationalists (Oberoende Unga Nationalister) (Poohl, 2014). At the time, racist skinheads and white power music dominated the Swedish extreme right. As Daniel Poohl of the Swedish anti-extremist magazine Expo writes, the young ultranationalists from Bromma wanted to be something different. They didn’t allow drugs. They didn’t welcome skinhead hooligans. They wanted to be more serious (Strømmen, 2017). In 1997, Erik Hägglund was chosen to lead the organization, which had already changed its name to National Youth (Nationell Ungdom). Hägglund had previously been active in a fascist group called Riksfronten and under his leadership, Nationell Ungdom quickly radicalized. Ideas on “democratic nationalism” were replaced by revolutionary racism (Poohl, 2014; Expo/Svartvitt, 1999).

Out of Folktribunen, the new organization SMR was born. It was meant to be an elitist organization, with a strong focus on loyalty, discipline, and courage. The ethos was: “Weaklings and cowards have no place with us. No one shall avoid his manly duties.” Nationell Ungdom was to continue as the youth organization of the SMR (Poohl, 2014). This strategic shift has been overlooked by several observers who portray SMR as terrorists (Gudmundson, 2008). One reason could be that SMR does not reject extreme measures, including terrorism, in some distant future. A key element of their strategy is thus to use propaganda to prepare themselves and the Nordic people for a future racial war that is, in their minds, inevitable (SRM, 2009).

The extreme right-wing propaganda changed character over time; in 2009, the SMR launched an online campaign against paedophiles and rapists (Lööw, 2015: 66). At the same time, SMR members practised a sort of low-scale psychological warfare, where subtle threats were used to scare or silence their enemies. They also actively prepared for and sought out violent confrontations with the police and political opponents (Ravndal, 2018).

In 2003, the organization started publishing a new magazine, Nationelt Motstånd (National Resistance). Cooperation with Norwegian neo-Nazis led to a Norwegian branch of the organization, called Nasjonal Ungdom, being established the same year (Kragh & Lindberg, 2003; Expo, 2003). However, the Norwegian group faltered within a couple of years. In an article in Nationelt Motstånd, Klas Lund made it clear that the organization did not seek to recruit “as many as possible,” but rather wanted to build “an inner core of fanatic activists who can increasingly bring the national message out to the masses” (Poohl, 2014). Since 2003, the SMR has developed as an openly National Socialist organization following an “elitist” approach to membership. In addition to a traditional antisemitic focus, the organization based its ideology on openly racist anti-immigrant views (Strømmen, 2017).  

In 2016, the organisation changed its name to NMR and declared, together with associate organisations in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, that now addresses matters concerning all of Scandinavia—specifically protecting the Aryan race (Mattson, 2018).

In its current shape, NMR rests on an almost century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism (Lööw, 2015).Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR has become the primary force of white power in Sweden (Mattsson, 2018). However, “white power” is not a term that the NMR uses to denote their movement—that is a term used by their enemies. Therefore, representatives of the NMR categorically claim in interviews that they do not belong to any “white power world” nor are they “Nazis” (Öberg, 2016). 

The relatively civil discourse in NMR’s cultural productions also aims to seed elements of neo-Nazi ideology into the more acceptable anti-immigration rhetoric successfully used in the public domain by right-wing populist parties (Krzyżanowski, 2020). Thus, NMR have become co-producers of what Krzyżanowski (2020: 505) has dubbed “borderline discourse,” which merges uncivil (hate speech, antisemitism, and unmitigated racism) with civil discourse borrowed from the ideas of right-wing populism. In a sense, neo-Nazi groups today, and extremist actors more generally, dovetail on a broader cultural trend of an increasing symbiosis of popular media, political punditry, and persuasion. Part of this hybridity is about the convergence of the mainstream and extreme at the level of actual content on the platform (Askanius, 2021a).

NMR Aims to Overthrow the Democratic Order in the Nordic Region 

NMR’s own cultural productions are also characterised by hybridity and a play with genre conventions. A convergence of popular culture and entertainment with political and news discourse is apparent. At the level of content and aesthetics, the extreme blends with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. These strategies continue the long history of “political mash-up” in protest movements’ media practices (Askanius, 2013) and of fascist movements aestheticizing politics (Ekman, 2014). To illustrate how neo-Nazis attempt to package their ideology in ways that shield it from immediate public condemnation, Kølvraa (2019) describes how NMR replaced swastikas and World War II imagery with symbols from Norse paganism and Viking iconography to make the ideology more palatable in a Swedish and wider Nordic context. The tactic served to construct a two-faced dynamic to Nazism, where a seemingly civil, respectable, and serious side masked a violent and uncivil side, much like the dissonance we see in NMR’s communication strategies seeking to normalise neo-Nazi discourse in Sweden (Askanius, 2021a).

Thus, the cultural expressions of NMR reinforce a value system that harmonises with the neo-Nazi programme. In their attempts to create a new and distinctly Nordic “Nazism light,” entertainment and culture work as key vehicles in conveying the story of “white genocide” and the impending race wars in a persuasive and entertaining manner (Askanius, 2021a). In this sense, NMR adopted some of the same normalisation strategies that seem to have worked for more mainstream far-right populist parties across Europe: re-packaging, softening rhetoric, and getting rid of or toning down overt hate speech and symbols associated with traditional fascism (Wodak, 2013).  Therefore, to understand its contemporary reality, NMR’s Nazism must be recognized as something more than simply brutality, genocide, destruction, and war (Darwish, 2018: 4).

In Sweden, recent years have seen the National Socialist right mount public demonstrations and other “offline” activities with increasing numbers. Whereas earlier it was often noted that the extreme right secured media attention and impact through violence (Kimmel, 2007), and that such organizations usually preferred the relative anonymity of online propaganda (Askanius & Mylonas, 2015: 58); now the NMR’s membership—and their willingness to demonstrate in public—is increasing. Indeed, recent years saw a noticeable rise in activities (Eastman, 2017), and a third of active members in 2015 were new recruits (Kølvraa, 2019). At one march in Stockholm, in November 2016, some reports counted 600 NMR participants (Pasha-Robinson, 2016). As such, the NMR and its online media outlet Nordfront.se are today the central National Socialist voice on the Swedish extreme right—and possibly the dominant platform for such ideas in Scandinavia as a whole (Laclau, 2005, 1990).

As a neo-Nazi organization, NMR aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020; Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In October 2014, Lund declared that a parliamentary branch of the movement would be formed, although this did not mean that the (then) SMR would become less radical. Nor did it mean that the SMR had transformed into a democratic party. Choosing to operate within the parliamentary system does not necessarily mean accepting it (Lööw, 2020: 86). The NMR has not entered the national level of government, but they entered several local governments around Sweden from 2014-2018 (Skoglund, 2017; Thomsen, 2018). The organization also made an attempt at a parliamentary breakthrough; however, it only received several municipal mandates after being added to Sweden Democrats’ (SD) lists. Despite this, the 2018 election saw an increase in both the NMR’s level of activity and their visibility in the Swedish political discourse (Blomberg & Stier, 2019).

After the 2018 election, the breakaway organization Nordic Strength (Nordisk styrka) was formed in August 2019, partly as a reaction to the failed parliamentary initiative (Lodenius, 2020: 129). Leading NMR activists, including Klas Lund, founded Nordic Strength (Askanius, 2021a), which is a distinctly elite organization, a return to the form of organization that was dominant before the NMR was created—that is, a group that does not accept everyone as a member (Lööw, 2020: 85). The purpose of Nordic Strength is stated as: “To create a new generation of strong and conscious Nordic people, and our ambition to create a strong and combative ideology, culture, community and organization.” Nordic Strength is also present in Norway and Denmark (Forwald, 2019).

