It was a pipsqueak of a protest.
Scarcely a dozen idiots milling around a downtown Toronto intersection to ballyhoo their warning against a Muslim takeover of the Western world. Outnumbered by police. Outnumbered by counterprotesters decrying racism and Islamophobia.
Got a bit tense and pushy as tempers flared, although much of the belligerence was aimed at reporters covering the event. For, I suppose, providing media oxygen to the haters — a group calling themselves PEGIDA, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
Somebody got bopped over the head with a placard. A TV journalist was dogged and harassed.
It’s a dicey dilemma: Whether to ignore the news, as slight as it might be, or inadvertently give the churls an outsized media platform on an otherwise uneventful Saturday afternoon.
Except this is how it begins, with patchwork yips of intolerance and malice from the outliers, so marginal in our placid societies that they scarcely raise an eyebrow. Until a misanthrope with delusions of glory, bristling with weaponry and a camcorder affixed to his head – to record the atrocity in real time, to disseminate the horror on social media – ambushes Friday prayers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, massacring 50 worshippers and wounding another 50. Men, women, children.
Until a venomous anti-Semite, apparently outraged by migrant caravans heading from Central America to the U.S. border, for no comprehensible cause-and-effect reason, shoots up a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh during Sabbath service, killing 11.
Until a white supremacist, just 21 years old, attacks parishioners at a black Methodist church in Charleston, S.C., slaying nine. Laughed about it in a video confession.
Until an introverted university student, a far-right white nationalist who’d denigrated refugees and feminists online, enters a mosque in Quebec City armed with a semi-automatic rifle and 9mm Glock, opening fire on the assembly, killing six and wounding 19.
I won’t be drawn into pointless debate about the criminal equivalency between Islamist terrorism and alt-right terrorism. The “legacy” terrorist groups, with Al Qaeda atop the violence pyramid, has spread havoc far and wide, targeting both the West and Muslim nations. Islamic State, which on the weekend lost its fingernail of remaining held territory in Syria, aspired to the creation of a caliphate.
But the suddenly muscular white supremacists, neo-Nazis, nativists and resurgent anti-Semites have taken their cue from the Islamist insurgents, while doubling down on assaults against places of worship, although most of these attacks don’t involve mass slaughter, killing in the ones and twos, thus not attracting wide media attention.
Right-wing extremism has now been labelled as the most significant domestic threat in the United States and also a global threat, increasingly assuming international dimensions. No longer “merely” a domestic phenomenon in the West.
These extremists may be routinely described as “loners” in the sense that they act alone. But terrorism experts emphasize that they’re at least ideologically part of a worldwide network that has flexed its muscles over the past few years, while we were distracted by Islamist terrorism. While we were sleeping.
In doing so, they have adopted jihadist strategies and tactics, particularly via deft proselytizing and recruitment on social media. By normalizing repellent views. By politicizing bitterness and bile. They are a proliferating movement.
Right-wing extremism appeals to the deeply aggrieved, the xenophobic, the virulently bigoted because it’s so easy, maybe dormant deep in our tribal DNA, to blame and demonize those who look different or pray different, who are not welcome. After a mosque bombing in Minnesota two years ago, the suspects bluntly told investigators their intention was to “scare” Muslims “out of the country” and show that they are “not welcome here.”
It would be a mistake to classify ultraright adherents as somehow mentally deranged — the same mistake made with jihadist recruits in the West. Because, like the Islamist terrorists, including acolytes in western countries, there is an identifiable end game: to instill fear of the “other,” to disrupt political democracies by forcing governments to reverse their policies on immigration and refugees, and to manipulate institutions — universities, the military, think-tanks — into diluting progressive ideas, be it affirmative action or banning transgenders from serving in the armed forces, a discrimination of the Donald Trump presidency handed a federal court victory (limited in its application) in January.
Of course, the white supremacists and scattershot haters have been emboldened by Trump, a president appealing to every base, fearful and toxic element. Many European countries have taken solid steps to tackle right-wing extremist. Germany, as an example, has added specialists in the area to its domestic terrorism intelligence agency, with the goal of approaching the same size of the department focusing on Islamist terrorism. In the United Kingdom, there was an 88 per cent increase in counterterrorism operations as part of investigations into far-right extremist activities and hate crime between 2016 and 2017 — with MI5 now taking over responsibility for tracking extremist right-wing groups, elevating it to the same profile as Islamist terrorism.
But not in the United States, with a president who has homogenized right-wing extremism, drawing little distinction between the bootjacks — pseudo militias, frankly — who rallied in Charlottesville and counter-demonstrators in the deadly clash that ensued.
“In the U.S., there is a disconnect between law enforcement action and messaging on the national political level, with President Donald Trump downplaying the issue of RWE (right-wing violent extremism,” observed a recent report by the Soufan Centre, a New York-based non-profit resource and forum for analysis of global security issues.
The landscape is ripe for manipulation and exploitation by foreign entities seeking to weaken democracies. “Foreign entities aim to infiltrate and influence the RWE movement,” says the Soufan report. “Russian propaganda tactics from the Cold War era are shifting from supporting left-wing extremist and Communist movements to capitalizing on the resurgent RWE movement in both the U.S. and Europe.”
The objective, allegedly, is promoting anarchy to destabilize societies through violence.
Several have pointed to the notorious quasi-Fascist Azov Battalion — an ultra-nationalist white supremacist paramilitary regiment in the Ukraine, originally formed in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine — as a “critical node” in the transnational REW movement. It has allegedly trained recruits from the U.S., Norway, Italy, Germany, the U.K., Brazil, Sweden and Australia, connecting wannabe operatives who are then unleashed to further their mission of white supremacy around the world.
The New Zealand shooter is reported to have travelled to the Ukraine. The flak jack he wore during his mosque attack featured a symbol commonly used by the Azov Battalion.
Anti-Islamization clods wearing their bigotry on their sleeves in downtown Toronto. A mass murderer with white supremacist graffiti scrawled on his rifles in Christchurch.
Far distant hemispheres. Entwined ideology.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno