Is there a worldwide surge in extremism and has it really gone mainstream? Which factors contributed to this? Where is the Western Balkans in this picture and is the fact that several massacres were committed with reference to the Balkan conflicts just a mere coincidence, or evidence of much deeper links?

We have discussed about these issues with Sasha Havliček, Director and CEO at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, London-based think tank, in which she leads government advisory, research and delivery programmes in the fields of counter-extremism and foreign policy. Havliček is an anti-extremism advisor for several governments, and a regular commentator on this topic for global media. She was a speaker on the Belgrade Security Forum 2020 “No Trust, no Peace”, which took place in October.

NOTE: The interview was conducted in late October, prior to the terrorist attacks that shook France and Austria

European Western Balkans: Until recently, discussions about extremism and terrorism in the mainstream were mainly focused on Islamic radicalism. However, there are more and more right-wing acts of terror and violence which appear to have somewhat shifted the paradigm about extremism. What do you see as a bigger security threat?

Sasha Havliček: Far-right extremism has finally come into centre stage for the international community, probably as a result of the terrible tragedy in Christchurch last year. The reality was that far right extremism has been on the rise quite steadily over the last decade, but it has been a blind spot for the security services and policymakers alike. It represents a very serious threat.

Of course, different geographies face different ideological challenges in terms of extremism. We should not be convinced into thinking that Islamist extremism is no longer an issue, of course it is an issue, and it continues to be a very genuine threat in many parts of the world.

Far right extremism has been on the rise quite steadily over the last decade, but it has been a blind spot for security services and policymakers

What’s more of a threat across the Western geography is ultimately the rise of far-right extremism which outweighs that of Islamist extremism in a European and anglophone environment. We have seen a 320% rise in terrorist attacks, but the bigger threat is really in normalization and mainstreaming of far-right extremist narratives and mobilization across society.

EWB: Are these forms of extremism perhaps two sides of the same coin? Are they mutually reinforcing and is this a matter of concern?

SH: I do think they are mutually reinforcing. In a very direct sense, we have actually watched reciprocal radicalization happen within certain communities, where we have seen calls for a “white Jihad” in white supremacist circles and sharing of ISIS propaganda material across far-right circles and vice versa. They are very well aware of the impact they have on each of their own bases, and whether it was the organizing of marches to happen in parallel or within the online ecosystems of hate and extremism you see a dynamic between the two.

They do share something of the same narrative, which is essentially about incompatibility between the West and Muslims or liberalism and Islam. They are extremisms, which we define as being the advocacy of a system of belief which advocates the supremacy and superiority of one in-group against other out-groups and advocacy of a systemic change in line with that worldview. You of course see that same architecture of extremism on both sides of the spectrum. They do reinforce each other.

Utøya, Norway; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

EWB: Can we say that extremism as such is on the rise, and especially when it comes to right-wing extremism? What do you see as the main factors?

SH: I think yes, and the main causes are new forms of organization and mobilization. We have seen now in the last 10 to 15 years a new strategic organization and investments in a reformed, new far right, a political force which is largely more palatable, more electable than these skinhead, largely working class predecessors that we were used to seeing in these more fringe and violent groups.

At the same time, we are seeing an increasing coordination across a very broad ideological spectrum of groups, creating new very potent subcultures online. They have been connecting the dots across ethnonationalist, white supremacist counter-jihad and conspiracy movements, to the very clear set of tactics around communicating both to their bases and to wider audiences, speaking to the “normies”, trying to engage wider audiences in their mission. They were very determined to mainstream their ideological position across society and into politics and this is exactly what they have succeeded in doing.

Main causes for the rise of extremism are new forms of organization and mobilization

Internationalization of these groups has been a part of their potency. There is a kind of counterintuitive thing around transnational narratives around the defence of Christendom or the white man, or of the West, sometimes even of liberalism. You see a transnational dynamic, and this Facebook livestream (in Christchurch) with Serbian nationalist song playing in the background is an example of that internationalization of the movement. Drawing on various emblems from very different parts of the world to reinforce a specific narrative, and in this case guns that had names of certain historical figures from the Balkans was really also about resisting the Ottoman invasion and framing this idea around resistance to Islamization of the West. 

EWB: It is often said that the social networks and the algorithms they use contribute to political polarization. Can we blame the internet? Do you think that the social networks and our system of communication are the main culprits for political polarization and the rise of extremism, or there are some much deeper problems in democratic societies today that just found their way to the social networks?

