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Dynamics of extremism in Australia and New Zealand: a post-COVID-19 acceleration?

by Katja Theodorakis, Senior Programme Coordinator for Research and Analysis (Foreign/Security Policy)

This piece was originally published as the introduction to the latest edition of the 'KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot' - a potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot provides an analysis of selected media and think tank articles, intended to offer a panorama overview of the debate in these countries. The original version contains hyperlinks.

(Violent) extremism and terrorism- in their different variants- thrive on crisis narratives. In this way, disasters and national emergencies can directly benefit extremist groups as they seek to capitalize on the personal and societal disruption and ensuing uncertainty. Moreover, these extremist identity dynamics are also said to be mutually enforcing - through what is also called 'reciprocal radicalization': especially during crises, fear and mistrust can drive a process of increasing polarization and identity-based violence where one group blames its ideological enemy as the scapegoat

For instance, a key feature of the Islamic State's strategy has been the exploitation of governance voids and global crises, which can be seen in its media as well as on-the-ground strategy. A current resurgence underway in Syria and Iraq demonstrates once more how the group is able to leverage disorder - by exploiting the distraction of COVID-19 to launch more aggressive attacks.

On the right-wing side of the extremism-spectrum, the pandemic is equally offering opportunity for political exploitation. This way, legitimate government measures to the pandemic (such as enforced quarantines, self-isolation, and border closures play into the hands of right-wing extremist narratives that promote ethnic segregation and extreme immigration restrictions. This is coupled with an increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories and other counter-government discourses, often uniting with more established right-wing movements under a common cause in rallies against government measures. As a result, a sort of cross-fertilization of right-wing ideologies with conspiracy theories and non-ideological protest groups such as anti-vaxxers or hard-line vegans and environmentalists (some even said to be driven by commercial interests has been be observed.

Of particular note in this context is also “accelerationism”, an ideology common amongst the more extreme end of 'the righ't, which capitalizes on tensions within liberal-democratic societies through a prism of decay, urging for action to stop the alleged inevitable decline of the white race. It posits that the liberal order is an inherently morally corrupt system whose inevitable demise must be set in motion accelerated by fomenting social division and violence.

Considering that Australia is facing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in close succession to the devastating 2019/2020 bushfire season (and floods), an acceleration of certain trends in the extremist ecosystem would not be surprising. And in New Zealand, the Christchurch attack still reverbates, with the NZ Government implementing a social media bill in May to better counter violent extremist content online and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urging only last week that "since the 15 March Christchurch mosque attacks, New Zealand has had its own conversations on racism, extremism and violence." At a more global level, in combination with the international ripples caused by the BlackLivesMatter protests, these developments come against the background of a normalization of racism and xenophobia across Western democracies such as European nations, the US and Australia.

It is therefore important to inquire what the impact of the COVID-19 crisis are on existing extremism trends: exactly which dynamics are coming to the fore ( and which trends might be weakening) in response to the pandemic. This is especially salient seeing that the Covid-19 pandemic is a global, open-ended event, meaning that uncertainty is directly felt by citizens, across societies and persists for much longer than in other emergencies such as terrorist attacks, mass shooting, or large-scale natural disasters and emergencies. In addition, over the long-term the pandemic is exposing existing inequalities and leads to severe economic downturn that will inevitably result in increased societal competition for resources as governments will have to tighten the fiscal belt to save hard-hit economies.

While in Australia, over the past decades the focus has been on Islamist terorrism, the latest threat update by the domestic security agency ASIO already warned of an increasing threat posed by right-wing extremism in February this year. In Australia, the mainstreaming of Islamophobia has for decades been helped by the influence of right-populist parties and influential personalities such as One Nation leader Pauline Hanson

According to a recent analytical commentary, Hanson is responsible for pushing the "boundaries of what can be 'acceptably said' in public discourse and has had a disproportionate influence on the national debate. In doing so, she has also created the political space for other far-right figures (...) to emerge and become more a part of the political mainstream. "

Building on this foundation, Alt- and far-right groups or individuals have capitalized on the crisis by criticizing the government’s Covid-19 response for overreach and power abuses, seeking to inspire mistrust in government by claiming that the government is using the crisis to control average Australians. There seems to be a consensus amongst researchers so far that the confusion and fear caused by COVID-19 has indeed created conditions that were readily exploited by the far-right in Australia, with their ideas and views were getting much more traction than they usually would. Adding to this trend, the COVID-19 crisis appears to have intensified the broader societal dynamics for this to spread: according to reports, there has been a noted increase in anti-Asian racist rhetoric and racism-motivated violence since March 2020, manifested for example in a rise in street attacks on Australians of Asian backgrounds.

Accordingly, this should not be seen as a phenomenon of fringe groups but a comprehensive analysis of extremism must look at the bigger picture and also consider how widespread white supremacy discourses are beyond the margins. As highlighted in an analysis piece published in Australia this week,

"Australian statistics and royal commission findings show that our policing is not immune to this pernicious cancer. In New South Wales alone, the number of Aboriginal people charged by police increased by 67% over the past 10 years, while the increase for non-Aboriginal people was 8%."

Similarly, since the death of George Floyd the hashtag #ArmsDownNZ has trended on Twitter in New Zealand and there have been protests to draw attention to the alleged "militarisation of the New Zealand police" against the backdrop of existing racial tensions and concern among Maori communities about the existence of bias and institiutional racism within the police force.

As is being highlighted through the global resonance and spread of the BlackLivesMatterProtests, this is not an issue of individual or group instances of racism but a matter of seeing how entrenched these are in mainstream society and its institutions. This way, 'systemic racism', or 'institutional racism' denotes "how ideas of white superiority are captured in everyday thinking at taking in the big picture of how society operates, rather than looking at one-on-one interactions."

Recent incidents over the past weeks make the urgency of addressing these systemic faultlines clear. This means there is a need for increased recognition of not only how extremist groups operate within Western societies such as Australia and New Zealand (as well as their transnational links) but also the ideas and beliefs motivating them - especially when these are, at least in some form, not completely different and alien to what's deemed acceptable in the overall societal and public discourse.

 


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Katja Theodorakis

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Senior Programme Coordinator Research and Analysis
Foreign and Security Policy

katja.theodorakis@kas.de +61 2 6154 9325