When Western commentators lump together white nationalists
and radical Islamists, they obscure important differences between the two.
The initial news reports were chilling.
Late Wednesday, at least nine people lay dead of gunshot wounds in two bars in the German city of Hanau. Yet another mass casualty attack. But who carried out the attack? What was their motivation?
In the end, the gunman turned out to be a right wing German nationalist. But in the first chilling moments after the killings, the world waited anxiously and wondered: Was this yet another Islamist attack or was it the work of white racists?
Who are our most dangerous enemies? Those on the political left point to white nationalists. Those on the right point to radical Islamists.1
This is a debate with no winner.
Rather than try to determine which is the greater threat, we should understand the nature of the threats we face from both sides. To do that, we need to understand white nationalists and radical Islamists.
Various advocacy groups have vested interests in promoting their particular threat narratives.
For example, the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) exaggerates the threat from white nationalists and studiously avoids mention of Islamic violence and Jew-hatred. SPLC has been wildly successful in raising funds by convincing the public that white nationalists are large in number and pose the major threat to minorities. It is one of the wealthiest NGOs in the country.
Other groups, like the Clarion Project and ACT! for America, focus on the threat of radical Islam. They highlight Islamic intolerance, radical attitudes among Muslims, and their tacit agreement with violent strategies like suicide bombings.
Both white nationalists and radical Islamists are a threat to Jews and to the wider society.
Radical Islamists versus White Nationalists
Differing Views on the Sanctity of Life
Radical Islamists believe that life is a transitory phase with little value. Only the afterlife is important. It is necessary for every good Muslim to serve Allah’s will in this life, in order to assure his ascendance to Allah’s kingdom in the eternal afterlife. In practice this means—-among other things—-enlisting in Allah’s war against the infidels in order to bring about the triumph of worldwide Islam.
It is worth mentioning that only a minority of today’s Muslims strictly adhere to these beliefs. Still, they do represent the views of hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide and have a profound influence on the relatively small group of violent Islamists and the much larger group of Muslims who support them.
A radical Islamist may teach his 10 year old child to use weapons to kill or maim infidels, that is, non-Muslims. He may strap an explosives belt to a child and instruct him to ignite in a crowded restaurant or public area in order to kill other children and adults. Radical Islamists believe that the Koran advises the use of children in combat situations—-as spies, messengers and active combatants. This is evident in Hamas’ use of children as human shields and active participants in combat situations in Gaza. A video released by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group shows a young boy beheading an ISIS captive. Even the most extreme white nationalist would be repulsed by this.
The most horrific use of children was carried out by Iran, in its 1980-1988 war with Iraq. In that war, Iran recruited tens of thousands of young boys to serve as human mine sweepers.2 Iranian leaders, with the help of religious officials, used Islamic ideology to convince these boys and their parents that, by their deaths, they would be rewarded in heaven.
In Gaza, the terrorist group Hamas routinely uses children as battle aides and human shields. When they are maimed or die Hamas praises them as martyrs. In one particular battle at the Gaza-Israel border, as the hospital emergency room filled with wounded children, an Islamist gleefully explained to a Western reporter that the maimed and dead children were lucky indeed. Their sacrifice in the war against the Jews, explained the Islamist, would bring a reward in the afterlife, a reward greater than any other that could be achieved in this life.
A white nationalist may teach his 10 year old son to use a gun for hunting or to defend himself or his family, if attacked. But recognizing the sanctity of life, he seeks to preserve his life and that of his family. (Although isolated individuals may murder those they perceive to be enemies.) He is as horrified as any Westerner at the cynical use of children by armed terrorist groups and radical Islamists. He still believes in the innocence of children.
The very few white nationalists who murder are almost always loners, and they act alone, although at times with encouragement from internet buddies.
In the white nationalist world view, there is no mention of suicide bombers or celebrating killers by lauding them as martyrs.
Family and Honor
Radical Islamists believe that anyone who violates the honor of the family or clan must be punished or killed. They turn to what they believe are Mohammed’s words to determine which behaviors are transgressions and which of those deserve the punishment of death. Capital offenses include apostasy, disobedience to a father or clan leader, and sexual nonconformity.
