The surprising relationship between Islamist extremists and white nationalists

Both types of extremism flourish among tormented young people, who become invested in wild, apocalyptic conspiracy theories

October 06, 2017
A far right rally in America. But what do white nationalists have in common with Islamic extremists?
A far right rally in America. But what do white nationalists have in common with Islamic extremists?

In December 2016, the words “Deus Vult” were sprayed on a wall outside the Islamic Education Trust mosque in Cumernaud, Scotland. Literally ‘God wills,’ this Latin battle cry was used by Pope Urban II to declare the first Crusade in 1095. In recent years, the term resurfaced among far-right activists, often in reaction to jihadist violence.

When the moderator of the pro-Trump Reddit forum The_Donald posted “Meme Magic Friday: Deus Vult Edition” in May 2016, this set off a series of viral memes used by white supremacists to express their hatred towards Islam. Today, the “Deus Vult” reference comes in many forms, ranging from Islamophobic tweets to explicit calls for a white jihad in dark corners of the internet, and vandalised mosques. Meanwhile “Allahu Akbar” (‘God is great’) has become the jihadist equivalent, since the Kouachi brothers were heard shouting the Islamic prayer term during their attack on Charlie which killed 12 people in January 2015.

The renaissance of these two archaic expressions showcase the concurrent rise of two dangerous counter-cultures that fuel one another. Over the last 12 months, I examined the radicalisation processes of Islamist and far-right extremists—often from a closer angle than I felt comfortable with. What I found in my deep dives was a surprising resemblance between these two (supposedely) diametrically opposed words of extremism.

The pull and push factors that drive individuals into the hands of Islamist and far-right extremists are similar, if not identical. In my conversations with Islamist and far-right extremists I found the same recurring grievance patterns: experiences of perceived discrimination, intimidation and humiliation. In both cases, political failures to respond to resulting socio-economic or physical threats united radicalised individuals from diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds.

Extremist recruiters were paying attention when the moderate establishment wasn’t. They addressed the questions that tormented young people who searched for an identity in an increasingly unrooted world and provided straight-forward solutions to fill emerging political vacuums. Based on the “Crusaders versus Islam” narrative, they created the desire to build a utopian world which would end their victimhood: while jihadists sold their vision to re-establish a caliphate; right-wing extremists advocated a whites-only or Christian-only society as the absolute solution to all societal ills.

“The great war is coming” is a phrase I regularly heard from both Islamists and white supremacists. In recent weeks, I watched German neo-Nazis prepare for ‘Day X’ by sharing lists of food stocks and instructions on the creation of improvised weapons in the closed chat application Discord. During the same period, ISIS-channels on the encrypted messaging apps Telegram circulated evidence that confirmed the approaching End of Days prophecy, which will allegedly bring about the final confrontation between believes and unbelievers in the Syrian town of Dabiq.

These apocalyptic predictions are often reinforced by wild conspiracy theories: whether the conversation is on Muslim invasion of Europe or the global oppression of Muslims, the “Jewish elites,” complicit “globalist politicians” and the “rigged mainstream media” are recurring tropes on extremist forums. Ironically, radicalised individuals on both sides of the spectrum, too, agree that 9/11 was an inside job.

The idea of unity and brotherhood—seen in the propaganda of both ISIS networks and neo-Nazi comradeships—resonates well with individuals who feel surrounded by enemies. As tensions are viewed as unsurmountable and perceived discrimination of the in-group as unbearable, a race or culture war becomes inevitable. "If we don't act now, Muslims will take over the West,” a self-identified 'white race activist' told me in the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront, while an ISIS-sympathiser warned my avatar account that “we can no longer ignore the global war against Muslims.”

Once fear surpasses reason and extremist networks start believing that use of pre-emptive force is justified, they resort to violent solutions: Islamists then turn missionary activity (Dawah) into jihad, while far-right extremists may proceed from political activism to a ‘white jihad’, as the case of Britain’s first banned far-right terrorist group National Action illustrates.

Most worryingly, the two extremes are not just each other’s mirror images—they are also each other’s agitators and legitimisers. Each time another jihadist-inspired terror attack makes headlines this lends credibility to the narrative that Islam is at war with the West.

Every time there is far-right inspired violence against religious or ethnic minorities or even just a surge in public support for far-right parties, this provides fuel for the Islamist narratives of an ongoing Western war against Muslims worldwide. “Every 5th native German votes for the AfD. Now walk though the city and count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and you realise how often someone wants to gas you,” a member of a pro-ISIS online community wrote in the encrypted messaging application Telegram on the day following the election. The recruiting of alienated and frightened Muslims into jihadist networks in turn again stimulates far-right extremism, creating a vicious cycle.

To prevent the terrorism threat from getting worse, we will need to get better at disrupting the self-reinforcing spiral of mutual hatred and at challenging narratives of an inevitable war that may otherwise have self-fulfilling prophecy character. More than anything else, we have to become much faster in understanding and addressing young people’s grievances before the extremes do.

The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism is out now from IB Tauris