Commentary |
1 May 2021

Extremism and clear terminology

New terminology introduced by ASIO to describe violent extremist groups carefully avoids ‘right- or left-wing’ descriptors. But in not calling out right-wing extremism, is the national security agency guilty of double standards and bowing to the conservative side of politics?

Originally published in The Saturday Paper.

Lydia Khalil
Lydia Khalil

In April, South Australia Police and the Australian Federal Police arrested two men for possession of an improvised explosive device and extremist material. In her statement on the arrests, Acting South Australia Police Commissioner Linda Williams confirmed that police had in fact conducted multiple raids across metropolitan Adelaide as part of an ongoing investigation, which ultimately led to these arrests relating to “violent extremism”.

The acting commissioner’s comments gave little away in terms of what group these individuals belonged to, or even what type of violent extremism they espoused. She only hinted, saying, “The national threat assessment indicates that about 40 per cent of extremism is related to right-wing concerns … It has been an ongoing issue for us.” It wasn’t until a leader of one of Australia’s neo-Nazi groups confirmed that its members’ homes had been raided that reporters were able to identify which violent extremist group had posed enough of a threat to warrant investigation, raid and arrest.

It was the National Socialist Network (NSN), a neo-Nazi group that emerged in late 2019 in Melbourne. It now has supporters around Australia, having incorporated white supremacists from former groups including the Lads Society and Antipodean Resistance. So far, the NSN’s members have engaged mostly in vandalism, such as putting up racist graffiti; antics meant to intimidate, including the recent cross-burning in the Grampians; and individual assaults. But the recent arrests, and the group’s increased rhetoric justifying violence, demonstrates an escalation in the threat it poses.

The vague reference from police that the arrests related to “ideologically motivated” violent extremism were curiously nondescript; particularly after decades of Australian law enforcement hammering home the threat of jihadist violence, and even the more recent announcements from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) that violent right-wing extremism was a growing and urgent issue in Australia. But the language reflects a recent shift in the way Australia’s security agencies identify terrorist threats.

In March this year, the director-general of ASIO, Mike Burgess, delivered the agency’s religiously motivated, ideologically motivated and politically motivated violent extremism. In the US, the Department of Homeland Security has also shifted away from using the right-wing extremism label. However, instead ASIO was claiming the terminology change was being responsive to Muslim communities. The agency has said it is addressing longstanding concerns that the previous label of “Islamic extremism” to describe the annual threat assessment. “From today,” he announced, “ASIO will be changing the language we use to talk about the violent threats we counter. We will now refer to two categories: religiously motivated violent extremism, and ideologically motivated violent extremism. Why are we making a change? Put simply, it’s because the current labels are no longer fit for purpose; they no longer adequately describe the phenomena we’re seeing... Our language needs to evolve to match the evolving threat environment.”

The spectrum of violent extremism is more complex and dynamic than it was in the aftermath of the September 11, when jihadism presented the primary terrorist threat. In addition to jihadist actors, and a growing cohort of right-wing extremists and white supremacists, Australia and other Western democracies are facing a range of new threats. These include violent extremist individuals and movements fuelled by individual grievances and a sense of victimisation, such as incels – a portmanteau of “involuntary celibate” that’s come to define online groups that exhibit extreme misogyny. There are also groups bound by conspiratorial thinking and nebulous anti-government sentiment, including anti-lockdown groups and QAnon supporters. The common thread is that these new threats tend to be more fluidly organised and less coherent ideologically. Some of these violent extremist movements defy simple categorisation.

But are these two broad terms – religiously motivated and ideologically motivated violent extremism – more fit for purpose? And do they help our security agencies better understand and address the current threat environment?

ASIO says the new terms announced by Burgess were the result of a lengthy consultation process with Australia’s partners. In both Canada and the United States, and now Australia, intelligence and security agencies no longer use the right- or left-wing political metaphors to describe violent extremism movements.

Canada classifies violent extremist threats according to three broad categories: religiously motivated, ideologically motivated and politically motivated violent extremism. In the US, the Department of Homeland Security has also shifted away from using the right-wing extremism label. However, instead of the umbrella terms used by Canada, and now Australia, the American categories of domestic violent extremism have become much more specific. According to the latest memo on domestic violent extremism threats from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, issued in March, there are seven separate categories, ranging from “ethnically and racially motivated” extremists to “militia violent extremists”. But nowhere in the ONDI memo is “right wing” mentioned.

