Tahir Abbas, Professor of Radicalisation Studies at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University in The Hague, the Netherlands.
The horrific attack on innocent bystanders of colour in Buffalo recently has raised concerns about the “great replacement theory”. What is often overlooked is that this theory is not new; rather, it has been used for some time among extreme- and radical-Right firebrands.
A popular notion in the early 2000s in parts of Europe was the idea that some population pockets associated with Muslim minorities might grow enormously, providing exceptional challenges for Western European nation-states. In the United Kingdom (UK), at a time when the Iraq war was well underway and concerns about the radicalisation of European youth were already on the agenda, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) began to surface, first as a farce, then as a tragedy, because their single party policy of leaving the European Union (EU) was eventually incorporated by the Conservative Party. Hostility toward immigrants and minorities can be attributed to the Windrush generation and the toxic climate they generated. But it was in France that the theory took hold. Renaud Camus’s book Le Grand Remplacement was published in 2011. When it was released, it caused quite a stir. Its primary idea was straightforward. Muslims are taking over France, and the fundamental fabric of French society is under threat as a result.
Prior to the latest incident in Buffalo, various far-Right groups had left manifestos calling for restrictions on immigration and minorities to protect the white race from de-purification. The perpetrator of the horrific attack in Norway in 2011 Anders Breivik suggested the theory, as did the attackers in Christchurch, New Zealand, Halle, and El Paso in 2019 all subscribed to the same set of broad principles. The basic claim is that the world’s resources are insufficient to go around. Immigrants and minorities pose a threat to the integrity of indigenous peoples in nation-states, so their numbers must be limited. This smells like eugenics and scientific racism, which stretch back to the late nineteenth century and lasted until the end of the Second World War.
The essential question is why there is this form of radicalised violent extremism in the present moment, and how it appears to be justified by individuals who express specific concerns about minorities, multiculturalism, and societal variances acting as a threat to the concept of the nation itself. Three points should be made here. First, the lack of a state role in the social life of ordinary people has an impact on individual identities. Second, widespread Islamophobia has emerged as the new normal. Finally, the role of masculinity is so important that in many cases where men engage in violent extremism or terrorism, their notions about what it is to be a man are closely entwined with their eventual actions.
Political elites in the global north lack imagination because of their long-term concern with free market economics, deregulation, and de-centralisation. As a result, there is a lack of emphasis on the idea that the state offers a safety net for its residents, leaving individuals with no choice but to fend for themselves. The United States has a specific difficulty with gun restrictions due to its constitution, which has been in the news again recently with the Uvalde school shooting in Texas. However, the United States and the rest of the global north have withdrawn the state in favour of individual needs and desires, over what is optimal for society. Because of a lack of originality in policy thinking, nations have retreated even deeper into a shrinking framework of national identity, which has become increasingly self-selective and exclusivist in recent decades. The role of Islamophobia is also especially important, as it appears not just in everyday politics and culture but also in broader counterterrorism, counter-extremism, and de-radicalisation standards confronting Muslim communities in the global north.
There is also the pernicious matter of gender in carrying out these atrocities. Without adequate state support and with all this Islamophobia, these individuals are making men of themselves by killing innocent people. However, these are problematised young people. We see this now as we look at the far-Right; something the Western world has been slow to recognise in relation to the Islamist extremist experience, which is no different—it also relates to young men making statements about who they are as men while the social forces that supported traditional ideas of masculinity erode around them. This is not to argue that women cannot play extremist roles or have considerable agency in mobilising female gendered norms in their radicalization; yet the reality is that young men continue to emerge as the most implicated.
In terms of comprehending radicalism, all of these indicate intersectionality—that is, race, class, and gender. White men at the margins of society, often young and facing downward social mobility pressures, where social exclusion is a significant reality and with the language of everyday politics providing succour to these troubled individuals, face numerous challenges to their sense of manhood that are relieved by buying into racist theories that carry weight in the minds of isolated, disconnected individuals seeking greater meaning in their lives. The fact that the Buffalo gunman was completely radicalised by content he found on 4Chan and Reddit is a damning indictment of the normalization of racist radicalism.
A key aspect of the great replacement theory is that a specific set of beliefs is creating the conditions in which nations throughout the global north find themselves in terms of a growing Muslim population that exists alongside a particular sense of liberal incorporation that is capable of absorbing minority differences. The truth is that the elites that rule countries close to business influences, notably in the media and finance, have very few unique ideas about how to address the social problems that plague many countries in the global north. Inequality, polarisation, discord, and division are not unintended consequences of failed policies in the past, but the purposeful and explicit consequences of a short-sighted policy that is effectively neoconservative in design and delivery. The same elites have shifted their focus away from the needs of the many and toward the needs of the few.
The great replacement theory involves persuading vulnerable individuals to commit mass casualty terrorist acts in which the victims are people of minority colour and/or faith. More of these acts are likely to occur if there is no particular or clear denunciation on the part of political actors that may be spoken in a way that is heard by those who need to hear it the most. With far too many mainstream television channels inadvertently supporting the great replacement theory (such as Fox News and GB News), and many mainstream TV news channels and commentators effectively pushing a Right-leaning agenda, susceptible minds are seduced by seemingly easy fixes that are ultimately legitimised by majority politics.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.