What if the crowds who attacked the United States Capitol building on January 6, 2021, were not dominantly white and Christian but rather Black and/or Muslim? Variations of this question appeared across op-eds, social media, and counterextremism analyses after January 6. Articles for the Chicago Tribune, NPR, the Washington Post, and Reuters, for example, speculated that if Black or Muslim actors, rather than armed white individuals brandishing Christian insignia, perpetrated the Capitol attacks the event would have ended differently. Recounting an attempted government takeover consecrated by white supremacy, far-right politics, and Christian nationalism, these analyses conjured the specters of racial and religious Others as analogues for how white and Christian violence against the US state could be imagined and managed. Some understandably used these comparisons to, crucially, emphasize racist disparities in US policing. In an era when militarized counterinsurgency tactics inform local policing against Black, brown, and poor communities, security response to the Capitol was strikingly slow and restrained, if not outright complicit in the violence. Yet such critical comparisons in news and social media often suggested that by expanding domestic terrorism and extremism enforcement, we treat white Christian perpetrators of nonstate violence the same as Black and Muslim. The implicit or explicit prescription of more robust and seemingly “equitable” logics of policing evident in these analyses may ultimately encourage buttressing US carceral institutions that, from their origins until today, remain racialized.
Analogy serves wide-ranging political functions. As a rhetorical device, analogy is not simply comparative but, presumably, clarifying. Rather than only offering similarity, as might a simile, an analogy proposes explanation through strategic comparison. For instance, in political critique, anticolonial social movements across Palestine and South Africa aligned by analogizing apartheid as a racially stratified and segregated political structure, with varied localized effects. (Albeit analogy may have limits here too.) In the rhetoric of policing, on the other hand, analogies may rationalize epistemes of criminality or subjectivities exceeding state protection by drawing expressive rather than structural comparisons between distinct and possibly unequitable phenomena—thereby reinforcing the broad disciplinary authority of security actors and the state.
For instance, journalists and counterextremism specialists increasingly diagnose white supremacists in the United States through analogies of “extremism.” These commentators equate divergent political movements through commonly politicized emotions or ideologies (i.e., “hate,” “victimization,” “chauvinism,” and “utopianism”). One such analogy relates white Christian nationalisms—as variations of white Christian supremacism invested in the nation-state—to so-called “Islamist” political violence. A formal technology with political stakes, counterextremist analysts employ analogy as an epistemology of policing when they compare distinct kinds of violence based on how similarly they are expressed within an ideological grammar of extremism, thereby eliding the political and historical specificity of said violence. Compared against prefigured grammars of extremism qua “Islamism,” these analogies displace the United States’ white supremacist and Christian foundations as well as disguise systemic white power as “secular,” “moderate,” and “mundane.” Admitting law enforcement oversights in the aftermath of the Donald Trump presidency, counterextremist specialists increasingly mobilize extremism as a “neutral” genre. They ideologically relate extremism to hate and excessive belief, while defining radicalization as the process through which one becomes extreme by absorbing ideas within mediated (dis)information networks. Counterextremist specialists thus characterize white supremacy as an “ideology” or set of “beliefs” in the same genre as “Islamist terrorism,” “the radical left,” and “animal rights activism.” They conceptualize white supremacy symptomatically rather than structurally—thereby embedding it within a pathological grammar of extremism and absenting (or at best peripheralizing) it from state or state-sanctioned racial governance.
Yet the mass industrialization of US and transnational counterextremism and counterterrorism “expertise” in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries is an ideological (and academic) product of profitable policing, carceral, and defense industries. These fields produce not only capacious criminal categories but also interpretive grammars. Counterextremism’s grammar relies on symptomatic tropes of extremism—via expressions like hate, (nonstate) violence, excessive belief, and disinformation—with “radical Islam” as the most-studied subject. Scholars have shown that the United States modeled the policing of Muslim “radicals” on the historical policing of Black “radicals” (including Black Muslims). In other words, US policing arms invoked—and violently applied—an analogy of “radicalism/extremism” between them. In doing so, the US carceral state systematized not only a bias in enforcement but also generically produced Islam and Blackness as extremism’s prototypical subjects.
Narrating white/Christian supremacy as extremism does not therefore rid the category of racialized tropes. Rather, the analogies invoked by counterextremism experts often reify an associative link between the genre’s tropes and its overdetermined subject (Islam). In other words, analogy implicates “Islamism” as the generic model for white violence—sometimes explicitly. In Foreign Policy, Rita Katz, director of the counterterrorism organization SITE Intelligence Group, claims, “White supremacist terrorists have taken a page from the Islamic State’s playbook—discarding concerns about image and embracing shocking displays of public violence.” Analogy apparently obviates the need for historical research when Katz describes recent white supremacist violence in the United States as “just like” Islamic State tactics of unabashed violence and hate. Ironically, the white supremacists Katz names, such as Brenton Tarrant, who murdered fifty-one Muslims in New Zealand mosques, take inspiration from the tenth- to thirteenth-century European Crusades, white supremacist states like Nazi Germany, and “white replacement theories” (which she cites yet dismisses in her analogy) that are central to current state-aligned anti-immigration movements in Europe and North America. Katz does not situate these western state and Christian imperial histories as centuries-long foundations for contemporary white supremacist violence; rather, she suggests they imitate the two-decade old Islamic State. Consequently, Katz erases US imperialism’s own violent role in producing the Islamic State, imposes western histories of white supremacy onto Islamic geopolitics, and narrates distinct political formations as equivalent pathologies of violence.