NMR As a Fully-fledged National Socialist Organization

The NMR explicitly rejects democratic rule and envisions a more authoritarian system, headed by strong and competent National Socialist “senators” (Lund, 2010). It also promotes a racist and antisemitic doctrine. This is a neo-Nazi organization aimed at establishing a national revolution and totalitarian rule (Mattson & Johansson, 2018). While many emergent neo-fascist organizations across Europe distance themselves from National Socialism, the NMR remains a fully-fledged national socialist organization. Race theory is thus an inherent part of their ideology—and the alleged international Jewish elite remains their main enemy (Ravndal, 2018).

National Socialist and racist groups are sometimes introduced under the broader term “right-wing extremists.” National socialism’s main ideological components are nationalism, racism, “xenophobia,” a strong state, and anti-democratic notions (Lööw, 2020: 87-88). Although NMR can be characterized as a National Socialist organization, it did not use this label during its early years, for strategic reasons, and referred to its activists as “patriots.” In 2006, however, the NMR leadership decided to “come out of the closet” and be open about their National Socialist foundations. Behind this toxic ideology lay deeper ideas such as anti-modernism, anti-liberalism, collectivism, communitarianism, and the idea that people’s identities and meanings are closely tied to the territories, peoples, and cultures to which they naturally “belong” (Ravndal, 2019). 

Meanwhile, in addition to Adolf Hitler, the NMR cites the Danish Nazi ideologue Povl Riis-Knudsen as an important source of inspiration. Biological racism is the explicit foundation of the party’s policy. Conspiracy theories and antisemitism are also central to their ideology. NMR praises Hitler and Nazi Germany but believes that their own ideology is a “new policy for a new era.” It agitates against the democratic state, immigration, and multiculturalism, as well as against “Zionism” and “globalism” (a code for Jews), capitalism, communism, feminism, and the LGBTQ movement. One of the party’s explicit goals is to deport “the majority of all those who are not ethnic northern Europeans or of closely related peoples” from the Nordic countries. NMR also directs propaganda against trade unions, whose members they want to attract as sympathizers (Expo, 2019).

Since NMR believes that the Nordic peoples are racially and ethnically related (Ravndal, 2018), it has merged the core National Socialist values with a political strategy of a united Nordic region under authoritarian leadership, all in an effort to conserve the Nordic race and culture (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). The concept of “ethnopluralism” is sometimes used to describe this idea—that people of different ethnic and territorial backgrounds should co-exist separately rather than being mixed, in order to preserve their unique qualities and collective identities (Ravndal, 2019). It seeks to preserve national identities by repatriating all or most people of foreign descent. Finally, they seek to replace the European Union—which they see as a liberal/capitalist/globalist/technocratic threat to the authentic European identity—with an autonomous European geopolitical alliance. Notably, this alliance should be detached from the current economic, cultural, and military grip of the US, and perhaps seek alliances with Russia (Ravndal, 2019).

Reinventing Vikings For Nordic Consumption

Besides an obsession with Jews and Muslims, religion does not occupy much space in the ideological view of the NMR. The party does not claim to support religious freedom in their political manifesto. They also draw on pagan myths and symbols in some of their propaganda—specifically, on Norse mythology. For example, their main symbol is constituted by an overlay of the Tiwaz/Tyr rune, named after the warrior god Tyr, and the Yngvi/Ing rune, named after the Yngling lineage, the oldest known Scandinavian dynasty (Ravndal, 2019). However, in much of the NMR’s more recent cultural productions, the Vikings have gone soft (Askanius, 2021a). At the core of this practice, through which boundaries are increasingly blurred, is an aspiration to make uncivil discourse and ideology appear more civil and the spectacular more mundane—and to tell the story of a new “sanitised version of Nazism that would normalise the Hitler state in the minds of contemporaries” (Blee, 2007: 15). Vikings are no novelty in the National Socialist imagination. They were extensively present in Third Reich propaganda (Lauridsen, 1995). The image of the Viking serves as the lynchpin of a distinctly Nordic reiteration of National Socialist ideology as articulated by NMR (Kølvraa, 2019).

Christoffer Kølvraa argues that the Viking becomes an “empty signifier”(Laclau, 1996), serving three distinct purposes in the construction of a cultural imaginary suitable for a Nordic National Socialism. First, it serves to signify the National Socialist idea of a “Nordic race” and, in that sense, implicitly links this ideology to a specifically Nordic historical-cultural space. Second, it serves to differentiate the pan-Nordic racial project of the NMR from a wider European far-right populist agenda of defending European Christian civilization. Third, it serves to symbolize a classic National Socialist body ideal of hyper-masculinity and homo-social community in a distinctly Nordic code (Kølvraa, 2019).

Perhaps the most obvious function of Viking heritage in the cultural imagination of the NMR is simply as a way of making National Socialism less of a “German” ideology and reorientating it towards a Nordic cultural-historical context. Indeed, the NMR certainly addresses its audience as modern-day Vikings (Kølvraa, 2019). The Nordfront.se site sees it as a core task to keep the audience updated on “all things Viking.” It offers lists of events with Viking or mediaeval themes, including Viking markets, re-enactments of Viking battles, and upcoming Viking rituals, festivals, and commemorative dates (Holmqvist, 2017; Editorial, 2017).

At the textual level, Viking heritage is often only alluded to in passing, such as when it is claimed: “Our forefathers knew the secret of the blood. They understood it so well, both regarding animals and people, that they did what they could to prevent mixing the Nordic-Germanic (Aryan) race with the other races of the earth” (Söderman, 2007). The NMR also distances itself from the far and populist right by adopting a severely critical attitude towards Christianity (Gardell, 2014: 131).) The popularity of notions of “Christian Europe” can be linked to the fact that it easily supports the construction of a violent antagonism towards Islam or a “clash” between Islam and European/western civilization. Furthermore, the NMR indulges itself at times by imagining the danger of what has been called “Eurabia”: the supposed grand strategy behind a Muslim takeover of the European continent (Carr, 2006). However, as a rule, the organization rejects the valorisation of Christian values and heritage. In fact, in most cases, the NMR’s attitude toward Christianity is to view it as a foreign, southern, and ultimately Jewish idea, unduly and forcibly imposed on their Viking ancestors with vast, ever-present detrimental consequences (Söderman, 2008).

“The religion of the Norse or German gods and associated forms of paganism are particularly popular among skinheads, precisely because of their violent, warrior ethos. Skinzines, and especially the Blood & Honour magazine, frequently point out that Odinism is a religion of warriors, whereas despised Christianity is presented in Nietzschean terms as a religion of slaves” (Pollard, 2016: 409). NMR rejects Christianity, which is considered “a kind of spiritual AIDS that has destroyed our natural immunity to non-biological thinking (Lodenius, 2020). It is a contagious mental illness that must be fought by all means” (Nationalsocialismen, 2011). With regard to the NMR’s view of religious freedom, all religions must adapt to National Socialism and must not run counter to its ideology and thus religious practice should be relegated to the private sphere (Redaktionen, 2016).

According to Kølvraa (2019), even when the Vikings are used as a means to mark religious difference, they function more as an empty signifier than as an actual counterpoint or alternative. It is not about becoming Vikings but about establishing a cultural imaginary in which National Socialism is linked, juxtaposed, and repackaged in Viking iconography for Nordic consumption. Viking heritage is central to the cultural imaginary of these modern Scandinavian National Socialists due to its ability to link the internal elements of their communal ideal: an ideal of a pure Nordic racial community undisturbed by foreign influences, Christian weakness, and degenerate modernity; a community shaped by an embedded hyper-masculinity lived out in homosocial interactions saturated with struggle, aggression, and the will to supremacy (Kølvraa, 2019).

