Susan Carland: Hi there. I'm Susan Carland. And welcome to what happens next, where we take a closer look at some of the sticky issues facing the world.
Today we'll talk to an expert in terrorism and extremism who's going to help us understand the drivers behind these ideologies and what can be done to change it. Pete Lentini is an Associate Professor of politics and international relations at Monash University, and he heads up the Global Terrorism Research unit. He's a highly sought after media commentator and the convener of Monash’s, Master of Counterterrorism studies.
Pete Lentini: Hi I’m Pete Lentini, I’m the founding director of the Global Terrorism Research Center and a founding member of the Contempt Research Initiative at Monash which stands for Research Initiative for the Study of Contemporary Threats in Emerging Movements in Politics and Theology.
Susan: Pete Lentini Welcome to the show.
Pete: Thanks Susan
Susan: All right, Pete, when we think about right wing extremism, I want you to paint a picture for me. If we continue on with the way that we're handling right wing extremism, what could the world look like if we don't change anything?
Pete: Well, I guess some of the ways that we might want to think about is actually how are we handling it? And, ah, are we handling it properly? And maybe what can we do better? And I think, you know, if we look in the sense of, are we taking it very seriously? I think on a couple of levels we might have to say, certainly not as seriously as we should.
One of the main drivers of right wing extremism largely has to deal with this fear of a loss of status, you know, generally and also I think, what's really big, is this fear of some type of extinction, ok, so whether that be the extinction of the white race and, ah, also, I think maybe some elements of cultural heritage and also what would be considered to be, you know, some forms of privilege. So I think when, if we don't really stop and try to take those things very, very seriously, I think that we run the risk of trivialising some of their politics, as abhorrent as they may be, okay? So one of the things I think that really is potentially problematic is the sense that when we hear about right wing extremism, uh, automatically, there is finger pointing. Uh, there's, uh there's demonizing of those particular people. And I think, again, I don't wanna, you know, downplay the sense that racism is abhorrent and we should not be tolerant of various forms of exclusionary politics in the same boat.
But I think what's significant is that and I think what the government does right, say, with respect to Islamist politics is that when, um, word comes out that there's, you know, usually a young male in these types of circumstances, has started to take on radical viewpoints, moving towards extremist viewpoints, um, you know, there's a system that gets put in place for support for these types of people. And again, that's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, we don't have the same types of systems in place yet for, again, predominantly young men who might be going through these types of experiences. There's, there's no support that they feel as if their world view is not, you know, comprehended, it's denigrated, et cetera. And I think one of the things that we have to really, really do is acknowledge that for them that loss of, whether it be social status, the view that, um, you know, the white race is becoming extinct, they’re losing the Australia that they believe in. To them, that's as serious as the way that, you know, for instance, Muslims in Birmingham felt about the publication of The Satanic Verses. And how that they felt that that was really undercutting all of that stuff that they held sacred. So I think that one of the things that's really significant is that we're not trying to identify what's sacred to those people.
Okay, so that's one of the things where you can lose stuff, but by the same token, in not being vigilant against some of the racism that comes forward - and here I'm talking about in many ways the, uh, the politicians that at national level, when they don't really stand up against this stuff - then you create a circumstance whereby there's this atmosphere that almost makes it feel like it's permissive to hold these types of of abhorrent viewpoints and that, to a certain extent, may give some people who have, you know, these types of abhorrent viewpoints but might just be misguided people who, with some conversation, you might be able to swing around. It creates a circumstance where it makes it look like those types of viewpoints are valid and can be encouraged.
Susan: Right, so it's actually a really delicate dance where you acknowledge the grievances that these young men - like you said, mostly young men - might have without endorsing them. I imagine that's a pretty delicate dance, and whether that's with right wing extremism, right wing extremists or, like you said, Islamist extremists, finding that balance, how do you do that?
Pete: Well, this isone of the things that I think within the context of Islamist extremism, there have been some bona fide efforts on a number, by a number of different stakeholders to take this stuff very, very seriously. We're starting to see that. Regrettably, it took something like the Christchurch attack for people to start taking seriously the threat of right wing extremists. And this is despite the fact that all of the studies of, ah, liberal democratic countries tend to reinforce that since 911, although Islamists have certainly generated the most lethal terrorist attacks with the highest body counts, we see that the most frequent amounts of terrorist attacks have actually been by those on the extreme right.
There really hasn't been the development of programs in this country - despite the fact that, you know, they're certainly moving in that way and there have been a couple of programmes and it started to disengage people from the extreme right - that you have had with the with within the Islamist context. One of the things have been some of the successes of the Islamist programs has been that you've had, especially if you look at Indonesia, Singapore, et cetera, those people who previously were involved in extremism and in some cases terrorist attacks they've renounced, and they’ve kind of worked with a lot of the civil society organizations, state groups to help work into programs on getting other people to disengage. And these people have the street credibility because they're, you know, they don't necessarily pick on people for ah, having viewpoints where they want to see various types of political changes. However, they argue very, very strongly against taking violent approaches. Now, if we switch this within the the extreme right circumstances in Australia, then we see that we have a complete ah void of former right wing extremists that are available to engage in this type of activity.
