Some people never stop… (Or how to recycle the coronavirus into your extremist messaging)

By Stephane Baele, the University of Exeter.

Warning: the following post reproduces some extremist content, which is obviously not endorsed by the author or the editors of the blog. Similarly, we do not recommend that readers access the various sources of extremist material cited here.

For most, the COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a virus characterized by a particularly unfortunate combination of high contagiosity, slow development of symptoms, and low lethality. We also think, at times, about some of the socio-political dynamics involved in, and triggered by, the epidemic. But we don’t spend much time discussing the profound meaning and reason of this development within the grand history of our social group, nor do we seek to discover and unveil “the truth” about who ought to be blamed for it, let alone prove how this crisis demonstrates the superiority of our group and inferiority of other ones.

That’s normal — it’s the kind of reasoning that characterizes political extremists. From the far-right to the far-left, from neo-Nazis to Salafi-jihadists, a common feature of extremist worldviews is indeed to understand the world through the lenses of a grand historical narrative, which is directed towards an end-point where the ingroup confronts the outgroup responsible for its suffering (read here, there, and there for theory and evidence). In such narratives, every significant event simply has to be meaningful and tell something about the ingroup’s grand historical struggle against the outgroup. Judging from my ongoing monitoring of extremist websites,[1] COVID-19 does not escape this regularity.

From Salafi-jihadists…

Let me begin by a rapid overview of how the pandemic is presented in the communications of Salafi-jihadi groups. Indeed, this is where the impetus for the current post started: I decided to double-check a piece of news claiming that ISIS had issued guidelines warning its suicide bombers to avoid Europe while the coronavirus was active. I discovered much more than this straightforward advice.[2] I noticed that over the past couple of months every issue of the group’s al-Naba newspaper contained discussions on the virus that correspond to the type of reasoning described above. The pandemic is neatly inserted in ISIS’ grand narrative of Muslims suffering from the hands of the West and their Middle-Eastern “puppet” autocrats. On the one hand, the virus is understood as evidence that no-one, “neither America nor anyone else”, “is able to take away the harm” that results from “the will of the Almighty”, “no matter how much power, knowledge and tyranny” (al-Naba 227). On the other hand, it further reveals the wickedness of “the enemy”, who is said to lock thousands of Muslims in prisons where women and children die, unable to shield themselves from the disease. Overall, the pandemic is an opportunity given by God to accelerate the eschatological collapse of the “Crusaders”, whose “difficult time will coincide with the Caliphate’s preparations for new strikes against them” [this seems to contradict the guidance evoked above, which I could not locate], as “the level of occupancy of their security and medical institutions has reached the maximum”, meaning that the virus has “a great impact on weakening their capabilities to fight the Mujahideen” (al-Naba 226).

On its RocketChat channels, Al-Qaeda added a layer to this take, not only claiming that the pandemic is God’s will, but also that “the arrival of this pandemic to the Muslim World is only a consequence of our sins and our distance from the Divine methodology that Allah has chosen for His slaves”. In other words, the coronavirus is God’s punishment for the “obscenity and moral corruption [that] had already become widespread in Muslim countries”. There can only be one solution to this new twist in the modern Jahiliyyah narrative owed to Qutb: adhering to Al-Qaeda’s “pure” theology and confronting the “Western-led campaigns to spread atheism in Muslim societies”, confronting both the “despots ruling over the Muslim world” and the “Crusader enemy”.

Abu-Muhammad al-Maqdisi — a radical cleric who significantly influenced the recent development in the Salafi-jihadi theology, and who is often presented as al-Zarqawi’s mentor — could not stay silent on the matter. On March the 30th, released a theological guidance that argued, among others, that “there is nothing wrong for the disbelievers to be destroyed by the coronavirus”.

… to the Far-right

Unsurprisingly, this is not the presentation of the virus that I found exploring the vast and heterogeneous far-right online ecosystem. Here again, the pandemic has a deep significance within each group’s favoured master narrative.

When listening to the “Great Lockdown Chronicles” and other podcasts uploaded on Democratie Participative (the most brazenly racist platform I have ever come across), I learned that the “Judeo-Satanic” elite had been manoeuvring to let the pandemic spread in order to “turn European populations into slavery”. The pandemic, from this perspective, is yet another “great sacrifice” (like WW1 and WW2) that “they” regularly provoke to keep a grip on their “total power”. Knowing this “truth” can only lead us to support a “confinement of Africa” and take a stand on the ongoing “race war”.

It may sound absurd, but this is not too different to the kind of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories found on the popular “/pol” boards of the “chans” image-boards. On Endchan, I indeed read again that Jews have favoured the spread of the disease, this time allegedly in order to make financial gains (they are said to own vaccine companies, and therefore “to make their shekels off this”). What’s more, “what is causing the chaos, lack of supplies and hoarding” is not the virus itself, but “fear mongering by jewish media”. As always with extremists, the “truth” needs to be exposed: “It’s important to bring realization of this and that jews own the media”. 8kun and the notorious 4chan/pol blame other groups or use the pandemic to recycle old racist tropes. For instance, a poster on 4chan/pol “joked”: “Black man here how do u rape and social distance?”. The same day, someone on 8kun argued that the pandemic is the result of Chinese people’s “filth”: “one can barely even class them as ‘human’, and to class them as animals would be an insult to animals. They’re amoeba, primordial leeches, bottom-feeding slime that have never evolved to have anything at all resembling empathy. They almost literally are ant-people, working only for the colony, not stopping to help their fellow chinaman or even spare so much as a thought for another in that person’s time of need”. COVID-19 comes as a good occasion, for these extremists, to embark in their usual racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic dehumanizing rants…

The white supremacist platform American Renaissance, is, as usual, more polished — but no less racist. For them, the current crisis simply shows the problems of “open borders” (they highlight, for instance, the high number of people who moved from China to the US after the virus had been identified), which has always been one of their main themes. The pandemic creates a window of opportunity for white nationalist policies: in one of their most recent podcasts, Jared Taylor and Paul Kersey for example “celebrate the ruling class’s late-in-life understanding of nationalism”. The virus is of course also said to reveal the problems with “political correctness” — a favourite concept in the alt-right. An article for instance focuses on an Italian official telling that he was “called ‘racist’ for wanting to test China travellers in February”.

In Europe, the islamophobic Gates of Vienna blog — a key inspiration behind Breivik’s infamous “compendium”— published, among many other hogwash, videos of French polemist Eric Zemmour claiming that the pandemic spreads in France because of Muslims’ backwardness, and benefits them at the same time. “Whatever we say”, he argues, it is in neighbourhood where Muslims are predominant that the lockdown is not respected (claiming that he saw “images of war” between the police and inhabitants of the “banlieues”), which leads to a de facto “secession” of “Islamic territories” in Paris, Montpellier and Lyon.

I could go on and tell you about other similar universes, highlighting for each how the pandemic is provided meaning through its insertion within a grand narrative glorifying the ingroup and blaming the outgroup. But you get the point: as you and I are busy homeschooling or struggling to keep up with work, extremists carry on with their obsessions. Some people never, ever stop…

[1] The reader will understand that I do not provide the links to the extremist content discussed in this post — I am, however, happy to provide them in private communication.

[2] Yet at the same time, ISIS’ newspapers were very unlike ours, as they only dedicated a fraction of their pages to the virus, with the majority of articles bragging about the group’s success, explaining its attacks, and displaying gruesome pictures of executions — I told the reader, some people just never stop…