NMR has used propaganda and direct action to “awaken” the people and prepare them for the upcoming “race war.” This is in line with the general National Socialist emphasis on action rather than on intellectualism (Ravndal, 2019). In many ways, NMR and the alt-right share the same destructive narrative. Common messages from both feature racial separatism, ethnopluralism, and conspiratorial notions of an impending societal collapse, stoking fears that “the people” and “culture” are about to be exterminated by external enemies. The external enemy is embodied by overseas immigration, which is supposedly orchestrated by an “elite” consisting of politicians, the media, and globalists (Jews). Not infrequently, antisemitic conspiracy theories also occur in connection with this notion. NMR actors also consider themselves to be waging “a cultural war” in order to preserve Swedish identity (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 8). NMR is anti-democratic and rejects global humanitarian rights. The party believes violence is necessary and legitimate to achieve its goals. In such a case, “racial traitors” and people of the “wrong race” will be exterminated, brought to justice, or deported (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20).

NMR has hopes to start a revolution through an extra-parliamentary struggle. They are opposed to the ruling government but do not engage in elections (Ravndal, 2019: 11-12). On NMR’s official website, Nordfront, the party claims a National Socialist stance in the “Nine Points” that make up their policy (Hellenstierna, 2019). These points are essential to their struggle and will be dictate the changes they make when they supposedly seize power from “the hostile forces that now rule the Nordic peoples” (Nordfront Policy A, 2015). The nine points include: 

  • Immediately stopping mass immigration;
  • As soon as possible, initiating the repatriation of the majority of all non-Northern Europeans or closely related peoples; 
  • By all means available, seek to regain power from “the global Zionist elite which economically and militarily occupy most of our world”; 
  • Jointly with the other Nordic countries create a Nordic self-sufficient state with a common defence force, common currency and central bank, and common horizontal laws and regulations. This also means immediate withdrawal from the European Union and any similar hostile associations; 
  • The media should be owned by citizens of the new Nordic region. Foreign as well as domestic media acting against people in a hostile manner will be prohibited; and
  • A public tribunal must be established with the aim of examining the difficult cases of treason (Redaktionen Nordfront, 2015).

NMR’s primary goal is to overthrow the Scandinavian democracies and create a Nazi state under NMR leadership. Three core themes in NMR’s ideology are, 1) the competition between the races; 2) antisemitism, with Jewish conspiracies at the centre (Immigration to Sweden and other Nordic countries will not be the main problem for NMR, but a by-product of the Jewish conspiracy); and 3) gender roles: for the battle ahead, men and women must have their strict gender roles. Men are supposed to be warriors and provide physical protection while women are supposed to stay home and reproduce and raise children. Less strict gender roles have resulted in “mixed races” and thus the “end of the race.” Feminist and LGBTQ movements are, therefore, not accepted and often threatened by NMR (Blomgren, 2020; Mattsson, 2018; Ranstorp, Ahlin, & Normark, 2020).

In NMR’s ideological narrative, thus, the central problem at the core of the conflict is construed as mass immigration and multiculturalism, spearheaded by Zionism and a feminised, degenerated Western culture. This problem poses a threat to a community—an “us,” meaning the white race, true Swedes, and the Nordic people—by a perpetrator, a “them” consisting of caricatured enemies including “racial strangers,” Jews, enemies of the people, or alternatively, Sweden-haters, which includes politicians, journalists, certain public intellectuals, feminists, and so forth. Against this backdrop, NMR proposes a “final solution”— namely, the deportation of all “racial strangers” and a race war, with the end result being Sweden as “white sanctuary,” enforced by a future pan-Nordic state founded on national socialism (Askanius, 2021a).

Moreover, the NMR propagates the superiority of the white race, fights for the “survival of the Nordic race,” and wants to bring about a revolution through an armed takeover (Edsenius & Jönsson, 2018). The party wants democracy to be “replaced by an elitist government with a strong leader at the top” (TT, 2017). In connection with this, parties must be abolished and citizenship in Sweden must be based on racial biology. A racial biology institute will “racially assess” the population of individuals born after 1975 and those who do not belong to the Aryan race will be forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin. Those born before 1975 could lose their citizenship if they were “convicted of anti-popular activities.” NMR’s leaders estimate that approximately 2 million “racial strangers” in Sweden would be sent back to their countries of origin, as well as another million people from the other Nordic countries (Lodenius, 2020).

According to the NMR, the entire survival and existence of the “white race” is at stake due to low birth rates combined with mass immigration of non-whites in “a low-intensity war of extermination against whites.” The Nordic countries are portrayed as occupied and the survival of the people a battle for life and death in a race war. The very image of the enemy being painted is dark and dystopian and is often described in dehumanizing terms as the “System.” The System includes the government and authorities, while politicians are referred to as “criminals.” The System has a vicious plan against the “people,” who are brainwashed and repressed by constant reprisals from the government and authorities. The System’s repression of NMR is enormous. NMR repeatedly uses enemy terms such as “racial stranger,” “criminal,” “traitor,” etc. NMR often weaves together a conspiratorial worldview of a “Jewish-controlled” elite of “globalists,” “big banks,” and “capitalists” who oppose and oppress the “people” (Lodenius, 2020).

NMR wants to establish a “people’s court” that will “try the difficult cases of treason” (Redaktionen, 2015). “Traitors” will be brought before the people’s court and hung from lampposts. NMR also advocates the reintroduction of the death penalty to be imposed for serious crimes (Lodenius, 2020). Media must be banned if they go against NMR’s ideals. NMR’s idea of ​​freedom of expression is to tear up laws against incitement against ethnic groups and instead ban “anti-popular propaganda” which includes media that spreads “subversive and anti-popular messages” (Redaktionen, 2018a).

NMR Views World Through Prism of Antisemitism

The NMR’s worldview is based on antisemitic conspiracy theories, including that Jews promote immigration, egalitarianism, and racial mixing in order to destroy the white race (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20). According to this world view, no political achievements have any real value until the alleged Jewish world conspiracy is crushed. While the rest of the far-right is inspired by new ideological influences, the NMR has chosen to stick to its Nazi convictions and Hitler’s principles, including all the elements of antisemitism. The party claims it wants to “take back power over our country from the globalists who rule us.” “Globalists” is one of many code words for the alleged Jewish international conspiracy (Poohl, 2018). 

Antisemitism is at the heart of the National Socialist ideology. Without antisemitism, National Socialism does not exist. According to Nazis, the notion of history is a struggle between Jews and “Aryans.” National Socialists often use terms such as “Jewish mentality” and “spiritual Jews.” These terms were synonymous with the Nazis’ political enemies, who were considered poisoned by the “Jewish mentality and morality” and who “sold their souls to the Jews” (Lööw, 2020: 89). Jews are at the top of the NMR’s enemy list; Nazis hate Jews more than they hate Muslims—they believe Jews invented the Muslims (Pascalidou, 2017). 

Although the NMR is concerned with challenges posed by growing Muslim populations in Europe, they always make sure to remind themselves and others that the real cause of this “Muslim invasion” is the Jews, who have deliberately masterminded it in order to weaken the European peoples and nations for their own benefit (Lund, 2004). According to NMR, “the tentacles of Zionism” are everywhere, seen in a culture war which seeks to “destroy the indigenous European cultures and replace them with Americanized anti-culture” (Lund, 2008).

