Could the Taliban Takeover Become a Wedge Issue for the Far Right?

Since the Taliban consolidated control in Afghanistan, a number of articles have pointed out the affinity that some white nationalists feel for the theocratic fundamentalist group. That sympathy is well spotted; however, it has not stopped many far right activists from also working to raise public anxiety about a refugee “invasion” on account of the Taliban’s takeover.

The contrast between those two perspectives is particularly clear when we look at far right actors in the U.S. in comparison with their counterparts in Europe. There, the Taliban has mostly earned renewed scorn from far right nationalists, whereas sympathetic takes are more likely to come from North American white nationalists. The difference in perspective between the European far right and their North American counterparts says a lot about their differing perceptions of the recent history of their respective continents. Still, what they generally share is antipathy toward women, queer people, leftists, Muslims and people with non-European ancestry.

Common Ground With the Taliban

While the Taliban’s worldview may be essentially at odds with white nationalist ideology, which prioritizes race over theology and gives Christianity and/or Western paganism (depending on who you ask) pride of place over all other religions, their specific objectives nonetheless overlap fairly substantially.

Most notably, they tend to share a basic urge to control and silence women, an overtly violent, eliminationist view of gay men, and an overarching disdain for modernity, which they associate with things like egalitarianism, democracy, feminism and interracial relationships. One prominent voice emphasizing that confluence is a Proud Boys-affiliated Telegram channel with an explicitly fascist/national socialist outlook and over 50,000 subscribers. It posted a screenshot on August 17 of a woman reporting from Kabul for CNN and quoted her as saying, “They just told me to stand to the side, because I’m a woman.” The channel’s admins posted the response “let’s have more of that in white countries,” before adding the caveat “the attitude not the people obviously.”

Another overtly neo-Nazi Telegram channel posted a pair of images on August 15: One presumably shows Taliban fighters hoisting a rocket launcher and the other features two men kissing under an arch of swords held by men in dress uniform, seemingly outside a church. The caption on the post reads: “Can you really blame us for Taliban posting?” implying that homophobic theocracy is preferable to tolerance of queer sexuality.

Additionally, neo-fascists and national socialists regard the Taliban’s scruffy guerrilla insurgents as a model for a type of warfare that they envision themselves undertaking in the United States. On August 17, white nationalist website Counter-Currents published an essay dedicated “to the brave mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan.” It criticizes mainstream conservative concerns about the U.S. withdrawal, arguing that “this kind of response is blind to the nature of guerrilla warfare.… A guerrilla doesn’t engage the obviously superior enemy in open combat, but rather wages warfare by staying alive, deception, concealment, hit-and-run tactics, attacking soft targets, challenging logistics, and raising the cost of occupation.”

Yet another fascist-identified Telegram channel was even more direct, posting on the same day that “these farmers and minimally trained men fought to take their nation back from globohomo. They took back their government, installed their national religion as law, and executed dissenters. Hard not to respect that.”

Qualified support for radical Islamic fundamentalism is not new among U.S. white nationalists. In the mid-to-late 2010s, the concept of “white sharia” was widely debated in white nationalist circles, specifically with respect to the question of whether or not it was acceptable for movement supporters to seek to emulate the dogmatic beliefs of the most radical practitioners of a religion that white nationalists fundamentally oppose. The concept of “white sharia” eventually went out of fashion amid the post-Charlottesville turmoil that forced North American white nationalists to rethink a lot of their strategy; however, the ideological similarities that made that concept appealing in the first place have remained.

European Fears of “Invasion”

Radical European nationalists’ perspective on the developing situation in Afghanistan tends to be quite different. Although there is some grudging acknowledgment of the objectives they share with the Taliban, there is comparatively little discussion as to the possible value of emulating Muslim fundamentalists.

On the contrary, the current wave of far right xenophobia in Europe owes a great deal of its impetus to the wave of migrants that reached its shores in 2015, largely due to the conflict in Syria. Far right activists have used those events to gain adherents and motivate action by touting an “invasion” of Europe ever since; even the Counter-Currents essay mentioned above notes that “the Dissident Right had a very good year in 2015, when the migrant crisis hit Europe.”

Accusations of widespread and even innate violence among Muslims and immigrants — and particularly violence directed at women and children — are an indispensable mainstay of the European far right rhetorical arsenal. The Finsbury Park van attack in London in June 2017; the shooting of six African migrants in Macerata, Italy, in February 2018; the anti-immigrant riots in Chemnitz, Germany, in August and September of the same year; the failed mosque shooting in Bærum, Norway, in August 2019; the Bayonne, France, mosque shooting the following October; and the shisha bar shootings in Hanau, Germany, in February 2020 all testify to the deadly seriousness with which the European far right views both Muslims and non-European immigrants on European soil.