SH: Of course there are these issues. I think you can maybe think about this in terms of push factors and pull factors. I just talked about two pull factors, new forms of organisation and the internationalisation of these movements, both of which really came out as a result of adept use of the internet and social media, and these groups were very successful adaptors of new technologies.

The algorithmic impact on hate and polarization at large is absolutely enormous. It should not be understated and needs to be addressed through proper regulation of social media. By that I mean not through the removal of bad content, which is often the approach of governments and regulators, but through the regulation of the systems that create inorganic amplification of hateful and extreme messaging. The algorithms that you mentioned are absolutely a factor in hyper charging of the problem, as is by the way the entry of state actors in the amplification of far-right networks and content. We did computation analyses of disinformation leading up to the German federal elections in 2017 and you had international alt-right and Kremlin sources boosting each other and AFD content, so you had this reinforcing by these networks of certain political actors in domestic political stages. 

“Good governance can be something of an antidote to the rise of extremism”

But it doesn’t do with what you said, which is of course the push factor, and what these groups have been very adept at doing is exploiting grievances which are part real and part perceived. One of the things I think has been absolutely extraordinary is the extent to which they have been able to exploit the anxieties that people have felt in the West around what is a series of hybrid threats, the kind of perfect storm hybrid threats. We have experienced the highest spikes in migration from South to North or East to West at the same time as the highest rates of terrorism and experiencing the end of Western hegemony. All of these things happening at the same time, a great insecurity for people at terms of their economic prospects, the future does not look as bright, people are seeing reduced opportunities for their children in relation to what they experienced themselves. In a European context, this is ultimately the decline of the West.

So of course, these anxieties are what these groups very successfully prey on. I would say good governance can be something of an antidote to that. Good governance on the local level, good governance on a national level, good governance on a transnational level can really be something of an antidote to that. We see for instance in Germany recently that because of good management of the COVID situation, AFD’s ratings have plummeted. If you can trust your government, if there is a high degree of trust in your institutions, these groups fare worse than not. For instance, when we look at the Balkans with some stats out of our own research, people’s feelings of trust in local institutions and authorities are extremely low. These are the environments in which you are more likely to be successful in recruiting people to these ideologies.

EWB: Are we facing a completely new level of this problem with governments across the Western world now being the source of extremist narratives? Does it mean that extremism has gone mainstream? For example, we now have a certain social network censoring the president because he spreads fake news. Is it a completely new game in relation to what we usually refer to when we discuss about extremism?

SH: This is what we have been warning about. This idea that these are just fringe groups that remain on the fringes is nonsense, what we have seen is complete failure to respond to the mobilization that we have seen now in the last decade. We are now facing a situation where you have an alternative model of governance appearing on the world stage and representing itself as a serious contender to liberal democracy, which is authoritarian nationalism. What would have been unimaginable a decade ago, now becomes a reality.

We now have an alternative model of governance appearing on the world stage and representing itself as a serious contender to liberal democracy, which is authoritarian nationalism

We also worry that through COVID we have seen reinforcing of these nationalist authoritarian narratives of the Chinese dealing with this problem better than we do, and that democracies are so slow and fumbling when it comes to crises. Therefore, I think that a combination of state actors and non-state actors is very good in exploiting this kind of crisis in their interest. Kremlin engagement in this space is really around undermining liberal democracies, the model that works, in the interest of authoritarian nationalism. We are facing something much, much bigger than mobilization of fringe groups and networks, this is a much bigger set of challenges.

EWB: Is the genie out of the bottle? Can any actions by governments and tech companies today counter this spread of extremist narratives? Or this is now the reality, or let’s say the new stage in evolution of liberal democracy?

SH: We have a narrowing window of opportunity to make an impact on this problem. There are a number of things that can be done that could have a systemic impact on the problem. Platform governance and regulation of this sector are absolutely critical, and there are moves in that direction now at the EU level and the UK, but I think we have to start to get a handle on that inorganic amplification of polarization and extremism.

Number two, I think we have seen populist parties which are far-right leaning not do quite as well as they hoped. What happened at the European Parliament elections was significant. They didn’t win out in the way that I think many feared they might. It was a very concerted effort, mobilization on a transnational level, but they did not take over the EU from within.

Now we have a far-right populist party essentially established in almost every single EU country today, which is extraordinary and shocking

What did happen was – and I think this is a significant worry – that these parties essentially established themselves as long term political forces within their own countries, sometimes primary or secondary political opponents within the political spectrum. Now we have a far-right populist party essentially established in this way in almost every single European Union country today, which is extraordinary and shocking. Could you imagine the AFD being thepolitical opposition in Germany even four years ago? Impossible.

