Collective identity is an important societal concept that is rarely talked about in an analytical manner. The concept itself is rather clear and easily understood: who do we see as part of our community? But looking into a given group and how it actually started, the genesis of a self-defined nation is becoming rather nebulous relatively quickly. The need to create self-administrated communities around these identities has been one of the biggest impulse for historical changes. This can be seen via the implosion of the Empire of the Ancien Régime, anti-colonial campaigns across the globe, and in the Balkan and African civil wars. All of these events saw the development of a separate identity at their cores.
It’s often misunderstood that collective identity emerges spontaneously and isn’t actively shaped by individual actors and specific goals. On one hand, the delegitimisation of monarchic-subject relations and the convergence of people along ethno-linguistic lines in 19th century Europe were developments without clear drivers. On the other hand, many European nations had intellectuals that helped enforce a national language that superseded local dialects and created an imagined national history. These individuals worked with political activists to force people to identify along these new national identities.1.Hobsbawm, Eric: The Age of Revolution; 1996 (orig. 1962); 1789-1848; p. 132-149.2.Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism; 2006 (orig. 1983); p. 67-113.
This is similar to how modern terrorist campaigns by Islamists and white supremacists try to forge new identities. While globalisation and the increased connection of the world are somewhat natural developments without clear agendas, many extremists can be seen as active forces of identity creation.
If terrorist or insurgent groups want to achieve long term goals, it’s important for them to be linked by a collective identity. Even when an insurgency is defeated, a strong identity that links the core interests of a given terrorist group will help the group endure and reemerge in the future. Irish Republicans fought for nearly a century with a variety of different groups, but their core values did not change, allowing them to come back to life. Meanwhile, social revolutionary groups like the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) in Germany fizzled away and became irrelevant as they eventually lost their link to a collective identity and became isolated. Being linked to a collective identity is by far the most important factor for resilience in terrorist groups, far exceeding any organisational or material matters. Extremist groups like Salafi Jihadists and white supremacist terror outfits have, especially lately, taken an active role in the development of new globalised identities.
If there is one thing I want you to remember from these writings, its that the birthrates must change. Even if we were to deport all Non-Europeans from our lands tomorrow, the European people would still be spiralling into decay and eventual death. […] There is not a single Western country, not a single white nation, that reaches these levels.3.Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 3;Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement
The above is quoted from the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre. On a superficial level, it is clear that he is talking about white people of European ancestry, people that look similar to him. However even Tarrant puts constraints on the identity of the European peoples, as he labels Kosovo-Albanians, considered as contemporary white Europeans, as “Islamic occupiers” and casts them out of his proposed group identity. In the same sentence, he complains that NATO didn’t support the “Christian Europeans” of the Serbian forces and instead chose to support Kosovo-Albanians.4.Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 6f; Tarrant’s “European people” are not just based on ethnicity but also have a religious component to their identity. Later on he argues that being European also has a cultural and linguistic component, while at the same time rejecting civic nationalism.5.Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 16; He is a self described ethno-nationalist, but unlike more traditional interpretations, his doesn’t cover the ethnicity based versions of German, French or Polish nationalism, but instead proposes an ethnicity consisting of all “white people” worldwide.
In short, Tarrant describes the group he’s fighting for as white people that are somewhat Christian, speak one of the hundreds of European languages, and follow a vaguely defined European culture. There are no geographic borders as Europe is wherever his described European people are.
Tarrant picks up older ideas and reforms them to fit today’s globalised world. He presents an expanded white supremacy that includes Slavs and Southern Europeans, unlike older versions that only saw Anglo-Saxons or Germanics as true white people. The 2nd Ku-Klux-Klan wasn’t just violently racist, it was also extremely anti-Catholic and saw Catholic immigrants from Europe as lesser in their racial hierarchy. “Whiteness,” as an identity, was rarely about skin colour.Embed from Getty Images
Tarrant is obviously influenced by Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations,” though he does away with the separation of Eastern and Western Europe. The Cold War division has lost it’s influence in the current globalised world. Ethno-nationalism, a mainstay ideology of 19th and 20th century Europe, is redefined as a pan-nationalist movement of “Whites,” instead of classic ethnic nationalism of Germans, Italians, or Hungarians. In addition, he excludes native Europeans in the Balkans for being Muslim, even though he doesn’t even call himself Christian. We can see “white” as not actually a descriptor of skin colour, but a denomination of an abstract and elaborate identity construction.
