In the 60s, Russia took advantage of leftist anti-imperialist movements in an attempt to destabilise the liberal world order. Today, the Russians are trying to repeat the feat with the far-right, only this time, Islamophobia is the rallying cry.
The Civil Rights Movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, and a disillusionment with the authoritarian nature of Communism and socialism gave birth to the international New Left in the 1960s, culminating with global anti-war protests in 1968. Today, a New Far Right is being internationalised, fueled by a primary source: Islamophobia.
Given leftist politics trace their roots in the principles of emancipation, liberation, equality and social justice, it’s easy to forget that the primary terror threat for law enforcement agencies in the Western world for much of the 1970s were leftist organisations.
Leftist terror groups like the Italian Red Brigades, Japanese Red Army, Red Army Faction, the French Action Directe, and the American Weather Underground (founded with the goal of bringing an end to US imperialism), carried out a combined total of more than several thousand terror attacks across Europe and the United States in the 1970s and 80s.
These leftist terror groups shared a common core set of beliefs, including vehement opposition to their own governments, Western colonialism, the European order, US imperialism, Cold War politics, all alongside an expressed solidarity with anti-colonial and civil rights movements.
Many of these groups also shared another stand out feature in common: they were funded by the Soviet Union.
In particular, the KGB and East Germany’s secret intelligence agency—the Stasi—provided European leftist terror groups like the Italian Red Brigades, Red Army Faction and the 2nd June Movement in Germany with funding, arms, and training, with the hope these groups would, through their use of violence, destabilise the European democratic order and weaken Western democratic states.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, however, support for leftist terror groups dried up, bringing a sudden halt to the terror wave of the New Left.
The Russian ‘New Wave’
Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, aims to restore the glory days of the Soviet Union by turning to the same old playbook. But instead of utilising the far-left, like the Soviet Union had five decades earlier, Putin is galvanising far-right groups across the world to destabilise the European democratic order, undermine Western alliances, and create havoc within Western democratic states – and Islamophobia and xenophobia is the glue that is bringing these far-right groups and individuals across the globe together.
“We are witnessing the emergence of a new internationalised far right: propelled by deep antipathy towards Muslims,” observes Hope Not Hate, a UK based anti-racist advocacy group.
We now know Russia used Islamophobia as a central pivot point in its effort to influence the 2016 US election in Donald Trump’s favour. It did this by establishing online troll farms, amplifying anti-Muslim tweets and posts on social media, while at the same time setting up thousands of fake social media accounts to portray extremist Islamic views as emblematic of the typical American Muslim.
For example, a Facebook page titled United Muslims of America pushed erroneous memes claiming Trump’s opponent, Hilary Clinton, admitted to “creating, funding, and arming” Al Qaeda and ISIS (Daesh). It also purchased advertisements on Facebook promoting fake nationwide Islamic rallies.
Whereas pamphlets were the propaganda medium of choice for leftist radicals in the 1970s, the Internet is the preferred medium for the emerging internationalised far right. Far-right groups share anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant memes, while also amplifying those who peddle in the demonisation of the perceived foreign other.
Russia’s effort to internationalise the far-right via Islamophobia has been so effective that the US ambassador to the United Kingdom lobbied the British government to release infamous anti-Muslim hate preacher Tommy Robinson from prison, who is serving a 13 month sentence for defying a court order.
Robinson’s army of Muslim hating supporters, however, has deliberately misconstrued his prison term to be punishment for protesting against Muslim trial defendants, thus igniting a global far-right protest against encroachments on “free speech,” or rather hate speech.
Far-right groups across the world have made the case of Tommy Robinson akin to a cause celebre, with Donald Trump Junior extending his support for the two-time felon, along with Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief-of-staff.
A united ideological current
According to Hope Not Hate, “Many of those people lionising ‘Tommy’ now probably have little or no idea of the reach and influence of the money behind their man, but Stephen Lennon [Tommy Robinson’s birth name] has long-received support from a coterie of notorious anti-Muslim extremists in the US and elsewhere,” adding that these groups are “determined to stoke conflict and division across Europe.”
While tracing the money behind these far-right groups is not easy, according to Linda Curika, the spokesperson for NATO strategic communications, Russian support for extremists is “all part of a Kremlin strategy to weaken political support for the European Union and NATO.”
“There is a clear ideological link between American white supremacists and the European far-right,” Curika said. “Ideological support that is easily seen. The money is more difficult to trace.”
What is more readily known, however, is the large sums of money funneling into European far-right political parties and organisations from Russian state banks.
For instance, a Kremlin controlled bank extended a 9 million Euro loan to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party during the 2017 French national election. In Austria, the Kremlin backed far-right extremist Freedom Party formed a coalition government on the back of anti-Muslim sentiment, with some members of the government known for expressing neo-Nazi sentiments.
These Russian backed European far-right political parties and groups interact with influential and prominent figures among far-right groups and individuals in the United States, creating a feedback loop in which anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant memes and tropes are shared, elevated, and amplified.
”Although our country has always had white supremacists, Russia has given them renewed focus and energy, as well as a ready-made worldview. This take on the world includes overt white nationalism, which despises the United States as a decadent and multiracial society,” observes John Schindler, a former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer.
Russian funded far-right propaganda has been so effective, according to Schindler, that white nationalists in the United States, who he says would be unable to find Syria on a map, now express overt support for the Russian-backed Syrian regime leader, Bashar al Assad.
“Ideological synchronicity between the American neo-Nazis and the Kremlin approaches complete overlap,” notes Schindler.
All of this brings us to the dramatic rise of far-right terrorism across Europe, the UK, and the United States. A recent report by Europol found that far-right and separatist groups and individuals were responsible for 137 of 205 terrorist attacks in 2017, while a recent report prepared for Congress by the Government Accountability Office revealed that “of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far-right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent).”
Essentially, Europe and the United States is reliving the wave of political terrorism both continents experienced in the 1970s and 80s, but this time from the political right, rather than the left, and with Russia again greasing the wheels, only this time with Islamophobia, not anti-imperialism.
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