Enemies near and far
Some thoughts on the targeting choices of far right extremists
An interesting new brief from Jacob Ware and Colin Clarke is worth your time, discussing an important question that could benefit from deeper interrogation:
I recommend reading this, and it’s a thoughtful, considered argument by a pair of respected experts on an important topic, but I am not sure I agree that this is the right frame for scrutinizing targeting decisions by far right extremists.
In jihadist debate, considerations of whether to target the near vs. far enemy were more or less strategic, based on a pragmatic thesis: The despised Muslim regimes of the “near enemy” were too powerful to fight, because they were being propped up by American military and economic might. To defeat the near enemy, the far enemy—what Osama bin Laden called the “head of the snake”—had to be removed from the equation. Al Qaeda’s theory was that this could be accomplished by terrorist attacks that would undermine popular support for Middle Eastern regimes, eroding American resolve and leading to its withdrawal. (Obviously, this was a major miscalculation.) In other words, the United States was targeted because it had agency over what happened in the Muslim world.
The far-right enemy categories of near and far, as described by Ware and Clarke in this brief, are a different story. Here, the near enemy includes Jewish people, liberals and the government, where the far enemy includes Black people and other people of color, and LGBTQ+ people. In most far-right ideologies, Jewish people are the enemy with agency, while other non-white and non-cishet people are footsoldiers. Far-right ideologies, and especially anti-Semitic ideologies, draw clear distinctions with regard to agency, which I typically describe with the following 2x2 chart:
For many far-right movements, the controlling out-group is primarily characterized as Jewish. Other ethnic groups are seen as carrying out the policies of a Jewish elite, with the goal of destroying or subjugating the far right’s eligible in-group(typically meaning White Christians).
In other words, the far right’s near/far dichotomy tends to assign almost all agency to the near enemy, while jihadists assign a substantial, perhaps even decisive, amount of agency to the far enemy.
The analogy also strains when you consider in-group critiques and in-group targeting. For jihadists, the “near enemy” was Muslim—members of the eligible in-group who had become apostate and risked being assigned to an out-group. They were near geographically, but also near in terms of social identity. The near enemy was also the intimate enemy.
Consider the seminal early jihadist text by the blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, “The Present Rulers and Islam—are they Muslims or not?” The dynamics around targeting in-group members are different, but they’re part of the near/far dichotomy. It is almost always easier to sell audiences on targeting members of an out-group than members of its in-group. The right-wing “near enemy” described by Ware and Clarke is much more distinctly an out-group, especially when considering anti-Semitic movements. You can argue that “Hang Mike Pence” is an anti-government chant, but I would argue it’s better understood as an ineligible in-group dynamic.
All this being said, I am definitely in favor of deeper dives into the targeting practices of extremist groups in general, and the far right in particular, and Ware and Clarke have provided a good jumping off point. But I think the near/far dichotomy is very specific to the culture and political scenarios of early jihadism. I am not sure the terms can, or should, travel.
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The broad identity collective that an extremist organization claims to represent and from which it seeks to recruit. Berger, J. M.. Extremism (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series) (p. 134). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.