Their online response to recent events in Afghanistan generally reflects their concern that further repression there under a strict Islamic regime will lead to a new wave of refugees and asylum seekers in European countries. The pan-European ethnonationalist “Identitarian” movement figurehead Martin Sellner immediately identified this as the start of a new round of migration that he believes must be stopped before it reaches Europe. He took to Telegram on August 13 to declare that no fewer than 3 million Afghans were headed to Germany, labeling that a “nuclear strike with the migration weapon.”

On August 12, neo-fascist British group Patriotic Alternative published an article specifically denying any sympathy for the likely victims of Taliban persecution. Commenting on Afghans who worked for the U.S. and NATO, the author writes that a “dispassionate reading of the situation is that these individuals are afraid because they’re traitors to their country. They aided an occupation force killing their own countrymen, which, by any definition, should be considered a treasonous act.”

Denying that support for women’s rights or egalitarianism are ideas that anyone in Afghanistan actually believes in, the author further claims that the only other people who fear the Taliban are not women or girls, but pedophiles and child sex traffickers, who he expects will be gladly received by Western countries. He writes that, “It appears that the West will welcome with open arms the traitors and pedophiles of Afghanistan, who rightly fear justice under the new regime.” Future Afghan immigrants are therefore regarded with suspicion, even before they arrive.

Some European nationalists see the problem as larger than only Afghan refugees per se. In a Telegram post on August 16, French fascist channel “Zentropa” warned that the situation in Afghanistan could produce a domino effect with repercussions in Tunisia, which is “just a little more than 100 km [62 miles] from Europe’s borders.”

It should be noted that there is not always a simple, clean division between North American far right actors who are soft on the Taliban and their European counterparts, who see the events in Afghanistan only as portents of chaos in Europe. On one hand, even North American far right actors who identify and share objectives with the Taliban are often quick to emphasize their disdain for Islam when they make “white sharia”-style arguments. Moreover, after an initial burst of enthusiasm for the looming repression in Afghanistan, many far right actors in the U.S. have resumed promoting the idea of a refugee “crisis.”

On the other hand, some of their European analogues have found shared interests with the Taliban. On August 14, for example, a French neo-Nazi podcast celebrated the fact that the Taliban had “saved” Afghanistan from the destruction of its civilization at the hands of “Jews and women” and crowed that the group constituted “the world’s first antivax insurrection. And it is a victorious antivax insurrection.”

The Taliban did, in fact, shutter COVID-19 vaccination drives in a province in eastern Afghanistan after it took over, leading some on the far right to conclude that the group is against vaccines altogether. However, the Taliban has also supported COVID-19 vaccinations in other times and places. Meanwhile in the West, opposition to the vaccines has become both a significant rallying point for white nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic and a tool for integrating themselves into reactionary as well as liberal movements.

Far Right Fantasies

All these responses to recent events in Afghanistan can be understood as manifestations of the fantasies that drive the far right’s collective imagination. From QAnon to the neo-Nazi dystopian 1978 novel The Turner Diaries and beyond, these movements have long indulged visions of a world that is either deeply corrupted and in need of cleansing through violence or under attack and in need of defending through violence.

In recent years, the urge for cleansing violence has encouraged, for instance, fantasies about state violence — such as the arrest and execution of leading Democrats — and ghoulish voyeurism directed toward dictators abroad. Among other things, this has taken the form of sympathizing with the 2020 military coup in Myanmar, vocally supporting the ruthless violence of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and idolizing the late Chilean despot Augusto Pinochet.

Their fantasies about invasion and the putative need for violent defense often resort to allegories drawn from films like 300 (2007), which is about a battle in ancient Greece against an invading Persian army; or novels like the 1973 The Camp of the Saints, about a flotilla of refugees who land in the south of France. Both of these dramatize brutal encounters between nameless hordes of nonwhite people and small groups of heroic European defenders.

Of course, these kinds of fantasies also have a way of transforming into real-world action. For example, the 2019 El Paso, Texas, Walmart shooter, who killed 23 people and injured 23 more, claimed that he was resisting a “Hispanic invasion,” while the perpetrator of the mass shooting in Plymouth, England, on August 12 was motivated by hatred of women and complained that they “don’t need men no more” in modern society.

Monitoring Locally and Globally

White nationalism and related far right ideologies are unlikely to dissipate any time soon, in part because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems they pose. Even the apparent discrepancy between a qualified affinity for the Taliban and anxiety about Afghan refugees amounts to different perspectives within the same ideological framework and is not a substantial cleavage that anti-fascists can easily exploit. However, the tools that we do have for combating them generally start with monitoring groups and individuals locally, interpreting their — often coded — language, and using that knowledge to inform and organize community members. Doing that work requires an understanding of how they think and what their objectives are.

Moreover, while these ideologies can and should be understood as a global phenomenon, local specificities can say at least as much as a macro-level perspective about their larger worldview. Keeping tabs on apparent discrepancies can help us stay clear on the actual scope and the danger of what we are facing.