Nevertheless, NMR has recently changed its rhetoric and started use some indirect or coded words. In that rhetoric, individuals who are said to represent the imagined Jewish power are transformed into traitors. The previous terms, like “racial traitors” and “Jewish lackeys,” have been replaced simply with “traitors” (Lööw, 2019). NMR sees “our people” as being betrayed and replaced through marriage and migration—and sees these as conscious strategies to replace the “Nordic race” with a new people. According to this conspiracy theory, Europe’s population will be replaced through the migration of Muslims, which is actually a Jewish plot (Lööw, 2020). Immigration to Sweden and the Nordic countries is by-product of the Jewish conspiracy—a conspiracy that is manifested in the form of, among other things, socialism, capitalism, and humanism (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 46). According to the NMR,  Jews are even behind recent terrorist attacks—and the police are supposedly “Zionist slaves” (Pascalidou, 2017).

The NMR also practises Holocaust denialism. In connection with memorial days linked to the Holocaust, NMR has organized demonstrations and various actions, in an effort to burden these dates with a different meaning (Lööw, 2020: 93). Nordfront’s editor-in-chief Fredrik Vejdelands denied the Holocaust during his closing speech in the Göta Court of Appeal (Redaktionen, 2015).

In accordance with the NMR’s worldview, Israel is the centre of a Zionist world power that exercises a destructive influence on much of the world, including Sweden. According to the NMR, Israel can be seen as the exact opposite of a National Socialist state: unnaturally created through mass immigration; built on a national, historical and religious lie and economic parasitism; a centre for espionage and global organized crime; etc. According to the NMR, Israel is, in practice, an extremist nationalist military base under the control of “international financial Judaism,” and, as such, it poses a threat to the rest of humanity. Naturally, the NMR sympathizes with the Palestinians and their struggle for a free Palestinian state (Editorial, 2012). With a focus on historical revisionism about the Holocaust (Lööw, 2019), NMR’s antisemitism is so strong that they congratulated radical Islamist HAMAS in 2006, just because the organisation stated in its statutes that it wants to destroy Israel (Redaktionen, 2006).

Hierarchically Organized with Militant and Fanatic Members

NMR’s May 1 demonstrations in Ludvika and Kungälv on May 1, 2019.

NMR is hierarchically organized and militant (Ravndal, 2018). Its colours are green, white and black. Its main symbol is the tyrruna, which was used Nazi Germany during WWII (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020). NMR’s model was inspired by the Romanian Iron Guard and has become a collection of fanatics (Poohl, 2014). 

The organization is divided into so-called “nests” (nästen, a term borrowed from the Iron Guard), each with its own leadership and structure (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden is divided into seven nests, and they are controlled by operational chiefs directly handling the local activist groups—named fighting groups—each with no more than ten members. One nest can have several combat groups (Expo, 2020; Mattson & Johansson, 2018). In addition, there is a national council (Riksrådet) as well as a Nordic council (Nordenrådet) comprising members from the various national branches (Ravndal, 2019).  

According to its Handbook for Activists, the NMR is “not a democratic organization where individuals gain positions of responsibility through elections or majority rule. Instead, it is a strictly hierarchically structured organization where all positions of responsibility are filled according to competence, loyalty and willingness to sacrifice” (Bjørgo, 2018). For the people who are part of the combat groups, NMR requires “regular activism, physical training and demonstration of willingness to sacrifice, and that members must be public with who they are” (Lindberg, 2019).

At the top of the hierarchy is the leader of the entire organization, currently Simon Lindberg. Besides these top positions, there are several other prestigious positions, such as operational leader, parliamentary leader, media spokesperson, editor-in-chief, news editor, head of radio broadcasting etc (Ravndal, 2019). Because the NMR envisions an actual take-over of the government, it needs a hierarchical organization on stand-by for when this critical moment arrives (Ravndal, 2019).

Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR underwent a reorganisation under new leadership and changed its name from the SMR to the NMR, following the establishment of associated divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark. NMR refers to this period as the “‘coming out party’ of national socialism” in Scandinavia and to Sweden as the new administrative centre and power hub of a future pan-Nordic state (Askanius, 2021a). Thus, NMR has shifted from being a closed subcultural group to trying to reach a wider audience. The organization has moved away from its subcultural roots and developed into movement focused more on political outreach (Mattson & Johansson, 2018).

The NMR has three levels of membership and strict criteria for joining. Full membership is restricted to activists willing to be publicly associated with the organization; affiliates are formal members whose involvement is on a more voluntary basis; supporting members provide financial support only and may remain anonymous. To become a full member, one has to dedicate him/herself fully to the organization and its day-to-day struggle (Ravndal, 2019). NMR recruits, educates, and trains activists in a hierarchical system, with the hope that violence and advocacy will create a spiritual and physical elite (Expo, 2020). Members practice martial arts in order to stay healthy, build confidence, and prepare physically and mentally for any type of threat (Holm, 2005). 

Some NMR members have a military past (Sveriges Radio, 2014) while others arm themselves with weapons when they move outdoors (Nerikes Allehanda, 2014). According to former NMR leader Lund, activists should be prepared to use force. “The practice of martial arts fulfils several tasks, it helps to maintain discipline within the organization while it [provides] physical education … It creates a powerful cadre of members who grow powerful and aggressive … This is necessary to create a fighting organization” (Poohl, 2014). 

On the other hand, external activities constitute the groups’ interaction with the public, and their primary function is to convey the group’s political message to larger audiences, sometimes but not always through spectacular and creative stunts, or through shocking behaviour. By tracing these actions, one can see that the NMR creates a pattern in which the same types of activity are repeated over and over again (Ravndal, 2019). The members are secular and do not engage in religion per se (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020). Members at the highest level of activism are the ones that create the so-called “combat groups” (Mattsson, 2018).

As an “elite” organisation, the NMR has never aspired to fast growth but rather has been careful about recruiting what it sees as the “right” kind of person, meaning those who are fully dedicated, action oriented, and never question the organization’s radical stances. Thus, NMR members are expected to embrace everything the organization stands for, including conspiracy theories about Jewish elites and homosexuality being an unnatural and confused state of mind. This form of militancy borders on fanaticism, i.e., on an uncritical ideological devotion. In fact, NMR activists proudly present themselves as fanatics in the vein of prominent National Socialists from the Third Reich, such as SS troops (Ravndal, 2019). 

NMR members are provided with detailed routines and instructions for how to live life as a member. Each activity is given points according to an incomprehensible logic. The points must then be reported to the superior and become an effective control mechanism for the group’s management. There are rules for how members should address each other depending on rank, instructions for who should sit where during lectures, how to present a case during a meeting, and how to eat, sleep, and march (Poohl, 2014). Tattoos on the hands and head, piercings, alcohol and drug abuse, or mental illness are not accepted. There is also a strict duty of confidentiality within the organization and all information that is not public is classified. Revealing this type of information counts as a “betrayal” (Lodenius, 2020).

In terms of clothing and lifestyle, members are encouraged not to wear flashy or expensive clothes but rather clothes that signal their political views. They are also encouraged to wear comfortable clothes appropriate for street fighting. NMR’s code of honour requires members to keep silent about the organization’s inner life, to remain loyal and humble, to show good camaraderie, to be disciplined and truthful, and to exercise and be prepared for fighting (Lund, 2010).

While the Swedish NMR branch currently claims a few hundred members, there are fewer than a hundred members in Finland—and fewer than 50 in Norway (Ravndal, 2019). In recent years, NMR has tried to attract more supporters and for a while, more people joined each new demonstration. However, the trend has reversed recently. In 2018, 350 people gathered at a Nazi demonstration in Ludvika. At the same time, 140 people marched in Boden—around 500 people in total. In 2019, similar marches only featured around 400 people in total (Poohl et al, 2019). According to Lööw (2015), NMR remains a relatively small organization, with estimates suggesting it has fewer than 1000 members.