This collective identity is clearly fringe, as most people define themselves more along nationalistic, linguistic, or ethnic lines. In addition, most people in continental Europe don’t define themselves along racial concepts about whiteness. In this context, skin colour is more analogous with hair colour, rather than as a fundamental category of oneself. Linguistic and cultural components, something Tarrant basically brushed aside, are far more important to determine belonging in most of continental Europe and few would accept Tarrant’s claim of “being European.”
The Islamic State
The Islamic State is similarly concerned with creating a global identity. The Islamic State tried to make being Muslim an extremely exclusive identity that did not bear anything else besides it. The Ummah, the community of all Muslims, is obviously an idea much older and taken straight from the founding of Islam. In the praxis of the 20th century, Islam was an identity that stood besides many others, be it loyalty towards one’s nation state or ethno-linguistic identity like pan-Arabism or pan-Turkism.
In its appropriation of older thought, the Islamic State reinterpreted this concept. They rejected any identity besides a narrow and fundamentalist interpretation of this Ummah. They disavowed nationalism, race, or language as secondary identity markers. To them, the Ummah is not just the idea of religious solidarity, but a nation that deserves territory and political institutions governing itself.
On top of this, they tied the Ummah into the Islamic State itself, declaring their purported Caliphate the only legitimate decision maker within the Ummah, practically excommunicating everybody that didn’t recognise their leadership.6.Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq; Issue 7; 2015; p. 55
The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and posses heavy boots. They have a statement to make that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy, and uncover its deviant nature.7.Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq; Issue 1; 2014; p. 8Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq
In opposition to nearly all other Jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has sole claim to power by disavowing all those that didn’t swear fealty to them. For example, al-Qaeda works with the Taliban and the wider Syrian Islamist opposition, while the Islamic State disavowed them as “nationalists” and therefore as condemnable traitors. While al-Qaeda integrated themselves into preexisting rebellions, like in Syria or Mali, the Islamic State absorbed preexisting groups and forced them to accept the group’s monopolisation of violence.
The Islamic State legitimised their leadership in part by bringing in supporters and members from all around the world, physically and ideologically. Thousands around the world pledged their support virtually, even before the group’s territorial expansion in 2014.8.https://jihadology.net/2014/11/15/guest-post-the-different-functions-of-is-online-and-offline-plegdes-bayat-creating-a-multifaceted-nexus-of-authority/ The old borders of nationality and ethnicity were publicly torn down. Within their own territory, they violently enforced this new identity, while abroad, communities radicalised, as extremist Islamic leaders pledged their support and slowly enforced loyalty towards IS among their pupils. It happened in prisons,9.https://international-review.org/the-different-breeds-of-lone-wolf-terrorist/ in advocacy groups,10.Pantucci, Raffaello: „We Love Death As You Love Life“. Britain‘s Suburban Terrorists; 2015; and in mosques.11.https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000110021076/sieben-jahre-haft-fuer-islamistischen-predigerEmbed from Getty Images
The idea of a global Ummah where loyalty is owed is shared by Salafists around the world and became an effective tool. It is among those adherents where the Islamic State recruited the strongest. The earlier battlefield achievements by the Islamic State were just the icing on the cake. The real base of their support was a shared identity as a global fundamentalist movement that left nationality and ethnicity behind and instead sought a return to an imagined past under the Prophet Muhammad and the four righteous Caliphs.
Feeding on One Another
While on a superficial level white supremacists and pan-Islamic Salafi Jihadists are opposed to each other, they function in a symbiotic relationship, a relationship they are aware of. Violence by either is strengthening the identity of the other, feeding off of each other. In fact, both groups discuss the polarisation of society in similar ways.
