The Dangers of labelling Far-Right Extremism as “Activism”

Far-right activists filmed hassling asylum seekers in hotels’…‘Far-right activists burn Qurans’. These are but a few headlines plastered across the media in the summer of 2020.

Using violence to oppress already marginalised groups of people in society does not make you an activist.

Rasmus Paludan, leader of the far-right group Stram Kurs, which took responsibility for the book burning, posted a video of the incident on his Facebook page [File: Mads Claus Rasmussen/EPA]
Rasmus Paludan, leader of the far-right group Stram Kurs, which took responsibility for burning Qurans in Sweden.

For the Guardian, the Times, the Evening Standard, and Buzzfeed to describe burning Qurans and hassling migrants as ‘activism’ is not only misleading, it is dangerous. Much of the British media and many politicians are mainstreaming anti-immigration, xenophobia and white supremacy rhetoric simply by calling it ‘activism’. And if you skip across the pond you’ll see they’re doing it there too

And now we have Priti ‘LAW & ORDER’ Patel’s “courageous” use of language all over our twitter feeds, threatening to “send back” asylum seekers and throw “activist lawyers” overboard; using ‘activism’ as an inflammatory attack on lawyers.

Lawyers doing their jobs are not activists and nor are far-right organisers who attempt to act as law enforcers – demanding migrants to ‘go home’, using brute force and intimidation. To save you the time, I’ve carefully selected alternatives to ‘activist’ far more fitting to describe the groups behind the violence.  How about: ‘vigilante’, ‘extremist’, ‘white supremacist’ or ‘fascist’?  

Activism, in the twenty-first century is associated with moral good. And when linked with the far-right it normalises abuse of marginalised communities. It allows far-right groups to ride on the coattails of moral good.

Britain First raiding hotels to hassle migrants and tell them to “go back home” are not activists. The activists, are those who organise to protect the migrants in the hotel rooms from harm.

Activists are the Black Lives Matter organisers who have planned public demonstrations and protests across the world in response to the brutal murder of a black man by a white police officer.

Rest in power George Floyd.

Activists are the people who jumped on ships to save the migrants at risk of death, crossing the channel this month. Activists are the women in Turkey fighting against Erdogan’s laws to legalise domestic violence. Activists are the anti-slavery movement who abolished slavery. Activists are fighting for trans rights. Animal rights activists. Environment activists. Women’s rights activists.

But who am I to say what ‘activism’ is and what ‘activism’ isn’t? I can’t. But what we do have at our dispense, to help us frame the term in its rightful glory, is our present and our history.

Black women who initiated the first wave of feminism begun as activists organizing for the abolition of slavery. Sojourner Truth’s ‘Aint I Woman’ speech in 1851 Ohio took the world by storm. Truth’s earth moving speech was but one of the actions documented by the women’s liberation movement. Activists rise up against oppression. History tells us that activists are not the oppressors.

Still not convinced? Ask yourself this, why is it that climate activists arrested over public disruption, or criminal damage to property, are often let go? Because their lawyer has argued the defence of ‘necessity’; that their defendant’s actions were ‘necessary’ to save the planet. Would you describe Tommy Robinson’s activism as ‘necessary’ for a perceived greater good? Islamophobia, violence, fraud and hate crimes? No. Far-right extremists could not invoke the defence of ‘necessity’ to justify attacking migrants.

For too long the far-right have adopted the language of human rights. For too long the media has caught on and lazily accepted it. It is time we used our ‘heads’ before publishing a headline, some “click-bate”, which includes ‘far right’ and ‘activism’ in the same sentence, as its repercussions are far too dangerous.

This year VOGUE’s September issue led with a revolutionary cover featuring 20 carefully selected activists who they believe are ‘shaping the world’. So, unless a publication truly believes anti-immigration and xenophobia is shaping the world, the liberal voices of the 21st century should think twice before ascribing labels, which help normalise extremist action. We know what the consequences can be when extreme actions are mainstreamed. We saw it in Nazi Germany, and we can see it bubbling beneath the surface across the world today.

Far-right extremists are not activists and 2020 should not label them as such. It’s about time the media gave the term ‘activist’ – justice.

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