Mirrors of extremism?

Posted on 10 June 2015 - 1 Comment

“Hurling Rubble at the Sun” and “Hurling Rubble at the Moon”, both the work of playwright Avaes Mohammad and shown at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park offered a thought-provoking study of radicalisation and political violence, writes Sunder Katwala.

“Hurling Rubble at the Sun” offers a fictionalised depiction of the last 24 hours of one of the 7/7 bombers, his story relocated from Leeds to Avaes’ hometown of Blackburn. We watch how T, played by Rasegan Vasan, already radicalised as he puts his backpack together, negotiates his final interactions with his mother, girlfriend and the bus passengers who are to become his victims.

In “Hurling Rubble at the Moon”, four years earlier in Blackburn, we catch glimpses of the formative experiences of a younger T, as the play focuses on the relationship between young Skef and his absentee football hooligan father, powerfully played by Mark Cameron, which leads Skef to become a BNP organiser.  The cheek-by-jowl lives of the younger generation – through T and Skef’s on-off romances across community lines – capture how political extremism must compete with more complex personal allegiances.

British Future hosted a post-play panel discussion on Friday night to discuss the themes of the plays with playwright Avaes Mohammed, Rod Dixon (director of the ‘Hurling Rubble at the Sun’ half of the double-bill), journalist Anthony Clavane, and myself.

In this clip from the discussion, the BBC’s Catrin Nye, chairing the discussion, asks how far it makes sense to see far right and Islamist extremism as mirroring each other.

Avaes was sceptical about how closely these forms of extremism resemble each other. While there could sometimes be some “common history” and a shared sense of disenfranchisement, the many different personal trajectories towards extremism and violence made the quest for neat parallels unconvincing.

There had, it seemed to me, been a symbiotic relationship between Islamist extremists and the white far right in the years after 2001, but that this might now be becoming a less significant driver. Each had used the other to verify the sense of grievance with which it sought to mobilise.

The ‘parallel lives’ phenomenon noted by Ted Cantle in his report on the 2001 riots in the northern mill towns offered opportunities to those stressing the incompatibility of communities even as they lived side-by-side, while it was not a coincidence that both the EDL and Al-Maharajoun were based in Luton.

As a result, local efforts to counter extremisms had often found that a “plague on both your houses” approach to tackling all forms of radicalism could be effective in countering attempts to generate a mutually reinforcing spiral of extremism. Groups like Hope Not Hate, with a strong record of tackling the far right, have increasingly also focused on Islamist far right groups too, since the impact on community relations in Britain is just as toxic.

If that remains an important message, the differences between these two forms of political extremism increasingly appear to be rather more important than their similarities.

There had long been differences in their patterns of recruitment. The targeting of students and graduates by Islamist groups had more in common with the militant left of the 1970s, while the white far right had very little purchase on campuses, being much more likely to focus on those who left school without qualifications.

The global reference points of an extreme Islamist narrative are also distinct from the parochial concerns of the far right.

One of the most striking features of the last five years has been the scale of the political and organisational collapse of the white far right. After its 2009 European elections breakthrough the BNP had hopes of a significant national political success, emulating the French Front National. By the 2015 general election, however, they had suffered a complete political and organisational collapse, winning just 1666 votes – the largest fall for any party in British political history.  The EDL is also getting weaker rather than stronger. These groups expected to thrive in the wake of shock events like the Woolwich murder, but even their own target audience thought that they were part of the problem, rather than the solution.

The growth of UKIP has certainly included an appeal to anti-migration sentiment, the Eurosceptic party clearly offers a considerably more mainstream and legitimate voice for populist anxiety, distinct from that of extreme far right parties and movements. And UKIP too may also have to change its pitch to extend its appeal to younger Britons as well as those over 50.

Racism and prejudice have not disappeared – but they have diminished significantly across the generations, despite the geopolitical pressures of the last decade.

The far right has signally failed to replicate the appeal to Skef’s generation which it could offer to that of his father.

Meanwhile, ISIS appears to be having more success in combining its own appeal to a mythical lost past with a very modern ability to project its messages, from shock news events to social media. ISIS too is undoubtedly rejected by most of its target audiences, but constructive voices struggle to compete for the attention and headlines that violent extremism will always attract.

So, while extremisms will certainly seek to feed off each other where they can, that sense of symbiosis may prove rather weaker over the next few years than it was a decade ago.

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