An alleged coup attempt led to a split in the NMR in 2019. Former leader Lund left NMR and started a new group, Nordic Strength, which demands a higher degree of radicalism and fanaticism. More hard-line activists believe that NMR has become less radical during recent years, in attempts to broaden and attract more members. Before the 2018 elections, NMR described its ambition to become a popular movement. After the fiasco of the election, dissatisfaction has simmered in parts of the party, a group often described as NMR’s “spearhead” or “core activists” (Fröjd, 2019). 

Though Nordic Strength appears to be a somewhat more radical organization (Leman, 2018; Fröjd, 2019), so far, it has not made any major imprints. Although Nordic Strength can carry out individual acts of violence, the organization is actually restrained, as they have an aging leadership, a small number of members, and limited financial resources (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481). 

As with other far-right extremist organisations, NMR is more attractive to men and boys. The ideological background is conservative and against equality, gender equality and liberalism, thereby making it harder for women and girls to identify with the organisation (Kimmel 2007; Ekman 2014). NMR members also tend to have similar backgrounds. Some had parents who drank, others had parents who fought at home (Pascalidou, 2017).

The organization was built on the idea of the trinity of people, family, and the homeland. It is based on the heterosexual core family, and if the core family is threatened, so is the future of the motherland (Blomgren, 2020). According to the NMR and other National Socialists, man and woman have different biological and spiritual conditions. These pre-given conditions form the basis for a division of society into a male and a female sphere. The man and the woman must complement but not replace each other. NMR members see women as wives and mothers (Lööw, 2020: 96). 

NMR is against feminism and for strong traditional gender roles that idealize the woman’s role, including giving birth, raising children and taking care of household chores (Lodenius, 2020). At the same time, they are very strongly against homosexuality—or the “homosexual lobby,” as they call itNMR members have participated in violent protests aimed at Pride parades, where NMR members hold up banners with messages such as, “Crush the gay lobby” (Lodenius, 2020).

NMR’s International Links

The leadership within NMR has been inspired by various international and ideological role models. SMR/NMR’s founder Lund was previously the leader of the VAM, which was inspired by the American neo-Nazi organization White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and Robert Mathews, the founder of the white power group The Order. Richard Scutari of The Order (Bruders Schweigen) was also linked to NMR via Esa Henrik Holappa, the founder of the Finnish Resistance Movement (FRM) (Redaktionen, 2011). 

Other NMR leaders have also had close contact with American role models. Magnus Söderman was a member of the Aryan Nations under the leadership of its founder Richard Butler (Redaktionen, 2009). The Aryan Resistance Movement leader David Lane also knew Söderman, who worked to translate and disseminate Lane’s ideas. According to his own statement, Söderman also lived with The Order in the US (Söderman, 2007a). NMR/SMR was also inspired by William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance and author of the books The Turner Diaries and Hunter (Lodenius, 2020).

Over the years, SMR/NMR have developed extensive international connections outside the Nordic region. On the website patriot.nu, in 2002, SMR linked to its foreign organizations: the National Alliance, the German NPD, the Russian National Unity, and the Italian Forza Nuova (Lodenius, 2020). A very active exchange is taking place, including study visits to Germany and Hungary and participation in National Socialist demonstrations. For example, the NMR regularly participates in the annual Lukov March in Bulgaria, along with other foreign National Socialists. In 2013, information was published that members of the SMR had undergone paramilitary training with a Nazi group in Hungary (Holmberg, 2017). NMR has developed particularly good relations with the German Die Dritte Weg, the Italian Casa Pound, the Hungarian Legio Hungaria, the Greek Golden Dawn, and the American Patriot Front. 

In March 2015, the NMR participated in the far-right “International Conservative Forum” in St. Petersburg, which was organized by the Russian party Rodina (Motherland) (Vergara, 2015). On behalf of the NMR, Peter Jusztin participated, and, after the conference, the NMR visited one of the headquarters of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), in a suburb of St. Petersburg (Redaktionen, 2015b). Stanislav Vorobjev, the leader of RIM, visited the NMR during their Nordic Days and donated money to the NMR (Redaktionen, 2015c). The paramilitary branch of the RIM, Partizan, organized a training camp for right-wing extremists and, alongside groups from all over the world, NMR members Viktor Melin and Anton Thulin received eleven days of training in August 2016 (Wiman et al, 2017). In April 2020, RIM was branded as a terrorist organization by the US State Department (Kasurinen, 2020). 

The connections between NMR and the RIM go back to 2012, when Vorobjev handed out diplomas to Nordfrontemployees Robert Eklund and Henrik Pihlström for “their objective and correct description of the political situation in Russia in the Swedish media” (Redaktionen, 2012). In October 2016, RIM donated an unknown amount of money to the NMR, and the contacts were described at the end of that year by Simon Lindberg as “good” (Expo. 2019). 

The importance of NMR’s non-Nordic contacts is clear—NMR’s program is also published in English and Russian (Lodenius, 2020). In addition, NMR has a presence on Russian social media, with a significant number of followers (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 9). There is also an extensive digital exchange between the NMR and representatives of the American alt-right. This exchange seems to be primarily individual-based and not formalized. For NMR, the exchange offers an arena for new potential sympathizers abroad and creates opportunities to reach a new audience in Sweden (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481).

A Pan-Nordic Utopia: A Nordic Nation for Nordic People

Nationalist groups, in particular those with a militant or revolutionary outlook, usually emerge within nation-states (Ravndal, 2019); despite this, NMR seeks to expand its presence in other Nordic countries to establish a “Nordic nation for Nordic people” (Ravndal, 2019: 12). This goal is not new. Swedish National Socialist parties of the 1930s were also expansionist and intended to include all groups they defined as “Aryan.” The motherland was to be conquered by the workers, who were to be mobilized for the national idea and become part of the national community. 

NMR’s party program is permeated by the idea of a united Nordic region (Lööw, 2020: 92). In 2008, a branch of NMR was founded in Finland, while a renewed Norwegian branch was established in 2011. In 2013, a Danish-language site, nordfront.dk, was established, and an attempt was made to set up an NMR branch in Denmark, via Henrik Jarsbo (Lindberg, 2013). An Icelandic web site, nordurvigi.is, exist and does contain some general information about the organization (Strømmen, 2017).

Following the establishment of sister divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, the SMR changed its name to the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR). However, the organization has yet to mobilize nearly as many dedicated activists in the other Nordic countries as it has in Sweden (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden remains the country with most dedicated and active members (Ravndal, 2018: 15-16). Sweden is a special case in Scandinavia, at least in terms of the country’s historical experience of WWII and its subsequent attitude toward National Socialist ideas and symbols. While both Denmark and Norway endured German occupation, Sweden managed to avoid occupation by remaining neutral. This meant that Sweden did not experience the same post-war legal trials of Nationalist Socialist sympathizers that Demark and Norway did (Fangen, 1998).

Indeed, in Denmark and Norway a strong collective memory of national resistance was established; anyone designated as a “Nazi” was effectively excluded from the national community (Bryld & Warring, 1998). Finland also undertook a legal purge of sorts as the Finnish-Soviet armistice of 1944 required Helsinki to dismantle all fascist organizations. Here again, Sweden never went through the same post-WWII legal purge against Nazi sympathisers (Ravndal, 2018). Thus, in Sweden, the lack of memory of national resistance against Nazi Germany has meant that the extreme right is more prone to identify itself as National Socialist and to use the symbols and iconography of the Third Reich (Fangen, 1998). Sweden thus has a larger and better-organized national socialist movement than the other Nordic countries (Ravndal, 2018). 