Scholars and activists critique the formal imprecision of “terrorism” and “extremism” in law and policing because the state may criminalize a host of protest traditions under these widely interpretive terms. Post-9/11 counterterrorism enforcement indicted Muslims who challenged War on Terror policies, surveilled Black Lives Matter activists as “Black identity extremists,” and charged Indigenous protesters who object to the state’s environmental encroachments. Meanwhile, some holistic counterextremism specialists propose “inoculating” against extremism as a generic problem—encompassing white Christian nationalists, Islamists, radical leftists, etc.—through secular multicultural models of mental health, following European countries. In her study of the historical discourse of terrorism as an “epidemic,” Anjuli Kolb notes that using disease rhetorics and methods to contain national security threats, particularly against nonwhite people, has long racial-colonial histories. Thus, activists warn that even if therapists identify the white Christian far-right as extremists, they may rely on these racial-colonial histories when interpreting other behaviors/bodies as “radical.” Similarly, Tarek Younis’s research on anti-Muslim surveillance in UK-based mental health industries shows that while many presume psychology, mental health, and counterextremism are apolitical, secular sciences, they are produced within capitalist political and defense infrastructures. Under the multinational War on Terror, defense industries commodified counterextremist psychological formulas, using Muslims as their subject populations.
Some counterextremism experts like Cynthia Miller Idriss attempt to nuance the term “extremism” by, importantly, challenging fringe treatments of far-right violence. In a Foreign Affairs article titled “How Extremism Went Mainstream,” she argues traditional counterextremism models fail to adequately describe the Capitol attacks because “the majority of the rioters were hitherto ordinary Americans who had only recently embraced radical ideas. Their pathways to political violence did not involve a clearly defined ideology or an affiliation with particular groups but instead were shaped by a propaganda campaign that engulfed the full spectrum of right-wing politics.” Even in demarcating a popularized grammar of extremism, which her books more subtly develop and relate to geopolitics, the imprecise logics of counterextremism remain. To illustrate, she distinguishes “ordinary Americans” susceptible to highly mediated far-right ideologies that “shaped” their extremism from those (extraordinary?) extremists who (more willfully, inherently?) pursue organized or “clearly defined” political violence.
Counterextremism’s imprecision may eclipse unequal political contexts, enabling a host of racial subtexts to take root. Further, if white racial extremists are the identified problem, then what about the structuralized white supremacy that produces “mundane” state violence via policing, income inequality, border enforcement, militarism, health-care discrimination, and more? Such presumably “moderate,” state-sanctioned white supremacy not only substantiates nonstate white power groups’ racial claims but is also institutionally sustained through the full spectrum of liberal, centrist, and right-wing politics by “ordinary Americans.”
Miller Idriss adds that a hyper-mediated process of political radicalization sutures unlikely support between the US Christian far-right and Taliban, or right-wing and left-wing anti-government militias. Certainly, incongruous and transnational relations do form between far-right social and state movements. But characterizing them as similar kinds of extremism obscures more than it clarifies. For instance, US imperialist interventions, under administrations summoning both liberal and right-wing ideologies, contributed directly to forming the Taliban. Further, at the Capitol attacks, Israeli, Indian, and US flags waved in unison, signaling a rise in political alliances between Zionist, Hindutva, and white Christian supremacist movements. All three securitized states entwine state-sanctioned Islamophobia, institutionalized ethno-religious supremacy, practices of territorial colonization, and War on Terror military collaborations—demonstrating that religio-racialized nationalisms are neither isolationist nor politically partisan (liberal vs. right-wing) but imperial and systemic.
Comparative extremism as a genre occludes the resonances between state and popular far-right interests. We must situate such resonances historically and understand their geopolitical specificity. For instance, other scholars systemically contextualize growing far-right movements in relation to “reactionary democracy’s” structural entrenchments in liberal institutions, or via fascism as a convergence of authoritarian state and extralegal racialized nationalisms responding to global destabilizations wrought by capitalism and imperialism.
What analogies of extremism miss is attention to systemic white supremacy and Christian nationalism in the United States, which include its liberalist manifestations. White Christian nationalism informs the United States’ settler colonialism, production of wealth via enslavement and migrant extraction, and imperialist expansions. Kathryn Gin Lum describes whiteness as a Christian formation and the racial Other as a “heathen inheritance” within US history. Modern, secular conceptions of race did not entirely replace ideas of religious difference; rather, religion constitutes and lingers within the construction of race. Thus, when white protesters at the Capitol bore signs reading, “Proud American Christian,” the subtextual whiteness of “American” and “Christian” co-constitute both the centers (“truths”) and boundaries of race, religion, and nation. Under liberal statehood, US secularism also regulates rather than protects difference, with a majoritarian conception of religion—marked by dominantly white forms of Christianity—categorically formed within secular rule.
Policing and carceral institutions emerged in the United States to protect the property and bodies of white (dominantly Christian, upper-class) Americans. Today, local and federal policing continue to perpetrate racial and religious profiling, disproportionately against nonwhite, non-Christian communities. Indeed, the congressional report on the Capitol attacks underplayed the largely white, Christian, and heteropatriarchal claims of the event; the report instead named “Trumpism” as the culprit, thereby revealing another racial logic: Islam is always perceived as potentially violent. Similarly, the Department of Defense’s 2021 Report on Countering Extremist Activity identified white supremacist groups as the most significant domestic threats yet avoided implicating Christianity, in stark contrast to their explicit policing of Islam as a presumable source of violence.
Ultimately, analogies of extremism do not eliminate or challenge systemic white supremacy but rather reform it. Like several recent, unsuccessful police reform initiatives that focused on symptoms rather than conditions of possibility, when counterextremism disciplines some nonstate white political violence as extremist, a reformed white supremacy persists—further legitimated—as “rational” racial statehood.