It's been acknowledged that some of the people who have been high profile individuals within this right wing extremist space have not really been willing to, uh, to engage in this stuff. And I guess the other thing that's really significant is that the sights of radicalization for Islamist extremism and also right wing extremism very, very different. There's certainly some merit in trying to get some types of civics programs, things like that working for the high school system, but by the same token, you know that might have worked with, excuse me, that might have worked within the context of Islamism, and you also have, you know, whole communities that can basically, you know, put people back on the straight and narrow, you have a very, very different situation with right wing extremism. Because, um, what we've been seeing is that many of those people who are moving into right wing extremism ah, are somewhat young, somewhat older, excuse me. Um, so what types of institutions can you work with there? They come from a variety of different types of ethnic groups and also religious or non religious backgrounds. So in those respects, it's very, very difficult to try and establish some type of dialogue where you can actually get that balance.
Susan: Like you said, they don't have a community around them in the same way that maybe, uh, Islamist extremists do. So can that be replicated elsewhere? Or are there other tips or things, success stories that research is suggesting ‘actually, this should be one thing we should be doing with right wing extremists’.
Pete: For those people pursuing such a track, there are more opportunities for them to actually become involved in what might be considered to be mainstream actions for political change - joining political parties, forming political parties, things to that effect. You see a lot of those people who have radical tendencies they might actually become involved in some of the the more neopopulist or radical right political parties that have been cropping up over the last 20 years of so, and again we've also had a long history of different types of established right wing, radical and extremist parties in this country. Going back, you know, certainly well into the previous century.
Susan: The radical shift into that mainstream political arena brings with it its own challenges there, doesn't it when we have politicians, like some of the ones we might have in Australia now, saying some pretty confronting or unpleasant things about racial or religious minorities in the country, or when we see nonviolent, totally politically legitimate but not great to see, protests happening in Australia with big billboards or signs people carrying about who they do and don't want in this country, those are all legal. They're all absolutely operating within the recognized political system we have in Australia, but does that have a bleed on effect into the right wing extremists? Does the existence off these right wing radical ideas in a legitimate arena then give legitimacy to the extremists as well?
Pete: I guess one of the ways that you contest that is the results. And I think one of the things that really stands out is the sense that, especially since about 2013 when the Rise Up Australia party stood, we see that you know that despite the fact that they might have, you know, contested ah ah, wide range of seats across the country and things like that, in most circumstances, they actually didn't get, um, you know, more votes than the invalid votes. I think they're only up, maybe, like in the 2013 and 2016 elections, for instance, I think there are only a couple of instances where they actually got more votes than the invalid votes in the actual electorates. And, you know, there's been some research which suggests that well, in many cases, what you have is that right wing radical and in some cases, extremist parties, they don't really thrive beyond the neighborhood level. So looked at some of the voting data at, like individual voting boots and stuff like that. And still, even at that level, the votes against uh certainly worked against them. So to a certain extent, this kind of it's, uh it's really a double edged sword when we're talking about the impact on legitimacy. Because if you have a situation where they're running and you know they have to deal with the whole, you know, broad type of, you know, range of ideas that they have to compete against if they get very, very few votes than to a certain extent, you know, it reinforces to some that okay, this might not be the way to go. We're blocking the wrong type or backing the wrong types of horses. And so, um, you know that doesn't go forward because the people who are actually going to vote for these types of candidates, largely because there's been a number of studies that have that have come out and certainly there was an article, I think, in the Guardian a few months back, which talked about one of the reasons why the radical right in Australia is not so popular, uh, is because basically, the coalition picks up all of its ideas. So, to a certain extent, regrettably, that has now become mainstream policy in some circumstances.
Susan: It's almost becoming normalised.
Pete: Yeah, and similarly. And I guess you know, if we look, say, for instance, it in American context, Um, the, uh the agenda that some of the Republicans have picked up is basically the agenda that David Duke has been advocating since the late 1980s. This stuff is now mainstream. So in some cases you get situations where those types of parties, you know, they tank out because of the legitimacy and the other type of thing that you might have to worry about. And in some cases, you know, people get disillusioned, then disengaged from, you know, those types of beliefs after that, thinking it's basically a wasted vote. In some cases, it reinforces the correctness of some of these people's viewpoints and how they’re really, you know, the national, some type of a vanguard and they're the only types of people who know the truth. And I think if we look at one of the bedrocks right now of, in many cases, radical right and extreme right policies, conspiracy theory and persecution, especially persecution of white people is really front and centre. And, you know, I never thought that, you know, in teaching political science in the 21st century that, you know, I'd actually have to start including components and modules on the importance of conspiracy theory in mainstream US and, you know, Russian and you know, some other types of countries politics and also that it exists in many Australian context as well.
Susan: When the far right keep stretching further right it brings the rest of the centre with it, which shifts further right. We can't deny now that they say these things. And the Scanlon Foundation has shown for many years consistently that anti Muslim sentiment in Australia is sitting consistently at 40%. So these ideas are being absorbed. What is that? What does that do to a nation?
