Differing reactions to the violence perpetrated by white supremacists and Islamist jihadists reveal how racism is mobilised to advance projects of state domination, writes Duncan Thomas.
“You look like a terrorist”, a woman once said to me. Of course, it was just a joke – she didn’t think I actually was a terrorist, but simply that my big beard made me look like one. Or at least like a Muslim. Close enough. But she obviously didn’t think I was really a Muslim either, presumably because I’m white. Reassured by my epidermis, she was able to inject her assessment of my appearance with attempted humour – rather than, for example, with the fear, suspicion or hatred that may have accompanied it under other circumstances.
Unremarkable though this encounter was, it demonstrates how closely intertwined the categories of “terrorist”, “Muslim” and “non-white” have become in the popular imagination. On 25 June, this racist conflation was shown from its converse angle, as white supremacist Zach Davies was found guilty of the “attempted murder” of Dr Sarandev Bambra. Davies stated that he had targeted Bambra for his “racial appearance”, in “revenge” for the similarly brutal assault on Lee Rigby in 2013.
With a clear-headedness apparently beyond the British criminal justice system, the victim’s family speculated that, “had the racial disposition of this case been reversed, this would be reported as an act of terror with a wider media coverage… [we] are in no doubt, given the racial and political motivation, that this [attack] should be rightly defined as an act of terrorism.” The UK’s Terrorism Act apparently agrees, defining the offence as:
the use or threat of action…designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and [where] the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.
It’s hard to see what more Davies could have done to be charged under these terms – which, incidentally, are vague enough to apply to huge range of non-violent political activities. Like Rigby’s attackers, he used a machete (and a hammer). While Adebolajo and Adebowale identified as jihadists, Davies screamed “white power” as he hacked at Bambra in broad daylight. In place of al-Qaeda, he is a member of National Action – a virulently racist, internationally connected and highly militant neo-Nazi group, which openly fantasises about creating a “white Britain” through “legal violence”. In other words, a programme of genocide or mass expulsion “through state power and [with] the complicity of state institutions, such as Police, Army [and] Intelligence Services.”
But despite his best efforts, Davies just didn’t “look like a terrorist.” Indeed, as his organisation states on their own website: “the authorities have never proscribed National Action on any official level, and don’t really seem to have a problem with what we do”. So there you have it, in black and white.
The refusal of Western governments to call a spade a spade and recognise white supremacist violence as a form of terrorism – also recently evident in the labelling of Dylan Roof’s massacre in Charleston as a “hate crime” – is not due to this posing a lesser threat than Islamist extremism. Indeed, as statistics cited in Arun Kundnani’s book, The Muslims are Coming!, show, European far Right racist groups murdered at least 249 people between 1990 and 2012, with countless more reported and unreported serious assaults; over in the same period, 263 were killed by jihadists. In the United States, 348 people were slain by white supremacists between 1990 and 2010; not counting the exceptional case of 9/11, only 20 were victims of Islamist extremism.
Classifying violence as “terrorism”, “hate crime” or “(attempted) murder” is not a matter of mere semantics. Rather, it signals how the violence perpetrated by different individuals or groups is seen by the state. By applying these different labels, the state also rationalises its own response and sets the terms in which that violence is to be interpreted by public institutions, media outlets and the population at large.
The charging of Zach Davies with “attempted murder” indicates that the British state views his crime as an essentially individual act, removed from any larger socio-political phenomenon. In contrast, the conviction of Lee Rigby’s killers as “terrorists” connects their violence to a collective world view, organisational network and definite political programme linked to a specific religious (and implicitly racial) community.
However, Davies’s strong links to National Action and broader immersion in white supremacism demonstrate that this distinction is not based on objective criteria. Rather, it functions as an ideological device, through which concepts such as “threat”, “enemy” and “community” are formed and invested with content. Once these concepts are in place, they can be deployed to legitimise the institutional response of the state and rationalise the changing relations between state and society that this response entails.
Davies’s conviction for “attempted murder” tells us that the institutions of the British state will not be mobilised against white supremacism as they are against Islamist extremism. Theresa May will not roll out a vast swathe of new, intrusive anti-terror laws, as the government plans to do in response to the recent “Islamic State” attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait. Nursery teachers will not be required to report on white toddlers showing signs of “extremism”, as they are for three-year-olds from Muslim families.
White supremacism, though it claims a similar number of innocent lives, will not be dramatised as a threat to the “fundamental British values” of democracy, freedom and equality. Internet commentators calling for migrants to be mowed down with “machine guns” at Calais will not be viewed as equivalent to Muslim “extremists” who celebrate the deaths of British soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan or other theatres of imperialist adventure.
What this indicates is that white supremacism remains valuable for state power. As I have written elsewhere, it is mobilised more or less openly through the racist “clash of civilisations” rhetoric. We see this with the “war against terror”, where the violence of western states is portrayed as legitimate and rational, while that of the jihadists is treated as barbaric and pathological. More broadly, ideas rooted in white supremacy are invoked to justify the further militarisation of nominally civilian police forces and the extension of state surveillance into ever more hitherto private spaces.
The construction of Islamist extremism as “terrorism” in the media and the law courts allows the state to claim increased powers, whether conducting foreign wars or policing the domestic population. The refusal to deal with white supremacist violence in the same manner both reveals the racism embedded in state power and popular culture, and suggests that the state values its operational freedom from society over and above the lives of its minority citizens.
While the figure of the violent Islamist is used to justify this forward march and Muslims remain the primary targets of the “war on terror”, the reconfiguration and extension of the institutional apparatus of the state brings more and more of us under its watchful eye. Political activists, journalists and entire (normally working-class) communities increasingly experience the powers of surveillance and coercion ushered in through “anti-terror” laws. In a classic example of a “divide and rule” strategy, the racism which underpins these laws simultaneously sets different sections of society against one another and condemns us all to live under the increasingly authoritarian neo-liberal state. Just as racism is fundamental to the maintenance of elite class power, so too is challenging white supremacism in all its forms an essential task of any inclusive, class-based counter movement.