Labels Aside, We Must Recognize Extremism When We See It

Angel Candelario Funeral
Family and friends carry the coffin of Angel Candelario, one of the victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, covered with a Puerto Rico flag during his funeral, Guanica, Puerto Rico, June 18. Alvin Baez/Reuters

A number of horrors last week have had many asking a similar question: what do we call the hate that led to the murder of 49 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando by Omar Mateen or the killing of U.K. Labour MP Jo Cox, allegedly by Thomas Mair, in England?

In the former case, Donald Trump insisted that President Barack Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton call it “radical Islam.” Obama rejected this wholeheartedly on the basis that implicating an entire religion will not prevent future attacks. Clinton’s rejection was arguably more halfhearted but still in line with Obama’s.

In the second case, there is growing evidence that Mair had a “long history with white nationalism,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. However, few observers have yet to call it right-wing terrorism, despite the protests of many who say there is a double standard.

In both cases, we see signs that a tragedy rooted in hate can be appropriated to serve political interests. Britain is in the midst of a bitter debate over a referendum in a week’s time on leaving the European Union (Cox was a staunch advocate to “Remain”). Proponents of the referendum have begun to speculate that Cox’s murder will be leveraged to reverse polls that show opponents of leaving the EU currently losing.

As for Trump, his narrative arc on Orlando has now expanded from his “suggestion” to ban Muslims from entering the United States to include associating guilt with their American-born children. The exploitation is so gratuitous that many Republicans are refusing to discuss Trump’s language at all, dodging the media at every turn.

This distraction does a disservice not only to the victims of each tragedy, but also to the fight against the ideologies that underpin extremist violence. Just as we should all recognize extremist violence when we see it, we should start to recognize the language that feeds an extremist atmosphere where this mentality in unstable individuals goes unchecked.

People advocating an us and them mentality. Using violent or apocalyptic language to describe the state of the world. A sense of desperation. We increasingly see language that reflects these points of view and the correlation is clear. Over time, this discourse becomes normalized and, while not being directly responsible for violence, has certainly not helped challenge it.

If we have the patience and courage, a good faith discussion on the nature of these threats is not only possible, but necessary. There are important discussions to have about regarding the role of Islam in the radicalization of Mateen or the influence that right-wing groups may have had on Mair. In both cases, there are also clear indications of mental health issues that have, until now, not been taken seriously. There is a formula for violence driven in part by totalitarian mindsets that we need to begin resolving.

My fear is that political expediencies will continue to overshadow the discipline and objectivity required to make sense of this growing phenomenon. Is it radical Islam? Is it right-wing terrorism? Maybe. Arguing over semantics does not mean we can’t make progress on what is hiding in plain sight, an insidious and growing threat to the hard fought values precious to both countries: individual liberty, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law.

The many victims in Orlando would have fought for these principles. Jo Cox fought for them during her short political career as well. Let’s not let semantics prevent us from fighting for them too.

Zahed Amanullah is senior programme manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. He tweets at @zahed.