So, that is an absolutely genuine threat, but we also see how challenged they are. There are more fissures and differences between them, things like their relationship to Russia or Trump, and we need to talk about the divisions between these groups. There are all sorts of infighting and weaknesses in their ability to mobilize.

As I said, good governance, liberal democracy actually delivering, down to the local level, which is largely ignored to our peril. Local governance is absolutely critical. If it can deliver, we see diminution in attractiveness of these types of parties. When it doesn’t deliver, we see these parties very cleverly coming to offer practical, tangible support in those contexts. We need to know how to outmanoeuvre that. There is also a role for centre-right political parties to clearly distance themselves from extremist narratives, to make sure these guys are side-lined, and not pulled into the system.

There is a role for centre-right political parties to clearly distance themselves from extremist narratives, to make sure these guys are side-lined

And I think there is a role for the European Union, which has not figured out yet how to properly enforce its own rules and values internally. We’ve been talking about it in terms of countries outside of the EU’s borders and enlargement countries, but we are not enforcing this domestically. What is the punishment for member states when we start to see the erosion of the rule of law within the EU? We need proper enforcement of the acquis in the EU and proper punishment when that does not happen.

So I do think there is still a potential to turn the tide in many different ways and I also think that understanding the phenomenon and mounting communication strategies with a 10-year perspective could totally turn the tide. They have succeeded in achieving a cultural change through their own communication strategies and that change is also achievable in another direction. It means investing in a kind of strategic communication around liberal democracy and civic education. We are good in investing in transition countries out there somewhere, but we don’t do within the EU itself.

Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

EWB: Do you believe that contemporary liberal narratives, with the focus on political correctness and identity politics, help combat or perhaps push right-wing extremism into the mainstream? Research shows that polarization is stronger in recent years on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

SH: We have to break through those silos. There are all sorts of themes and issues where there is more commonality than not. Politically polarised dynamic where we all reinforce our positions and do not speak to each other absolutely won’t work. There needs to be a project of engaging around potential touchpoints. And the outreach needs to be done in ways that are going to be felt as credible and genuine.

Politically polarised dynamic where we all reinforce our positions and do not speak to each other absolutely won’t work. There needs to be a project of engaging around potential touchpoints

And yes, I actually do think that the narrow focus on identity politics by the left has been one of the contributing factors to the detriment of looking at genuine socio-economic grievance and governance, things that affect people’s lives in a big way in many places.

There are all sorts of issues around which I think there is a potential for conversation, and this is also the role of civil society, in creating bridges within specific constituencies. Families talking about threats to their children online, security issues, issues around governance, economy, there are many touchpoints where people are willing to have conversations, where the hyper-politicized identity politics has to be overcome in order to be able to start the conversation again. There are lot of ways in which that can be done. 

EWB: Speaking about the Western Balkans, it appears we have not moved far away from the nationalist narratives from the 90’s and that extreme nationalism remains a major problem. Is this normal for post-conflict societies or there were some major failures in reconciliation efforts?

SH: In certain ways, when we look what young people perceive as the top problems, they feel that relations with another ethnic group does not really factor in what they consider as their top grievance, or anywhere close to it. They are much more concerned about corruption, local governance, national governments, their future, the economy and unemployment. Other issues have superseded the issues that have driven the nationalist discourse in many ways.

I do think it takes a very long time to get over the framing of problems from a nationalist standpoint and the kind of disappearance of visibility of that EU pole has been part of the problem. There was a time ten years ago where was this sense that everybody is converging with the EU and I think that motivational pole is less there now, it feels like less of a promise.

EWB: We recently even had what could be described as a terrorist attack in Croatia, where a far-right leaning young man shot a police officer in front of the government building and then committed suicide.

SH: There is a new phenomenon at play here. This form of radicalization in happening in different ways to what happened in the lead up to the Yugoslav wars. In Croatia you see activities of certain international and transnational far right groups. It superimposes well on historic narratives, but there is a new form of radicalization to violence that is happening in all parts of Europe today, coming from these international youth subcultures that we see emerge, the strength of which is that they are very good at mobilizing localized grievance and localized narratives as part of their transnational mobilization. Yes, it is a very serious threat and it’s growing. The more of this kind of narrative is available, more likely that some of it will result in violence.

