How conspiracy theories enable violent extremism

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A culture of conspiracy theories has always existed among extremist groups of all stripes, but it exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Historically, extremist groups across the ideological spectrum have used conspiracy theories not only to produce violence and attract recruits, but also to validate their Manichean worldviews.

During crisis events such as pandemics and natural disasters, conspiracy theories rapidly proliferate and gain traction. In August 2020, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, warned against new forms of terrorism based on conspiracy theories.

Although a culture of conspiracy theories existed among extremist groups of all stripes, it became more prominent during the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to an explosion of unverified myths and rumors. Conspiracy theories play an important social and functional role as catalysts and multipliers of violent extremism.

Extremist groups use conspiracy theories as a rhetorical device to legitimize their violence and typically exploit those conspiracy theories which have strong emotional appeal. Conspiracy theories also act as an adhesive to hold extremist groups together and push them in more extreme directions, resulting in violence.

In this context, it is essential to examine the potential role of conspiracy theories as catalysts and incubators of violent extremism. Arguably, when associated with conspiracy theories and disinformation, extremist narratives gain mass appeal, especially if they are linked to prevailing socio-political and economic concerns.

In early December, the vigilante murder of a Sri Lankan national in Sialkot, Pakistan, for alleged blasphemy, highlights the role of conspiracy theories in fueling extremist violence. The rumors surrounding the blasphemy allegations, which drove the enraged crowd toward violent extremism, were actually driven by a personal vendetta.

In Pakistan, radical religious groups like Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan have created a hostile environment where even legislative efforts to eliminate procedural loopholes, which have been abused for years, have been seen as conspiracy attempts to undermine the Islam.

On the flip side, militant groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh have used victimization-based conspiratorial narratives that portray Islam as under siege, requiring retaliation in defense of religion.

In doing so, these groups advance their ideological narratives to attract recruits and funding and legitimize their extremist violence. By linking the individual grievances of Muslims to larger accounts of the decline of Muslims, Al Qaeda and Daesh give aggrieved individuals self-esteem by allowing them to participate in events of historical significance, i.e. say while performing a sacred duty to glorify Islam.

Likewise, the attack on Capitol Hill in 2021 embodies the role of conspiracy theories as triggers of extremist violence. On January 6, a number of supporters of former US President Donald Trump, including far-right groups like QAnon and Proud Boys, stormed the US Capitol in Washington in an attempt to disrupt the peaceful transition of the United States. power, following the electoral victory of incumbent President Joe Biden. . They conspired to believe that Trump’s tenure had been deliberately stolen to throw him out of power.

QAnon is an online conspiratorial group whose sudden rise underscores how conspiracy-induced violence translates into domestic terrorism in the United States. Their influence spread quickly after the Covid-19 outbreak, and a May 2021 survey found that nearly one in five Americans believed in QAnon conspiracy theories.

In 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation classified QAnon as a national terrorist threat.

Likewise, in Europe, conspiracy theories linked to the emergence of new technologies (or technophobia) are also reflected in violent incidents. Adherents of technophobia are known as neo-Luddits. In 19th century Britain, the Luddits were a group of English textile workers who destroyed textile machines, fearing that the machines would replace their role in the industry.

The launch of 5G technology in Europe coincided with the coronavirus outbreak, leading to attacks on 5G towers in different parts of the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Cyprus, from Germany and France. These attacks involving arson and vandalism were based on the myth that the droplets that cause the coronavirus can spread from electromagnetic waves from the 5G poles.

Neo-Luddites also believed that the coronavirus lockdowns announced by various European governments were a cover to weaken public resistance against the installation of 5G infrastructure.

Likewise, in India, Hindutva extremists have proliferated a number of conspiracy theories against the Muslim community leading to discriminatory legislation and hostile social attitudes.

For example, the first major vector of Covid-19 in Delhi was the Tableeghi Jamaat Markaz, known as the Nizamuddin Mosque. Several Tableeghi Jamaat members were stranded at the Nizamuddin Mosque after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government suddenly announced a massive lockdown disrupting public transport. The cases of Covid-19 emerging from the Nizamuddin Mosque have been called “corona jihad”.

The annual Tableeghi Jamaat gathering has been singled out for the spread of the coronavirus in India even though Hindu religious holidays are taking place simultaneously.

Likewise, the paramilitary wing of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has used conspiracy theories such as love, land, people and jihad to target the Muslim community, leading to recurring community tensions and riots.

The “jihad of love” plot believes that Muslim men in India are luring Hindu women into marriages to convert them to Islam as part of the wider Muslim war against India. Some Indian states have enacted anti-jihad love laws to discourage interfaith marriages, especially between Hindu women and Muslim men.

Meanwhile, “land jihad” refers to the alleged plot by the Muslim community to force Hindus to sell their native lands (in the countryside) by making them uninhabitable by cattle rustling and throwing chopped head of cattle into the countryside. court. On the other hand, “demographic jihad” is about a faster rate of growth of the Muslim population aimed at outnumbering Hindus in India.

The use of conspiracy theories for extremist violence by terrorist groups across the ideological spectrum will have long-term implications for global efforts to counter extremism and terrorism.

The free circulation of conspiracy theories would create a climate conducive to undirected radicalism. The 5G attacks, described above, are just one manifestation of new forms of political violence linked to emerging technologies. Similar concerns also exist regarding automation, artificial intelligence and robotics. If they don’t have the skills and knowledge, people fear losing their jobs.

Going forward, states involved in addressing extremist narratives will also need to focus on the potential role of conspiracy theories as catalysts and producers of violent extremism.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views and editorial policies of TRT World.

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