[…]indeed the world today has been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy – the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilised by the Jews.12.Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq; Issue 1; 2014; p. 10Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq
As violence increases within a given society, nuanced political positions come increasingly under pressure and give way to more radical ideas.13.A historic example of this could be seen in the Weimar Republic. This strategy of polarisation has been voiced by both groups and has already been mentioned in the infamous Jihadist strategy book The Management of Savagery.14.Abu Bakr Naji: The Management of Savagery; p. 107 IS called it the “extinction of the grey-zone,” where Muslim identity is compatible with a pluralist society, while Tarrant said he wanted to incite vengeful violence by Islamists, which in turn would radicalise non-Muslims as a perceived defensive reaction.15.Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq; Issue 7; 2015; p. 6216.Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 6; Similarly the Islamic State tried to engineer anti-Muslim sentiment and put Muslims under societal pressure. The more people start to identify themselves among relatively Manichean lines, the more receptive they become to radical measures and lose faith in a pluralist society.
Why did you carry out the attack? – […] To incite violence, retaliation and further divide between the European people and the invaders currently occupying European soil.17.Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 6;Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement
Both examined groups ultimately seek to achieve political power: if not for themselves, then for another ideologically similar group down the line. This in turn, is based upon mass support. It’s easier to gather broad support if people see their core identity reflected in a given group. The more people identify primarily upon these globalised identities, as part of a supposed white race or monolithic Muslim Ummah, the bigger the potential recruiting pool will be for extremist groups trying to enforce political demands based upon these identities.
White supremacists and Salafi-Jihadists aren’t inventing new identities. Instead, they are building upon older, more established identity groups while trying to reform them for a globalised world. As geographic, national, and linguistic barriers lose importance, the demographic base upon which extremist groups build on widens. While the exclusion of people that don’t fit these criteria is obvious, they also propose the inclusion of hundreds of millions of people far exceeding the capacity of older national identities. The more people start to relate to these globalised identities, the stronger radical political groups building their ideology upon them will become.
Given the decline of nationalism, especially among Western countries, Tarrant’s brand of white supremacism has global appeal as a kind of reactionary revolution. Groups like the Identitarian Movement are pushing the same identity by largely non-violent means. A Neo-Völkisch movement that defines itself on a racial basis might replace the current and broad civic nationalism.
While the Islamic State is defeated and for now has basically no institutional capacity for action, the identity behind their rise to power hasn’t vanished and continues to grow. The monolithic Salafi Muslim identity hasn’t been defeated and continues to grow worldwide. Equally, the pan-Islamist identity of a monolithic Ummah is still spread by peaceful organisations like Tabligh Jamaat and a variety of quietist Salafi organisations.
A pluralist and democratic society can’t survive if enough people stop identifying themselves as pluralist democrats. Changes in self-identity come slowly and aren’t detected until they hit a critical level at which it seems as if there was a rapid and sudden transformation. The death of the Empire after World War 1, largely through nationalist identity of former multi-ethnic subjects, took at least 200 years and started out slowly, only to hit a peak that changed the world forever. After all, national consciousness among European countries goes back as far as the 16th century and the development of print-capitalism.18.Anderson, Benedict: p. 44f.
|↑1||Hobsbawm, Eric: The Age of Revolution; 1996 (orig. 1962); 1789-1848; p. 132-149.|
|↑2||Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism; 2006 (orig. 1983); p. 67-113.|
|↑3||Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 3;|
|↑4||Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 6f;|
|↑5||Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 16;|
|↑6||Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq; Issue 7; 2015; p. 55|
|↑7||Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq; Issue 1; 2014; p. 8|
|↑10||Pantucci, Raffaello: „We Love Death As You Love Life“. Britain‘s Suburban Terrorists; 2015;|
|↑12||Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq; Issue 1; 2014; p. 10|
|↑13||A historic example of this could be seen in the Weimar Republic.|
|↑14||Abu Bakr Naji: The Management of Savagery; p. 107|
|↑15||Al-Hayat Media: Dabiq; Issue 7; 2015; p. 62|
|↑16, ↑17||Tarrant, Brenton: The Great Replacement; p. 6;|
|↑18||Anderson, Benedict: p. 44f.|