We often make the false separation between violent and non-violent extremism, but ultimately it is towards that same goal

Again, I think we tend to think of violent extremism as a separate stage from political extremes. I reality you see a similar set of narratives people mobilizing around in different ways. Violence is just a means to that end. Some people will feel that there is no other means to than violence and others will feel that there has to be a political means and they will mobilize politically. We often make the false separation between violent and non-violent extremism, but ultimately it is towards that same goal.

Vigil in Wellington on 17 March 2019; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

EWB: It is interesting that both the attackers in Utoya (Norway) and Christchurch (New Zealand) made references to the Balkan conflicts and specifically Serbian nationalism. Breivik even mentioned it in his manifesto. Does that mean we actually see an effect of the Yugoslav wars on the world, or is this simply a coincidence?

SH: I think there are two things which are happening in these online subcultures, one is the import of transnational extremist narratives and adaptation of that into the Balkan context which we see in a number of different ways, different groups and different places. You see some Cossack groups active in Serbia, some Ukrainian groups active in Croatia. You have that international reach into the region, and then you have the exports of these concepts and ideas from the region into the international groups as we have seen with Utoya.

The Balkan wars were extremely influential in relation to islamist radicalization in Western Europe

It is a kind of an exemplar of how internationalized these groups have become. They are really looking for concept and content from almost every part of the world now. These are fundamentally internationalizing movements. Is it the Balkan or not does not matter, these old ideas of genuine nationalism have been supplanted by these transnational concepts of defence of Christendom or defence of the West.

The Balkan wars were extremely influential in relation to islamist radicalization in Western Europe. That we shouldn’t forget. It was extremely powerful and potent in terms of radicalization of British Muslims of South Asian descent. The rest of the British public did not care much about what was happening in the Balkan wars, but it was tangibly visible to Muslim communities within Britain. It was the cause of radicalization for generations of British Muslims, who were genuinely radicalized by what was happening in Yugoslavia.

EWB: So we could say that both islamist extremism and right wing extremism were in a way inspired or triggered by the Balkan wars?

SH: It’s too big to say that they were inspired or triggered, what I would say that each movement has certainly been inspired by aspects of these wars and certain groups have been inspired by it, there is no question. I wouldn’t say that they are the cause of these movements.

EWB: When you look at this whole spectrum of extremism, islamist, different right-wing extremisms, can they be considered as a part of any ideology in the making? Or just a phase in global democracy where you have these phenomena, but they are not turning into a specific ideology such as fascism a hundred years ago? Can they make a coherent ideology?

SH: Here is what I see as the overlap in these – as you rightly say – disparate groups in terms of the narratives that they pump out, from ethnonationalists to white supremacists, the counter-Jihad, the conspiracy networks and so on, including the state actor disinformation network. What they have in common or where do they reinforce each other is essentially around the promotion of narratives that are pro-authoritarian, pro-nationalist, anti-liberal democracy and anti-internationalist.

Liberal democracy is what is being targeted, and specifically internationalism that liberal democracy has espoused

The threat is that there is significant mobilization towards an alternative model. And the alternative model has been increasingly touted as a realist alternative model, something we could not have imagined ten years ago. You know, these reinforcing narratives that the Chinese dealt with COVID much better than we did, that liberal democracy is terrible at crises, and so on, are important to understand, because that’s the direction that they wanted and why the Kremlin is in this game. It is the undermining of trust and faith in the liberal democratic model. You now have this very worrying research that has just come out of Cambridge on millennial generations’ perspective on democracy. They are just not that interested, it seems.

Liberal democracy is what is being targeted, and specifically internationalism that liberal democracy has espoused. Even climate disinformation is on the far-right space. It’s not about climate scepticism, because nobody can pull that off properly anymore, it’s about undermining international agreements and treaties in relations to the solving of that problem. If you like, the ideological threat is in mounting of credibility of the alternative model to liberal democracy. 

EWB: I get the impression from what you said that basically there is no one then to defend liberal democracy if young people, even those who are not looking in this direction, are also not interested in it. Does it mean that democracy is left without a basis?

SH: Having looked a little bit deeper into this, the issue is that they actually feel liberal democracy is not delivering on its promise. Again, there is a window of opportunity, but we are complacent if we don’t really start to get liberal democratic institutions delivering for people in a serious way.

I think it is absolutely threatened. Against the backdrop of a systemic transfer of wealth from West to East and the waning Western hegemony, we need to be taking very serious steps to shore up the model. The leverage on the global stage is waning. Brexit is the smallest of our problems. We moan and groan about it, but it is the smallest of our problems.