Don't ignore threat of extremist nationalism

Story highlights

  • British MP Jo Cox has died as a result of injuries from an attack in her constituency on Thursday
  • H.A. Hellyer: There is patriotism; there is right-wing conservatism; but then there is extremist nationalism

H.A. Hellyer is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Center for the Middle East, and fellow for International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He is the author of the upcoming book "A Revolution Undone: Egypt's Path Beyond Revolt." You can follow him @hahellyer. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)On Thursday afternoon, Jo Cox, a British Labour MP, died after being attacked that day in her constituency. She is the first British lawmaker to be killed in office since the IRA assassinated Conservative MP Ian Gow in 1990. Back then, we were all clear what the threat was -- a violent and extremist form of nationalism. In 2016, we need to be clear again -- the future of our society depends on it.

According to the Press Association, an eyewitness named Clarke Rothwell said the assailant shouted repeatedly, "put Britain first." The ramifications of that shouldn't be underestimated, but neither should we be too surprised at this kind of depraved act. The environment we've allowed to fester in our country -- and beyond in Europe -- should have been full of warning signs for us all.
    There is an extremist nationalist group in Britain called "Britain First." The group claimed the shooter had nothing to do with them. That may well be true, but the discourse that Britain First and others have promoted isn't innocuous, either. There is patriotism; there is right-wing conservatism; but then there is extremist nationalism. It's the latter that we all ought to consider very carefully, because when it turns violent, murder becomes possible.
    One might argue that such extreme nationalism would target members of groups they don't view as part of their own -- and certainly, that has been the case on a variety of occasions. But Thursday's shooting wouldn't be the first time an extremist nationalist turned violent and committed acts of terrorism against their own ethnicity.
    It might be forgotten that one of the most horrendous terrorist atrocities in recent years in Europe was carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway. He is perhaps one of the most famous of extremist nationalists in modern times -- but when he carried out his acts of violence, he didn't aim at the "foreign Muslims" whom he expressed such hatred for in his works. Rather, he targeted members of his own ethnicity, whom he thought had betrayed what he considered to be the essential European identity of the age.
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    We're tempted to consider the likes of Breivik as marginal, or even insane. But even against the backdrop of Breivik's own trial, extremist nationalists in the Norwegian public sphere expressed support for Breivik's anti-Muslim and bigoted views, even while eschewing his violence. And that kind of sentiment is growing.
    Some of that sentiment has even found itself into our own Brexit debate. This vote is one of the most serious that British voters will find themselves engaging with in their lifetimes -- and it deserves to be treated genuinely. Instead, we have found a number of politicians pushing forward their arguments with little substance, by just playing on the most base and xenophobic emotions of the electorate. Indeed, just last week, in the aftermath of the Orlando killings, a "Leave" campaign group used the attack to justify leaving the European Union -- in an indescribably cynical fashion.
    Where once such bigotry was the domain of a few isolated figures on the far right, it no longer is. The likes of Geert Wilders, for example, are not sequestered to the sidelines -- they are embedded in Dutch politics, openly expressing bigotry about Muslim communities in particular in ways that can only be described as hate speech. It goes further than Wilders, too -- this has become, over time, and quite openly, a vividly European reality.
    The examples of such nationalistic chauvinism are not only plentiful -- they are held at senior levels of European political establishment. In a matter of weeks, the European Union will be led by Slovakia, whose leader has declared "Islam has no place" in Slovakia. Czech President Milos Zeman insists the refugee crisis is an "organized invasion," and that it is "practically impossible" to integrate Muslims. Hungarian Prime Minister Vicktor Orban does away with centuries of European history in asserting that Islam has never been a part of Europe. Only weeks ago, the far-right candidate only barely lost the vote for the Austrian presidency, while in France, Marine le Pen's far-right party seems likely to make huge electoral gains. Bigotry and extremism is not confined to a marginal sliver on the far right; it has been mainstreamed. That's something very concerning for all Europeans to consider.
    In 2005, after the July 7 bombings in London, I was appointed as deputy convenor of the British government's task force on tackling radicalization and extremism. In precisely three weeks, we will mark the 11th anniversary of those attacks. But 11 years later, we've focused so much energy on what might be best described as extremist neo-Islamism, and we've focused so very little on extremist nationalism. That's despite the fact that a substantial proportion of referrals to the government's anti-extremism "Channel" program come in relation to right-wing extremists.
    The shooting of Cox suggests ignoring that kind of extremism is not an option. Worryingly, it feeds off a discourse that is hardly marginal in our societies. On the contrary, that discourse has been popularized at the most senior levels of our political establishments, and it threatens the very core of our values.
    We cannot underestimate the danger of that -- a danger from within our own societies that we must face with all vigilance. Jo Cox, one of our finest MPs, died on Thursday. It will be up to the rest of us to ensure her death was not in vain.