Sex related offenses appear to play a major role in radical Islamic justice. Thus, in the Muslim world, every year hundreds of women are murdered in so-called honor killings. The offense might involve a young woman meeting a man in in a café without her father’s permission. It might mean an out-of-wedlock pregnancy or affair. Muslim societies are notorious for killings of gay men by their own family members, with the tacit approval of mosque and government.
White nationalists also adhere to a rigid honor code, although one that is usually less deadly and with different rules. There is an emphasis on loyalty to the family, and also patriotism, that is, loyalty to one’s country. There is an emphasis on “protecting” the family and nation from the imagined threat of racial minorities, Jews and foreigners. This is motivated by the belief that these groups are destroying the “white nation.” In common with the sexual paranoia of radical Islamists, white nationalists at times obsess about sexual threats to white women from non-white men.
Both radical Islamists and white nationalist men may project their frustrated sexual needs onto other groups they perceive as enemies. For both groups, this is made more likely by severe codes of conduct that suppress male sexual behavior.
Following religious dictates, radical Islamists use dawa, that is, subterfuge and subversion, to accomplish the goal of defeating infidel societies and replacing them with rule by sharia, or Islamic law. For example, the radical Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has instituted a well-planned strategy to establish front organizations dedicated to purposes such as civil rights promotion and charity, but really intended to undermine the societies in which they operate.
I am not aware of any white nationalist group that uses subterfuge or subversion. They are aggressively vocal about their intentions. In any case, they are too small and isolated to rely on subterfuge as a strategy to achieve their goals.
Radical Islamists belong to highly disciplined groups or follow the call to action issued by these groups. Existing mosques, militias, and religious organizations provide a ready infrastructure for acts of propaganda and violence. For example, around the world, young people are often radicalized in jihadi doctrine by mosques and religious organizations. Organized and well-funded terrorist groups recruit, train, equip and assign actors to carry out attacks.
By comparison, white nationalists are novices in propaganda and violence. They have neither the funds nor the organizational capabilities to terrorize an entire society on an ongoing basis. This is not to say that individual white nationalists cannot commit horrific acts of violence. But, unlike radical Islamists, they are usually self-financed and isolated individuals, rather than members of groups (although in recent years, many isolated white nationalists are part of social media networks that serve to justify and encourage their violence).
Kidnapping is a popular tactic among radical Islamists. The practice of kidnapping is integral to radical Islam. It is an often fruitful tactic to raise funds by ransom; to achieve political goals such as release of imprisoned terrorists and changes in government policies; or simply to achieve revenge.
Examples include the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and murder in 2002 in Pakistan; the kidnapping of 104 foreign hostages by Lebanon’s Hezbollah between 1982 and 1992; and the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
I am not aware of white nationalists who routinely use kidnapping as a tactic.
Intolerance and Intra-group Violence
White nationalists are generally free to leave their white nationalist organizations or to renounce their beliefs without fear of violent retribution. Radical Islamists may find it difficult or impossible to leave their violent organizations or to renounce their radical beliefs, for fear of being labeled an apostate. Apostasy is punishable by death.
White nationalists may not like being criticized by outsiders, but they do not kill or harm those who make fun of them or insult them. Radical Islamists are not so forgiving. We saw this is the killings of cartoonists at the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Radical Islamists murdered simply out of their belief that it is a sin to draw a picture of Mohammed. Islamists extend their severe standards to members of their own group as well. In 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader issued a fatwa (religious order) to murder novelist Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s offense? —-publishing poetry that Iranian clerics believed offended Islam.
Support from the Wider Society
There is a striking difference between white nationalists and radical Islamists.
In every society in which they exist today, white nationalists are marginalized. They are condemned and often restrained by every major societal institution including the political class, the press, religious institutions, the police, armed forces, and civil society institutions. They are rejected by the great majority of the public. Despite the growing political success of far-right nationalist groups in Europe, they are still a small minority and are routinely condemned by the wider society.