Moreover, youth unemployment rates have been considerably higher in Sweden than in Denmark and Norway. Sweden has also received far more immigrants than the other Nordic countries and has experienced more problems related to segregated suburbs and crimes allegedly committed by people of immigrant backgrounds. In combination, these two conditions may have fuelled grievances among segments of the Swedish population that can be exploited by the extreme right to recruit new followers (Ravndal, 2018). In fact, the most successful far-right populist party in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (SD), has undeniable roots in the neo-fascist milieux (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010)—unlike its equivalent in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) (Meret, 2011).

Nevertheless, in Sweden, too, National Socialists must attempt to package or frame their ideology in ways that might shield it from immediate public condemnation (Kølvraa, 2019). Since the Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) was dissolved in May 2015, the NMR has been the most important neo-Nazi organization in Sweden. The Norwegian and Finnish branches of the organization are also central parts of the neo-Nazi environment in those countries. The NMR fights, in the words of its former leader Klas Lund, for “a Nordic national socialist republic including the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and optionally the Baltic states” (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to antisemitism, “Nordic-ness” is something that binds the Nordic countries together and is central to NMR’s ideology (Lööw, 2020: 86). The party hopes to preserve the Nordic people as they are today, ensuring that the Nordic racial type remains dominant in the Nordic gene pool (Nordiska Motståndsrörelsens, 2015).

Norway

In 2003, former members of the Norwegian skinhead group Boot Boys became sworn members of the NMR’s first Norwegian branch. Shortly thereafter, a Norwegian version of the NMR’s website, Patriot.nu, was launched, and the first issue of the Norwegian version of the NMR’s publication Nasjonal Motstand was published. However, finding dedicated activists in Norway proved harder than in Sweden. The timing may also have been unfortunate. The Norwegian militant movement had receded considerably following the murder of Benjamin Hermansen in 2001 by two Boot Boys members. Another complicating factor was that leading figurers within the Norwegian branch had to serve prison sentences for various criminal activities, including a bank robbery. Thus, after a couple of years of activities, the first Norwegian branch of NMR largely ceased to be active (Ravndal, 2019).

It took several years before a second attempt was made to re-establish the NMR’s Norwegian branch. In 2010, Haakon Forwald, mostly known as a former member of the Swedish black metal band Dissection (Lindberg, 2014), joined the Swedish branch as NMR’s only Norwegian member. This followed several attempts to reach out to the defunct Norwegian branch. Forwald was soon promoted to leader of a resurrected Norwegian branch and given the task of rebuilding it. Later that year, a Norwegian version of NMR’s website, Nordfront, went online, mainly containing articles from the Swedish site translated into Norwegian. However, slowly but surely, activism reports began appearing on the Norwegian website as well, usually about night-time sticker raids (Ravndal, 2019). 

Save its first years, the resurrected Norwegian branch was involved in few public activities, especially. This pattern changed post-2016, and Norwegian activists started carrying out more public activities (Martinsen et al, 2017). However, NMR’s Norwegian membership is much smaller than the Swedish and Finnish divisions. The Norwegian NMR also appears to be largely dependent on its Swedish mother organization. More Swedish than Norwegian activists have been involved in the few public events NMR has organized in Norway (Ravndal, 2018). Still, NMR has grown, however slightly, and counts several “nests” in Norway (Lindberg, 2014).

Finland

The Finnish Resistance Movement (Suomen vastarintaliike, SVL) was founded in 2008 by Esa Henrik Holappa (Hietikko, 2016b) following approval by the NMR (Wiman & Svensson, 2018). It immediately became the most militant Finnish Nazi organization. From its inception in 2008 until Holappa stepped down in 2012, he served as the official leader of the SVL and was one of the few members who operated openly under his own name (Strømmen, 2017). 

Holappa’s decision to establish a Finnish branch of NMR was highly influenced by the American veteran activist Richard Scutari, who is currently serving a 60-year prison sentence for his involvement in the American terrorist organization The Order, and was pen pals with Holappa. At the age of 17, Holappa started writing letters to Scutari. Holappa and Magnus Söderman—another of Scutari’s pen pals—have published their correspondences as a tribute to Scutari. (Söderman & Holappa, 2011). The book shows how Scutari put Holappa and Söderman in contact with each other, and how he advised Holappa to establish a Finnish version of NMR under the auspices of Söderman and the larger NMR (Ravndal, 2019). 

When Holappa landed in trouble for crimes related to hate speech in 2008, he became increasingly convinced that he would be convicted. When his American neo-Nazi contacts heard about his problems, they encouraged him to travel to the US. In August 2008, he followed their recommendation (Strømmen, 2017). Holappa left the SVL in 2012 and has been considered by the NMR as a traitor and oath breaker (Ravndal, 2019).

During its early phase, SVL tried to keep a low profile; this changed after a stabbing at the city library in Jyväskylä in January 2013 (Lodenius, 2020). SVL members were involved in several violent attacks in the 2010s, including several assaults on leftist politicians, and the stabbing of a security guard at a book launch event in 2013 (the book was about the Finnish extreme right) (Hietikko, 2016). In 2014, the SVL also latched onto news about a multi-ethnic, suburban gang assaulting other youth in Helsinki and organized vigilantes to patrol the city. These vigilante marches have continued sporadically throughout the country. SVL and its activists were real threats to those it sees as political opponents or unwelcome in the country—or to outsiders who just happen to be in the wrong place or have the “wrong opinions.” Most violent crimes attributed to SVL members have fallen into the category of street violence (Strømmen, 2017).

SVL has several features worrying to the authorities: good organizational skills, a long-term approach to developing its activities, and an ideology that embraces violence. Like the NMR, the SVL is strictly hierarchical, with clear manuals for its activism and group structure. It is working to build a subculture through social activities intended to draw in new members, including lectures, martial arts training, sports events, forest walks, and outdoor survival training (Strømmen, 2017).

Following the refugee crisis in 2015, there had been a surge of interest in racist and xenophobic organizations in Finland. To exploit the situation and boost recruitment, SVL attempted to soften its image. Members began to call themselves nationalists and patriots; part of their work was carried out under the banner of Suomalaisapu, or Finnish Aid (Strømmen, 2017). At the same time, SVL has tried to be the gathering umbrella for various National Socialist (Hietikko, 2016a),right-wing extremist, and nationalist and racist groups in Finland. An example is the “612” nationalist torchlight procession, arranged December 6 (or “6/12”), which is the Finnish Independence Day. Despite the group’s efforts to become the umbrella for all extreme right organizations in Finland, the SVL has had little success achieving this goal (Strømmen, 2017).

Moreover, there were strong internal contradictions between the old Nazi line and those who advocate for neo-fascism (Hietikko, 2016a). Ideological differences between the NMR and SVL also exist and occasionally cause friction. While the Swedish branch is representative of an old-fashioned Hitlerian variant of neo-Nazism, the Finnish branch is more diverse. Some members support a “Third Position” neo-fascism and have contacts with the Italian movement Casa Pound (Strømmen, 2017).

Considering these schisms, SVL member Mika Ranta decided to form a separate vigilante group. Ranta is a self-declared neo-Nazi who has been convicted of violent crimes. He chose to call his organization Soldiers of Odin (SOO) (Rosendahl & Forsell, 2016). Despite some differences, SOO is modelled on the SVL, and Ranta sought SVL’s permission to from SOO. Lately, the SVL and SOO have openly referenced each other (Strømmen, 2017).

