The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, sent shockwaves of horror across the United States and the world.
It seems neo-Nazi ideas are held by great numbers of people, including the president of the United States himself.
But white-nationalist rallies are hardly unique to the United States. Several groups in Canada have planned their own rallies in major cities, including Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. In Quebec City, La Meute held a rally on August 20 that was met with counterprotests by various anti-fascist and anti-racism groups.
What’s more, two Québec men also attended the white supremacist rally in Virginia in which a woman was killed.
A recent study on right-wing extremism in Canada has shown that there are about 100 active groups operating across the country, and that between 1985 and 2014, right-wing extremism was responsible for more than 120 violent incidents. Despite all this activity, that is a small fraction compared to the 917 hate groups currently operating in the US, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Increase in hate?
The recent incidents in Canada follow a string of events over the years that suggest a disturbing increase in hate, particularly against the Muslims. Last January, a shooter killed six people and injured 17 at a mosque in Ste-Foy, Quebec. The social media activity of the accused shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, shows he admired Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen for their anti-immigration policies.
More recently, the request from a group of Muslims to purchase land for their own cemetery in St-Apollinaire was rejected by the town’s voters during a referendum. La Meute (Wolf Pack in English) was reportedly involved in the “No” campaign against the establishment of the Muslim cemetery.
A few days following the referendum, in the town of St Honoré, a racist sign with the words “Saguenay, ville blanche” (Saguenay, white city) was placed over the original Saguenay cemetery sign. At the same time, in Sherbrooke, a city near the US border, anti-immigration stickers were posted by the Fédération des Québécois de Souche, a group that opposes mass immigration.
Just last week, a neo-Nazi flyer containing the statement “The World Defeated the Wrong Enemy” and promoting a pro-Hitler documentary was found in several mailboxes in Vancouver. Other right-wing organisations such as the Soldiers of Odin, Pegida-Québec and Atalante are also quite active.
So why are we seeing more public manifestations of right-wing extremist groups in Canada?
Blame Donald Trump.
The increase evidently coincides with the Trump presidency. Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US during his campaign, his “Build the Wall” rhetoric, and his recent “clash of civilizations” speech in Warsaw have clearly emboldened right-wing groups.
Most of Trump’s controversial statements revolve around issues related to immigration and the spectre of endangered Western values. This precisely aligns itself to right-wing fears of a “Great Replacement”, where some believe that Western civilization will disappear and be replaced by the values and culture of immigrants. Islam, sharia law, and people originating from Muslim countries are seen as the current threat.
Extremism breeds extremism
In Canada, a man was recently arrested on charges of hate crime because of his anti-Muslim comments and what he perceived as the threat of Islamisation in the country.
Recent terror attacks in Europe and North America have also contributed to the current climate of suspicion and fear, and have spurred debate about liberal values such as diversity, freedom of speech, multiculturalism and individual rights and freedoms.
But terror attacks have also created a bigger problem: the potential fracture of our societies, with individuals pitted against each other.
Extremism can often breed extremism. The polarisation of ideas and divisions can worsen due to the perception of a clash of values. This state of affairs plays perfectly into the hands of groups like Islamic State that promote the idea that the West is at war against Islam.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Islamic State sympathisers rejoiced when Trump called for a Muslim ban: the president’s rhetoric and actions exactly proved their point.
Islamic State sympathisers also see Trump’s rhetoric as the fulfilment of a prediction from Anwar al-Awlaki, the deceased but still influential domestic terrorist and alleged Al Qaeda recruiter who warned in 2010 that the West would turn against its Muslim citizens. That echoed similar warnings from the late Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, and by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadhi, the current leader of the Islamic State.
In fact, there are ideological similarities between right-wing extremists and groups such as the Islamic State. Both are fuelled by the negation of the “other”; both are intolerant and feel threatened by diversity; both believe in a clash of civilizations.
Extremist recruiters prey on the vulnerable
There are various routes leading to extremism that result in the types of rallies and racist incidents we are seeing today on both sides of the border.
Some individuals slowly embrace extremist views. Others readily adopt such ideas as consequences of real or perceived grievances, frustrations, personal setbacks, failures or lack of purpose. People are more susceptible to extremist ideas when faced with an “identity crisis,” which plunges them into a state of vulnerability, doubt and fear.
Extremist ideas are purposely framed in a way that favours the construction of social identity. Social ideological markers naturally lead people into a process of self-categorization, where their identity progressively crystallizes into a collective “us” versus a collective “them” paradigm. It’s a kind of “in-group”/“out-group” dynamic. The “us”/“in-group” is perceived positively, whereas “them”/“out-group” is seen negatively, as a social entity to be opposed and defeated.
The “individual” self becomes one with a larger “collective” self, where the values and actions of the group becomes the measure by which one begins to think and act.
We are seeing this now in the clashes between white supremacist and anti-racist factions, where each group envisions its opponent as the “out-group”. Rivalry and competition between groups serve as way to maintain influence on group members, as well as sustain their identity and need for purpose.
Having a better understanding of how extremist ideas impact individuals is one way to counter their negative effect on society.
In the end, what’s at stake amid the current rise of extremism is the breakdown of our liberal democracies. The only way we can avoid the potential social fracture on the horizon is to make sure that our liberalism does not become illiberal.
André Gagné is an associate professor specialising in politico-religious extremism and violence at Concordia University, Canada.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.