While white nationalist groups may receive funds from small circles of followers, they have no major sources of funding. Despite mainstream press coverage in the West that depicts white nationalist groups as a major threat, they are miniscule in number and, in most countries, have little or no political power. This is just beginning to change as massive Muslim immigration to Europe has energized far-right anti-immigrant parties like Pegida in Germany.
By contrast, in Muslim countries, radical Islamists often wield considerable political power. For example, Islamist governments have come to power in Iran, Egypt, Gaza, and elsewhere, and Islamist political parties have a strong presence in a wide range of countries from Tunisia to Afghanistan.
Radical Islamists are supported by a huge international network of enablers and justifiers. Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, funnels hundreds of millions of dollars each year to violent and radical Islamist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In Pakistan, army intelligence services have close ties to radical Islamist groups that carry out attacks against civilians in India. Wealthy individuals, and at times governments, in Gulf countries have long made generous donations to violent Islamist terror groups and to an international network of madrasas or schools that indoctrinate young people into Islamist ideology and hatred of non-Muslims.
This situation is made worse by some liberal politicians and civilian activists in the West. Far left politicians like Jeremy Corbin, leader of Britain’s Labor Party, give public support to some of the most violent and radical Islamist groups. Corbin is notorious for having referred to “our friends in Hamas and Hezbollah” in a deliberate act of ignorance of the goals of these groups to destroy democratic governance in Britain and elsewhere and replace it with governance by radical Islamists.
A liberal establishment in the US provides a platform for ideologues like Linda Sarsour, who sings the praises of sharia and poses improbably as a feminist. In 2017, when convicted Arab terrorist Rasmea Odeh was deported from the US for having lied about her terrorist history, Jewish Voice for Peace invited her as a featured speaker at their conference. These misguided Jews were mum about the two Jewish college boys who died as a result of a bomb planted by Odeh in a supermarket. According to the Antidefamation League, Jewish Voice for Peace also praised convicted mass-terrorist Marwan Barghouti and shouted down pro-Israel speakers at events.
In the West, the situation for white nationalists is very different. Public support is miniscule. In the Muslim world, radical Islamist groups enjoy considerable public support. According to the Clarion Project, although only a minority of Muslims in these countries engage in violence, a much great number of people provide moral and oftentimes monetary support. For example, a Pew Research survey found that over a quarter of young Muslims in the US supported suicide bombing in at least some instances.
Throughout the world, including the US, funds are raised and distributed to radical Islamist groups by mosques and quasi-charitable institutions such as the Holy Land Foundation (now shut down by the US government).
Locus of Attacks
Most white nationalist attacks occur in the West. Most radical Islamist attacks occur in the Islamic world. But as Muslim populations in the West grow, increasing numbers of Islamic-inspired attacks occur in the West. This does not argue against Muslim immigration to the West, but rather for a smart immigration policy, including controlled borders so we can screen entrants. It is also important for Western institutions to support Muslim reformers in the West and overseas, as suggested by reformers such as Juhdi Zasser and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Increasingly, Islamists view Muslim countries as subjected to “invasion” and subjugation by the West. Therefore they carry out attacks in the US, Europe and Australia to punish “Crusaders” and to compel Western military and commercial forces to leave Muslim countries. Radical Islamists view Muslim countries that cooperate with the West or seek to modernize—-such as Gulf Arab states—-as traitors to Islam. Islamists launch terrorist campaigns in these countries in order to overthrow their existing governments and replace them with radical Islamic regimes.
Loyalty to the Nation State
White nationalists view themselves as protectors of their nations from invasion by foreign elements. They are intensely loyal to their nation states. They also see themselves as defenders of the Christian faith (hence the Ku Klux Klan’s cross symbolism). But religion is secondary to their primary focus on their nation state.
Radical Islamists have adopted a conservative version of Islam. In their belief system there is no distinction between religion and state. But the nation state is subservient to the faith system. Therefore, the goal is to abolish the nation state (seen as an infidel institution) and to create a world-wide caliphate under Muslim law and Muslim rule.