While Finnish authorities have kept the SVL under close watch for years, pressure to take legal action against the group began to mount in late 2016 after one of its members assaulted and seriously injured a passer-by in Helsinki. The victim died a week later. Although the assailant was ultimately found guilty of aggravated assault with a racist motive instead of homicide, Finland’s National Police Board sued the SVL in March 2017, on the grounds that the group contravened Finnish association law. The SVL was forbidden to operate in Finland, but the verdict did not cover every single association registered as members of the NMR. The group’s charity organization, Suomalaisapu (Finn Aid), remains active and its party project, Kansan Yhtenäisyys (The People’s Unity), was left similarly untouched by the ban (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020).

The ban came into effect at the end of November 2018. At the end of 2019, Finnish law enforcement agencies also conducted an investigation into information that the SVL continued its activity under the pseudonym Kohti vaputta! (Towards Freedom!) (Teivainen, 2019). Kohti Vapautta! has arranged street activism, training sessions and other similar activities. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court of Finland issued a ban on the SVL on September 22, 2020. The historic decision follows the case that had been ongoing for several years. The Court decreed that the SVL and Pohjoinen Perinne ry (Northern Tradition), a registered association facilitating the group’s activities, were to be disbanded as they contravene Finnish association law. The verdict brought a close to nearly three years of legal deliberations and represents the first time since 1977 that an extreme right-wing group has been disbanded in Finland by court order (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020). 

Denmark & Iceland

Since 2007, the SMR/NMR has developed its contacts with the Danish National Socialist Movement (DNSB). In the same year, NMR representatives participated in a DNSB demonstration in Kolding in memory of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, where participants attacked counter-protesters. In 2013, Henrik Jarsbo, a former member of the DNSP (Lindberg, 2013), attempted to found a Danish branch of SMR/NMR, and Nordfront.dk was launched in July of the same year (Lodenius, 2020). Despite the website becoming the most developed of the non-Swedish Nordfront sites, the Danish NMR-branch soon became inactive (Ravndal, 2019); in 2016, the website was shut down (Kimmel, 2007: 206). Other groups with similar profiles are currently active in Denmark, most notably Denmark’s National Front (Ravndal, 2018).

In 2017, after consulting with NMR, a new organizational structure was formed in Denmark and divided into three nests. The new leader of the Danish NMR was Martin Durvad. The organization is better known as Nordfront. In the autumn of 2019, a coordinated action was taken against 84 Jewish cemeteries, which were desecrated with green paint. One of Nordfront’s members was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the act. The Danish NMR has about 50 members, with around 20 “hardcore” activists. Tommy Olsen assumed leadership after Forwald left to join Klas Lund’s Nordic Strength in 2019 (Lodenius, 2020; Nordisk Styrke, 2019).

Since 2017, NMR also has a branch and a website, nordurvigi.is, in Iceland. Led by Ríkharður Leó Magnússon, NMR Iceland held its first demonstration in Reykjavik in September 2019.

NMR Is Pro-violence and Uncompromising 

NMR is pro-violence and uncompromising (Lodenius, 2020). In addition to spreading their political agenda, NMR members have used different kinds of violence, threats, and harassment to hinder individuals from participating in political debates and meetings (Swedish Security Service, 2018). While the NMR claims to resort to violence only in self-defence, both its national socialist ideology and its blood-stained history say otherwise (Stormark, 2017). Moreover,according to the organization’s Handbook for Activists, “The NMR is not pacifist. We are aware that we can only win through physical struggle and that ideas and beautiful ideals mean nothing and can never blossom if these ideas lack aggressive fanatical champions” (Delin & Carlsson, 2017; Lodenius, 2020: 115). 

SMR/NMR’s former ideologue, Magnus Söderman, also highlighted David Lane’s clarification in his book Revolution: “You adults know very well that war is the only answer. ZOG’s (a term for Jews) henchmen will not voluntarily relinquish power. … because, they know that we will execute them for breaking the highest law of nature” (Söderman, 2007). It is not a secret that the NMR is willing to use physical force to achieve a racially pure Nordic nation. The group makes no effort to distance itself from the use of violence. Instead, its members actively speak and write about the race war that, in their minds, is inevitable. Thus, NMR has been specialising in pushing the limits of democracy and the rule of law through harassment, threats, and violence against opponents and the police (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). 

In order to analyse the contents and the various attacks perpetuated by the NMR, it is important to define NMR as a terrorist organization. It is a militant group with a hierarchical structure of nests, some of which consist of “combat groups” (Ravndal, 2019: 23). The groups use militaristic ways of training (Hellenstierna, 2019). Violent confrontation is something the activists train for regularly—for example in the form of single combat, where the winner is whoever is able to strike a deadly blow with a replica knife. But this is not just a game (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In Finland, one person who expressed opposition to the NMR was brutally assaulted and died a week later of complications that, to all appearances, resulted from the attack (Yle, 2016).

To date, the NMR—which is still a legal organization in Sweden—is generally not dangerous, assuming you don’t oppose them. However, should you be tempted to confront them, stand in their way, or refuse to let yourself be harassed, you are no longer safe. During several of the NMR’s demonstrations, there have been violent clashes between NMR activists and the police. One of these examples is a demonstration that occurred outside of a Book Fair in Gothenburg in 2017. NMR has also repeatedly clashed with civilians. They actively seek out these violent engagements to foster and attract internal group cohesion (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018).  

Politicians that step out of line and criticize the movement are quickly confronted by the NMR’s members. These intimidation tactics have also consisted of NMR activists following politicians to their parked cars. Council workers and opponents of the movement have also received subtle threats such as “Nice house you got there…” Some have also found stickers on their front doors or on the streetlamps outside their homes. These stickers feature a gallows with the slogan, “Reserved for traitors of the people.” By using such methods, the NMR spreads fear and gains influence far beyond its extremely limited public support (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).

From time to time, NMR members have been involved in illegal activities, including violent attacks using weapons such as knives and explosives. Such activities are dismissed by the NMR leadership as something these activists have carried out on their own initiative. Interestingly, after some of these illegal actions, the NMR receives “exclusive” interviews from members of the self-titled “action groups” that claim to be behind them. One could speculate that the existence of such clandestine “action groups” may serve as a tool for the NMR to carry out illegal activities without compromising the organization (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).

Between the 2014 and 2018 elections, NMR perpetrated high levels of violence across Scandinavia. As mentioned, in Finland, a young man was beaten to death by NMR members. The Swedish branch of NMR also displayed violent tendencies. In 2013, approximately 30 NMR members attacked an anti-racist demonstration in Kärrtorp Stockholm (Vergara, 2013). During 2016 and 2017 several members of NMR were convicted of bombings in Gothenburg. In the north of Sweden, in Umeå, the Jewish association had to close down due to threats and harassment (Expo NMR, 2019)

Despite its denials, NMR has been part of a Swedish far right that produced more right-wing terrorism and violence (RTV) between 1990 and 2015 than Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined. Zooming in on the Nordic countries, the RTV dataset covers 141 events. The most frequently targeted victims are immigrants (70 events), leftists (38 events), and homosexuals (9 events). Other target groups include government representatives, police, Muslims, Jews, Gypsies/Roma, the homeless, and media institutions (Ravndal, 2018). Moreover, Expo has identified 111 people who for the first time participated in NMR activism in 2017. Of these, 64 already have a background in the racial ideological environment (Dalsbro et al, 2018). Expo has also mapped 159 of the most active members of the NMR and, in 2015 alone, just over a quarter were convicted of violent or gun crimes (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016). If all crimes are included, one-third (33 percent) were convicted or prosecuted for some form of crime. In total, more than half (56 percent) of the activists have been convicted of some form of crime. In almost a quarter of the cases, the penalty was imprisonment, which indicates that they were serious crimes. For a period, the NMR sold knives emblazoned with the slogan, “The struggle requires more than just words” (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016; Pascalidou, 2017).