As such, there has been criticism in some quarters that these changes in terminology are due to conservative political pressure from those who do not want the term “right wing” associated with extremism at all. Coalition senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, for example, was offended by the use of the term right-wing extremism saying, “There are many people of conservative background who take exception with being tarred with the same brush.”

ASIO insists it is not bowing to pressure from politicians and interests on the right. But the double standard is hard to ignore.

“ASIO’s new terminology raises more questions than it answers,” says terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton of Deakin University. “The thing about Mike Burgess’ inclusion of the new terminology is that it’s answering a question that no one is asking – at least most people in the field … Perhaps some people in politics were. It makes it appear that the prime motivation was to give way to political pressure so ASIO can live to fight another day on more important things.”

Labor MP Ed Husic echoed this sentiment in a speech to parliament, saying that, now confronted with “an errant, ugly streak within conservatism”, the Coalition is recoiling from the term “right-wing extremism”. When Islamist extremism was the threat de jour, Husic and other leaders from a Muslim background were not offered the same opportunity to simply “rename” Islamic extremism. They were, instead, constantly being made to prove and pronounce that the broader religion was unrelated to the violent ideology. 

Husic later said he was upset by how ASIO was claiming the terminology change was being responsive to Muslim communities. The agency has said it is addressing longstanding concerns that the previous label of “Islamic extremism” to describe the jihadist ideology of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State stigmatised the Muslim community and associated the entire religion, with its numerous and diverse sects and schools of thought and practice, with extremism. “It makes it look like this change was being done to address the stigmatisation of the Muslim community,” Husic said. “It makes it look like it was Muslim community leaders who asked for the recent change in terminology, but that was never the case. No one asked for it because they knew they would be hounded by the far-right media.”

Until recently, violent jihadist groups dominated the focus of political leaders and security agencies, with the broader Muslim community caught up in the maelstrom. Bilal Rauf, a spokesperson for the Australian National Imams Council, said that the “ANIC welcomes the change in terms of adopting more neutral language and avoiding stigmatising and targeting groups by association. It’s a good start.

“But a lot more work needs to be done, especially in relation to the processes and procedures of ASIO and the allocation of resources for threats – especially since there is little doubt about the increase in right- wing and white supremacist ideologies and activities, particularly in the online sphere, and their real threat to Australian society.”

There is some irony, though, in the fact that by separating extremist categories into ideological and religious – and not specifically and accurately naming the threat – the change emphasises the connection to religion. Terrorism experts have always been clear to distinguish that jihadism is an ideological movement, not a religious belief, because jihadism has sociopolitical programs and goals. To identify jihadist groups as “religiously motivated violent extremism” actually has the opposite effect of ASIO’s stated intentions – it accentuates rather than diminishes its association with the broader religion of Islam.

 

Among terrorism experts, the main concern is that the new terms are too vague and confusing to be of any value at a time when grappling with complexity and nuance is more vital. “These two terms do not help us become more specific,” says Professor Michele Grossman, a terrorism studies expert and research chair in diversity and community resilience at Deakin University. “Instead, they flatten out distinctions and the very specificities we need to understand [extremist movements] to successfully address them.”

Dr Mario Peucker, an expert on Australian right-wing extremism at Victoria University and a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, says there are valid, non-politicised reasons to avoid traditional political labels. “On one hand, I do see the point about moving away from using labels like right, left, jihadist because a large portion [of extremists] do not fall into any of these categories.”

But, Peucker says, we are not in a better position to address these violent movements with these new terms. “It’s just adding another level to abstraction,” he says. “Why the change of terminology if it doesn’t help categorise or clarify what we are seeing?”

For example, ASIO has pointed out that Canada has also shifted to using the new categories. But the Canadians have included another overarching category, which the Australian government omits – politically motivated violent extremism.

Australia’s division between religiously inspired and ideologically inspired extremism and the exclusion of the term political is problematic, says Greg Barton, because it is all political. “Even a movement like violent incels, which are not conventionally political, are about changing the system, which then makes them political,” he says.