Attitudes toward Women
Both white nationalists and radical Islamists view women as inferior and subservient to men. In Sharia, women have fewer rights than men and are subject to the dictates of their “male guardian.” In public spaces women are rarely seen. In radical Islamist organizations they are relegated to supportive tasks such as baby making, child rearing and homemaking.
White nationalists “defend” women against perceived threats from foreign sources on the idea that women are vulnerable and cannot defend themselves. Women are followers of the movement rather than leaders. White nationalist rallies and marches include few women.
Attitudes toward Jews
White nationalists and radical Islamists agree that Jews represent a powerful and insidious threat to the world order. Both believe that powerful international Jewish organizations work day and night to destroy their institutions and way of life. They control Western governments, the media, and commercial interests. Both white nationalists and radical Islamists rely on conspiracy theories about Jewish perfidy, power and control.
Attitudes toward Gays
Both radical Islamists and white nationalists believe that gay people undermine the social order. To white nationalists, a gay man is a symbol of weakened manhood, the undermining of male superiority and a danger to children. Female homosexuality is a rejection of motherhood and traditional feminine values.
White nationalists and radical Islamists share the belief that homosexuality is a grave sin and transgression against God’s commandments. There is a stunning similarity between the Old Testament and the Muslim hadiths in this regard. Leviticus commands death for the sin of a man ‘lying with a man’. The Muslim hadiths require that homosexuals be thrown from a high place and then stoned to death. In practice, in the West today, gay people are safe from these ancient prescriptions, but in mortal danger in every conservative Muslim society.
Attitudes toward Race
Both white nationalists and radical Islamists are motivated by a narrative of religious superiority and false, paranoid narratives.
White nationalists see themselves as threatened or taken advantage of by the larger society. They want to be left alone to pursue their lives as they see fit. They see other groups as impeding this perceived right—-for example, by restricting their right to bear arms, exposing their children to schooling that violates their values, and bringing into the country large numbers of immigrants, especially from non-white racial groups.
Radical Islamists see themselves as combatants in a millennial war against the non-Islamic world, with the goal of converting every society in the world to Islam.
Radical Islamists may include members of various races, provided these members share their beliefs and conform to their version of Sharia. The emphasis is on a united ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims.
Some white nationalist groups are deeply racist. But contrary to popular belief, others include racial minorities in their ranks. Some believe that whites, blacks and Latinos share a common interest in preserving the nation and fighting the subversive influence of liberals, Jews, atheists and others who undermine the Christian or national order.
White nationalists and radical Islamists have important commonalities: intolerance, rigidity, and paranoia. Both groups reflect human flaws: tribalism and blaming “the other.”
But when Western commentators lump together white nationalists and radical Islamists, they obscure important differences between the two. For example, the former do not want to get rid of the nation state while the latter do. The former obsess about race, while the latter do not. White nationalists are inspired by relatively recent history, while radical Islamists look to norms established in the seventh century. White nationalists are almost universally condemned and isolated in the West, while radical Islamists are often supported by public agreement and money from conservative governments and individuals in Muslim countries.
To counter these pernicious movements we need to understand them. To treat the disease we need to diagnose it properly.
- According to Wikipedia,
Islamism is a concept whose meaning has been debated in both public and academic contexts. The term can refer to diverse forms of social and political activism advocating that public and political life should be guided by Islamic principles or more specifically to movements which call for full implementation of sharia (Islamic order or law). It is commonly used interchangeably with the terms political Islam or Islamic fundamentalism. In academic usage, the term Islamism does not specify what vision of “Islamic order” or sharia are [sic] being advocated, or how their advocates intend to bring them about. In Western mass media it tends to refer to groups whose aim is to establish a sharia-based Islamic state, often with implication of violent tactics and human rights violations, and has acquired connotations of political extremism.
Retrieved February 19, 2020 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamism
- Berger, R.M. We All Want the Same Thing: Or Do We? [Blog Post]. Times of Israel, April 22, 2018. See: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/we-all-want-the-same-thing-or-do-we/