Pete: Well, again, I think this is one of the reasons why I think we're seeing, uh, you know, across the board, uh, you know, certainly, if not in office, then certainly influential, ah, neopopulist type politicians. You've got situations where they weave those types of abhorrent types of policies and rhetoric into a broader narrative which also touches upon certain elements of economic decline for certain people. This kind of politics of the nostalgia of the lost Australia, you know, make America great again. You know, this kind of striving for you know, this, Um ah, Britain, That is very, very different to continental Europe. You know, things, things that work along those lines there. And I think you also have, um, other circumstances where it works into the changing of the political discourse, because you now have a situation where the left had traditionally been the guardians of civil liberties, okay? Now you've got them trying to twist around, uh, debates about aspects of freedom of speech, okay? I've actually never heard anybody who critiqued political correctness who actually contributed anything substantial to modern day political discourse, you know? It's basically just, you know, these people who are pissed off because they can't use abusive language anymore, okay? It's not, you know, to generate some type of constructive arguments about things. They want to be able to persecute in this speech.
And so when you've got this kind of, um, you know, this combination of, ah, of people feeling, feeling threatened, you know, within the context of international security systems, they feel that they're relying on what would be considered to be stigmatised knowledge within the context of the levels of the threat that different types of social groups might be, uh, you know, posing towards them.
And then this combination of feeling of we're losing our rights, we're losing our heritage and stuff like that, this kind of creates that type of that type of environment where you do have that substantial shift to the right, which makes, you know, these types of narratives really fall, within what might be might have been considered to be, you know, radical or extreme say maybe 15/20 years ago in a certain context - that's now considered to be things that that the heartland wants to see defended and protected.
Susan: So what do we do? Is censorship the solution? Do we ban these online forums where right wing extremists congregate. What do you think we should do?
Pete: Look, I actually think that, um that could be pretty problematic because one of the things that really has kept most people from not becoming extremists is when you actually read what some of these extremists have to say. And you know, that's one of the things that you know in the opinion of, excuse me, in the marketplace of ideas, most of these people's arguments cannot hold up, and that's why most of the people move away from them.
The other thing to bear in mind is that, um, given proper media literacy and also, if you know, there's more encouragement for specialists and key stakeholders to to make more vital contributions to the public sphere, not just in, you know, in a specialist journals and reports and stuff like that. If these types of people could be engaged, you know, much more broadly then there's a possibility that these types of ideologies can be discussed in a much more sensible, more detailed, you know, way. Because if people are getting their ideas about these things through social media, responding to it on social media, regrettably - especially if they go on Twitter - you don't have much space in which to do this, okay. But by the same token, if you have circumstances where, um you know both sides can actually have, ah, a little bit more, uh, you know, time to ah, you know, express ideas, then I think these these types of things can, you know, that the ideas can actually be debated and spoken about much, much more, much, much more clearly.
I also think that one of the things that is important in a democracy is that citizens need to be well informed. And if all this stuff starts to get banned, citizens are not going to be informed about what these groups are about. And if that's the situation, two things happen. One - okay, you drive the discourse underground and in places in the dark Web, and you create a situation where these types of people are not dealing with anybody outside of their own types of peer groups. And that's really where we start to see problems, when when, um, you move from radicalism to extremism, extremism into terrorism, because there's nobody there to challenge your viewpoints effectively, okay. So keeping things out in the open still provides those mechanisms for education, but most importantly for challenge, okay? The other thing that that does is that by banning, you automatically start giving these groups some type of a martyr status, okay? And when people can start operating from a position of victimhood, that gives them a sense of legitimacy, and that gives them an extra sense of coherence to their narrative and that also makes it look like they're the ones who are defending democracy, that the state or special interest groups are beating up on them unjustly - ‘We're the only ones who can stand up’ things to that effect. So that type of censorship, you know, is, you know, is problematic in driving that as well. Now that said, it doesn't mean that everything should come through because there were certain things that certainly should not be able to come through - anything that talks about aspects of operations, how to construct weapons, you know, certainly stuff that would be considered to be things that would incite - those types of things naturally have to be addressed within, you know, current censorship laws and things for that effect. But by the same token, when we don't inform citizens about what these groups are about, then they lose you know their rights to, uh, find out about them. And that again, I think, is regressive within the context of a liberal democracy where you need educated people.
Susan: Pete, that was very interesting. Some absolutely fascinating food for thought. Thank you so much. Incredible insights from Pete on how these movements grow and gain momentum on what's really driving the extremists in our midst. Special thanks to Pete Lentini for coming on the show. In our next episode will find out what individuals could do or say when they see or experience extremist attitudes or ideologies in their everyday lives. Do we call out that behavior, or do we starve it of oxygen? The strategies from our behaviour change expert might surprise you. I'll see you on the next episode of What Happens Next?
Fear is often a key driver of right-wing extremists. In this podcast episode we explore why reaching out to those on the fringes of extremism could help them change direction.
Pete Lentini is an Associate Professor of politics and international relations at Monash University, and heads up the Global Terrorism Research Unit. He tells host Dr Susan Carland that, unlike in the Islamic community, a lack of intervention points for those expressing right wing views is a missed opportunity for change.
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