In 2018, Swedish Radio also mapped 178 people who were judged to be the most active in NMR (Lodenius, 2020) and at least 90 of them were convicted of crimes—and about one in four were convicted of violent crimes such as murder, assault, or violent riot (Jönsson, 2018). The year before, the Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet newspapers examined 84 NMR members, and the results showed that 58 of them were convicted of crimes (Folkö & Leman, 2019). According to another investigation, of NMR’s approximately 160 Swedish members, several have been convicted of crimes, including bombings, aggravated weapons offenses, aggravated violent crimes, and incitement against ethnic groups (Wierup, 2020).

The same pattern is evident in NMR’s leadership. Its first leader, Klas Lund, was convicted of murder in 1987, and for aggravated robbery in the early 1990s (Lodenius, 2020). Since September 2015, the NMR has been led by Simon Lindberg, who was convicted of vandalism, threats, and aiding and abetting assault. Lindberg is joined by a leadership group that includes Emil Hagberg, Fredrik Vejdeland and Per Öberg. While Vejdeland has been convicted of hate speech-related crimes, Hagberg was also convicted on weapons-related charges and for rioting (Baas, 2015).

With regard to any terrorist threats from NMR, the Security Police (Säpo) stated that NMR has a large capacity for violence. Säpo also stated that “our assessment is that this is an organization that has the ability to commit serious crimes that could be classified as a terrorist attack” (Jönsson, 2018a). Since NMR has violent tendencies, it has been classified by Säpo as the second biggest threat in Sweden after Islamist terrorism. Säpo and The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) use the term White Power to describe groups like NMR (Blomgren, 2020). 

As previously mentioned, in 2019, several core members of NMR decided to leave and create Nordic Strength (NS) which is considered to be more violent. However, there has been no evidence of an escalation of violence since the split (Expo Annual Report, 2019).

Another Battlefield for the NMR: the Media, Internet & Social Media 

In 2000, SMR/NMR established a web portal called patriot.nu (Vejdeland, 2012) which provided various magazines, an online store with publications and white power music, and more. In the early 2000s, the SMR also printed newspapers Folktribunen and Nationellt Motstand . With the development of social media, SMR’s propaganda strategy and range of channels changed. The most influential online magazine Nordfront, NMR’s digital communication channel (Vejdeland, 2012), was started in 2011. Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR launched a number of new media and produced extensive online content in a strategic move running up to the general elections in September 2018 (Askanius, 2021a). 

The NMR also established its own publishing house and bookstore, originally called Nationellt Motstånd förlag, but later changing its name to Nordfront förlag. Based in the small rural village of Grängesberg, it sells various National Socialist and antisemitic literature via its online bookstore, including a Swedish translation of The Turner Diaries, plus books by Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, and a collection of letters written by Richard Scutari, member of the US white supremacist terrorist group The Order. (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to Nordfront, NMR produces a whole battery of different radio and web TV initiatives (Sundkvist, 2017).

NMR has developed its presence on the Internet and greatly increased its involvement on social media (Blomberg & Stier, 2019); today, the organization has almost 20 different podcasts and TV channels. The purpose of this has been to reach out politically to normalize the organization and to project its reputation internationally. Through such outreach, NMR hopes to create closer relationships within the Nordic region and make contact with like-minded people across the world (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). In order to normalise National Socialism, NMR increasingly seeks to appeal to an audience beyond their own core members. Part of this strategy involves a shift in the tone of their online content—from militant propaganda to softer, less orchestrated and rehearsed political rhetoric packaged and presented in the form of infotainment and cultural content (Askanius, 2021a). 

Nevertheless, images of violence and violent rhetoric have always been an intrinsic part of NMR’s propaganda and key to telling the story of being at war with both Swedish “traitors” and “racial strangers.” Increasingly, however, NMR’s media narratives are saturated by other, less explicitly political and militant registers in which violence, violent rhetoric, and openly racist hate speech reside in the background to give way to “lighter,” more civil discourse—and seemingly more harmless forms of propaganda. This is particularly present and potent in NMR’s cultural productions and online entertainment, which includes, for example, television and talk shows, music videos, memes, poems, and podcasts intended to amuse and entertain (Askanius, 2021b).

In the online universe, NMR mixes the extreme with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. In this manner, NMR seeks to soften, trivialise, and normalise neo-Nazi discourse using the power and appeal of culture and entertainment (Askanius, 2021). Discourse in these spaces represents what Blee (2007: 15) has referred to as “a sanitized version of Nazism.” NMR’s content has been polished and tailored to dodge allegations of illegal hate speech, and its shows are carefully edited to avoid being censored and removed (Askanius, 2019). However, images of violent confrontations between police and activists, street fights, hate speech, rallies, uniformed men marching in line, combat training, white-pride music, and beatings of “racial strangers” to the sound of the Waffen SS Choir are also present in the growing repertoire of online media produced by and for the NMR (Expo, 2018, 2020; Mattsson, 2018).

The use of extremist discourse, which characterizes the online conversations between members and sympathizers, comprises narratives about personal experiences, rumours of criminal refugees (often accused of rape), or claims that refugees “do not belong here.” These conversations “construct them as others” (Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017). These discursive strategies do not merely justify and legitimatize the exclusion of or racism toward these “others,” but create a sense of “we-ness” and identity among members and sympathizers as well as the movement they represent (Blomberg & Stier, 2019; Campbell, 2006; Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017; Wodak & Reisigl, 2015).

With Simon Lindberg as leader of the NMR, the organization has developed its propaganda network and massively developed its various media channels on social media. In a very short time, 19 Swedish-language podcasts and web TV channels were created alongside Radio Nordfront, Radio Regeringen, the English-language Nordic Frontier, the activist podcast More Than Words (Saxlind, 2018), Ledarperspektiv (ideological focus), Radio LudvikaRadio Kungälv. Some of the TV content includes Studio NordfrontStudio Bothnia, Studio Kungälv, Studio Skåne, NTV Live and Norwegian Frontlinjen and Finnish Studio 204 (Lindberg, 2018). According to Lindberg, the ambition is to create more radio and TV broadcasts that will be broadcast around the clock (Lodenius, 2020), creating a “Nordic unity mindset.” This initiative aims to eventually broadcast in all the Nordic languages ​​(Nordisk Radio, …)

The NMR’s website appears to have a considerable readership—between 300,000 and 400,000 unique visitors per month. To compensate for their lack of numbers, one important tactic is therefore to carry out spectacular stunts to draw the public eye, often aiming at national media coverage, and then spreading footage and videos from these stunts through the internet and social media, allowing NMR to reach an even larger audience (Ravndal, 2019).

Conclusion

The 2018 general election results in Sweden have shown that the NMR should not be exaggerated, despite concerns about it as a neo-Nazi extremist violent organisation. The organization is still relatively small. Despite its small size, one shouldn’t ignore the threats the NMR poses. The party’s major investment before the 2018 election resulted in only 2,106 votes in the parliamentary election (0.03%). The result was a great disappointment for the NMR; following this failure, the party’s seems to have hosted fewer events and engaged in fewer physical activities. Whether this is a temporary decline or not is difficult to assess, but according to the NMR’s strategic plan, the organization is investing in increasing its local influence, its geographical spread, the number of political seats at all levels, and its channels on social media and international contacts (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). According to observers, there is a low probability that NMR as an organization will develop in a more violent direction. Nevertheless, Sweden is currently following Finland’s footsteps and started a government investigation regarding a potential ban of the organisation (Regeringskansliet, 2019; Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 480; Directive, 2019: 39).


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