Aside from accusations of double standards and politicisation, the two categories now used by ASIO have a deeper conceptual flaw – the cleavage of religion and ideology when discussing violent extremist movements. Professor Grossman says that distinguishing between religiously and ideologically motivated violent extremism “suggests that religiously motivated violent extremism is not ideological, when in fact it is”.

 

According to Grossman, “All extremism is ideological in nature. The distinction comes in what system of thought and belief the ideology is grounded in. Religiously motivated violence is grounded in an ideological framing of religion. Right-wing extremism is grounded in another ideological framework – for example, white supremacy, racial superiority, radical conservatism. It makes no sense to me to distinguish between ideological and religious extremism because they are both ideological. We should instead be thinking about using the term ‘violent extremist ideologies’ to cover the entire spectrum.”

In other words, religion can be an ideology, and ideology can be religion. Both are in service to political and social goals.

Through these name changes, ASIO has made “right-wing extremism” an order of villainy on par with Voldemort – that which cannot be named. This comes at a time when we are facing a range of movements and ideologies that share common features that would usually be termed right wing – what the European Centre for the Study of Extremism terms an “anti-democratic opposition to equality” that is often characterised by racism, conspiratorial thinking, authoritarianism and exclusionary nationalism.

Liberal Senator James Paterson is heading the current joint parliamentary inquiry into extremism movements and radicalism in Australia. (Editor’s note: Lydia Khalil has appeared at this inquiry as a witness.) The senator confirmed the overwhelming number of submissions to the extremism inquiry dealt with the threat of right-wing extremism as commonly understood – with fascist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, exclusionary nationalist ideologies and movements.

He says that while “the language we use is of course important, the people who get obsessed and distracted by that are missing the point. Whatever the motivation, if those people believe that violence is a legitimate way to achieve their ends, we don’t want anything to do with them, we need to stamp that out.”

In the course of the parliamentary inquiry, he said, “We will not be squeamish about directly describing a group accurately.” ASIO’s umbrella categories “are useful but we shouldn’t allow them to be limiting. We are going to go much deeper. [The parliamentary inquiry] won’t be limited by [the new terms] and we won’t feel restrained from using the more precise terminology where it’s appropriate.”

 

In his recent threat assessment, ASIO’s Director-General Burgess noted that “ideologically motivated” extremism now accounts for 40 per cent of the agency’s investigation caseload. “This reflects a growing international trend,” he said. The secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, was more frank. Speaking on Sky News, he said: “Something like 40 per cent of their caseload at the moment relates to what might broadly be described as extreme right- wing or white supremacist terrorism,” he said.

Naming this form of violent extremism is particularly important because the threat from extreme right-wing groups and movements, in contrast with violent Islamist movements, do not only begin when they commit violence. Right-wing extremism poses multiple layers of risk to a democracy and society such as Australia. They not only pose a violence risk but also social and political risks. We need to know and name which “ideologically motivated” groups and movements are behind these multifaceted threats.

“If a small radical Islamist fringe group that is already marginalised in our society, with no power in the political process, have very radical ideas that are not violent, who cares? They don’t have the power to influence things,” says Mario Peucker. “[In contrast] right-wing extremist movements are not only dangerous because they are potentially violent. Right-wing extremism is dangerous also for other reasons – for their effects on community cohesion, sense of safety of minority communities, and the stability of democratic systems.

“It is an incomplete assessment of risk if we only look at violence when it comes to right wing and it comes out of a problematic equivalence we apply to different forms of extremism. He points to the group Reclaim Australia as an example. Reclaim Australia was a nasty anti-Muslim group that caused a lot of community harm, but as a group they were never committed to the use of violence.”

The risk is still there, though, when individuals break through these boundaries. Take Phillip Galea, Australia’s first convicted far-right terrorist, who was associated with Reclaim Australia before planning a violent terrorist attack against “leftist” locations in Melbourne. He was sentenced in late 2020 to 12 years in prison.

Changes around terminology might seem a bureaucratic point but the act and power of naming – how a society identifies, describes and labels the world around it – is incredibly consequential. How, and what, we name things signals what we believe is important, where it fits into our society and how we can communicate about it. Naming and labelling help us break taboos, denote priorities, legitimise or repudiate. All are essential aspects to addressing violent fringes that can harm broader society.

“We’re conscious that the names and labels we use are important,” Mike Burgess said in his March threat assessment. “Words matter. They can be very powerful in how they frame an issue and how people think about it.”