We Can’t Combat Extremism Without Also Combating Misogyny

Recognizing the role of community and gender constructions is essential to effective counter-extremism and terrorism approaches.
Crowd of Trump supporters marching on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, ultimately leading to the building being breached and several deaths. (TapTheForwardAssist/CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Crowd of Trump supporters marching on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, ultimately leading to the building being breached and several deaths. (TapTheForwardAssist/CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Jessica White is a Research Fellow in the Terrorism and Conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Her expertise encompasses countering terrorism and violent extremism policy and programming, as well as gender mainstreaming strategies. Before completing her PhD, she spent six years as an intelligence analyst in the United States Navy.

As all eyes have shifted – at least in Western security communities – towards the growing threat of radical right extremism and terrorism. It is becoming increasingly apparent how the different defining lines of community in this context and the highly gendered nature of their members’ identities and ideologies challenge current conceptions of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programming.

The concept of P/CVE was originally brought in as a ‘soft’ pillar of counter-terrorism (CT) frameworks around 15 years ago in the context of the ongoing ‘Global War on Terror.’ The impact of this context on CT frameworks in the West over the last two decades has left them almost entirely focused on the threat of Islamist extremism and foreign terrorist organizations.

This means that the concept of P/CVE has also largely been designed around countering Islamist extremism, often leading to critique of it as a type of programming that negatively stereotypes and profiles minority ethnic and religious communities in the Western context. However, now, as the threat landscape is shifting, security forces’ concerns are turning towards the largely domestic-based threat of radical right ideologies, which often find their home within the majority demographic population. This presents challenges for how P/CVE programming can be re-imagined and re-designed to identify and reach at-risk populations that are not as easily identified as ‘suspect communities’.

Radical right extremism is an umbrella term (alongside right-wing, far-right, etc.), often used to lump together a jumble of different ideologies. For the policy community, this encourages a lack of attention to the different types of communities that might be formed and individuals that might be drawn in by one or more of these expressions of extremism – which range from anti-government to ultra-nationalism to white and/or male supremacy and beyond.

While not all overtly gendered ideologies, most of them present an increasingly apparent range and intensity of misogynistic narratives as well as gendered behavioral and physical expectations for their community membership. The misogynist implications of some of these ideologies are not dissimilar to those found in Islamist extremist narratives, as they mostly fall at the right/conservative end of the political/ideological spectrum. So, lessons can and should be taken from the last two decades of learning around P/CVE programming and the essential nature of gender perspective to its effectiveness.

However, there are also very clear distinctions between these ideologies, which impact how P/CVE programming is designed to counter them and where it is implemented. These distinctions often revolve around the understanding and identification of communities. Radical right extremists have historically been characterized as having looser affiliations and networks, rather than strong adherences to organized groups. As indicated above, in the Western context, they also exist as part of the majority demographics and thus ‘blend in’. These distinctions challenge the efficacy of CVE programming, because – in order for it to be implemented effectively – an at-risk group needs to be identified for programmatic intervention, otherwise the impact of programming is often limited.

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Additionally, in today’s pandemic-induced environment of economic crisis, programming that cannot prove effectiveness or impact will not be funded. Governments have reduced financial resources to put towards P/CVE and taxpayers will demand even more accountability on the effectiveness of money spent in this arena. Therefore, P/CVE strategies need to be adapted to better understand how and why individuals are connecting to these extremist ideologies and communities, while avoiding repetition of the same mistaken assumptions around profiling of communities.

In order for this to occur, policymakers need to re-examine how they define communities. For example, due at least partially to the less centralized nature of many radical right networks and their general lack of structured grouping, online forums and groups have become a type of community which are often used to spread these ideologies. Therefore, community can have a variety of meanings – it can be a group located in a particular place, or it can be more abstract and simply made up of a grouping of people who share characteristics or beliefs – for example, an online community of at-risk individuals.

Unfortunately, these types of online or loosely formulated communities can be more difficult to identify and investigate. However, at the same time, online communities have an undoubtedly more significant reach and can contribute to the radicalization process of individuals globally. This online connectivity, that is often strong in the radical right context, encourages transnational ideological, operational, financial, and other links between different networks and organizations. Extremist groups across the ideological board are forcing the evolution of the meaning of community and tailoring it to fit their needs. Therefore, those trying to adapt P/CVE programming need to consider ways in which to identify and reach these new types of communities.

Understanding of the importance of gender identities for community members, as well as their gendered ideologies is essential to this transformation. Over the last few years, there has been increasing recognition of the role that gender (i.e., sociocultural interpretations of masculinity and femininity) plays in how extremist communities are formed and why people choose to join them. Therefore, when looking at the adaptability of community-based P/CVE programming it is essential to consider gender.

This means using lessons that have been learned on the importance of gender perspective in analysis and applying them to the evolving threat landscape. Policymakers and programme designers need to take into account the wider perspective of how socio-cultural constructions of gender identities drive both men and women to participate in violence, as well as how this contributes to the ideological construction of extremist groups and what roles individuals take up within them. This is an essential element to effective reimagination and transformation of P/CVE programming to face an expanding awareness of extremism and terrorism threats and ideally deliver a more equal security.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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