A car burns on February 23, 2020, during riots in New Delhi, India.

A car burns on February 23, 2020, during riots in New Delhi, India. Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times

Violent Far-Right Movements Aren’t Just a ‘Western Problem’

The focus on jihadist violence has often prevented states from finding and fixing other things that fuel violent extremism in the Global South.

Published in coordination with the 2023 Global Security Forum, of which Defense One is a media partner.

Violent far-right movements are hardly confined to the “Global North,” as attested by the 2020 New Delhi attacks in which 53 Muslims were killed, the 2021 arrest of a young man in Singapore attempting to carry out attacks against Muslims, the ongoing intimidation of the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka, and the foiled attacks by Neo-Nazi groups in Brazil. As the recently released U.S. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism note, “Violent white supremacists and like-minded individuals continued to promote violent extremist narratives, recruit new adherents, raise funds, and conduct terrorist activities — both online and offline — across Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.”

Several multi-ethnic countries where religious pluralism is part of the fabric of society are witnessing the mainstreaming of far-right ideologies. In Asia, for example, several countries seeing spikes of violence and intimidation against minorities, whether Christian minorities in Pakistan and India, Muslim minorities in India, or Chinese minorities in Malaysia. The common aspect is the desire to create a pure society based on a singular ethnic-religious identity whereby the minorities are considered outsiders, visitors or the “other.” Such rhetoric echoes those used in Western countries by violent far-right groups and, in particular, white-supremacist extremists, who push acceleration theory to promulgate often-racist disinformation narratives and justify attacks on minorities they believe will eventually overtake their societies. The quest for a racially or ethnically pure society is thus an important common element in the narratives of these groups. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine are events that are being exploited and used to accelerate the spread of far-right ideologies in Asia. In India, supporters of Hindutva groups spread disinformation narratives in WhatsApp groups and on social media accusing Muslims of being Covid-19 “super spreaders” and implicating the Muslim community in a plot to infect Hindus. As journalist Maya Mirchandani described it, “Worst of all, deliberately crafted disinformation campaigns targeted India’s Muslim minorities, an already vulnerable group targeted by bigoted discourse on many levels in the state and community.” The narratives proved so effective that Muslim patients and caregivers were denied from some hospitals and residential settlements unless they could prove they were Covid-free. The cross-fertilization of far-right ideologies in particular through the internet and adaptation to local needs and grievances should not be underestimated.

The stark rise of far-right violent extremism has correlated with a rise in populist narratives and challenges to pluralist democracies in many states, including the Global South. Histories of tension with minorities and colonial pasts have often been exploited for political gain and parties in power have had to reckon with established religious political parties in order to secure majority rule, thus risking the institutionalization of exclusionary ethno-nationalist religious narratives. In an era of unprecedented access to information—and disinformation—via the internet, combined with instances of the use of counterterrorism legislation to quell opposition or even criticism—has exacerbated the threat. According to Freedom House indicators, several countries in the Global South, including India, Brazil, and Malaysia, are seeing a decline in freedom of the press—with governments restricting the access of media outlets to public events, publicly attacking the press, and sometimes arresting and pressing charges against journalists who reporting stories unfavorable to the government. These dynamics often help empower and embolden more extremist positions in media and communications platforms. 

Understanding the far-right in the global south requires looking beyond the notion that it is merely a response to jihadism, but acknowledging the historical roots, and understanding how individual and far-right movements communicate both off-line and online across the region and across countries, reinforcing the extremist ideology.

For example, research has shown how Indian diaspora have not only contributed to Hindutva ideology in India but also promoted these far-right ideologies in the countries they are settled and engage with far-right groups in Western societies. Furthermore, there are reports that various pan‐Asian far-right movements are forming an online eco-system promoting ‘Asia for Asians’ inspired by Western right-wing ideologies.

The self-radicalized man in Singapore that plotted an attack against two mosques was inspired by the Christchurch attacks and shooting by a Hindu extremist at 72th death anniversary of Mahatama Gandhi was broadcasting live from his Facebook minutes before the shooting demonstrate the role social media plays and how are influenced by far right attacks by others. 

Deconstructing how right-wing extremism has evolved in the Global South also requires a critical look at how the governments respond to the attacks against minorities. In several countries the governments are turning a blind eye and impunity for these crimes carried out by far-right extremists has become the norm. A lack of meaningful accountability prevails, can lead to further radicalization of marginalized minorities and fuel cycles of violence. Several of the governments in the Global South are consolidating powers while at the same time curtailing the human rights of minorities, including limiting their political representation, The crackdown on journalists, human-rights defenders and activists, the dismantling of independent institutions and influencing of the judiciary all erode the rule of law and pluralist democracy. 

So long as far-right movements are considered a “Western problem,” their threat in Global South will be underestimated. Worse still, it inhibits international cooperation in fora like the United Nations and the Global Counterterrorism Forum. If the threat is considered only the purview of selected states and not one that requires a collaborative approach, especially in terms of prevention. 

This is especially critical as many of the tools and approaches developed to prevent and combat violent extremism related to groups like ISIS or al Qaeda, especially those focused on combating terrorist narratives, incitement, or financing, for example, can be applied to violent far-right threats. The role of governments also requires accounting for the region’s historical ties with fascism. For example, the Hindutva ideology was inspired by fascism in Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany. The rise of the far-right in Asia is not simply a national problem, but can easily have regional impact considering the presence of different ethnic minorities across the region and diaspora communities outside the region, notably across the United States, Canada and Europe, as some of these far-right ideologies are fostered and nurtured. 

The international community must address the widespread human-rights violations and abuses of minorities—sometimes cloaked in the language of politics or religion, and worse, sometimes legitimized by internationally agreed counterterrorism frameworks. The singular focus on jihadist violence has often prevented states from identifying and addressing the wider range of ideologies that fuel violent extremism, and a more nuanced understanding of the current threat landscape should inform bilateral and multilateral efforts by states to prevent and respond to terrorism and threats to their own democratic systems. It is time for the UN and other international institutions, including those dealing with terrorism and violent extremism, to recognize the global nature of the far-right threat and meaningfully address terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations,” translating that rhetoric so often used in resolutions and meetings into meaningful action.

Tanya Mehra is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism—The Hague, where she coordinates the rule-of-law projects.

Naureen Chowdhury Fink is the Executive Director of The Soufan Center. She previously served as senior policy adviser on counterterrorism and sanctions at the United Kingdom’s Mission to the United Nations.