WASHINGTON // Heated political rhetoric, economic hardships, changing demographics, anti-Islamic fervour and the first African-American president have all contributed to a “perfect storm” for the proliferation of extremist groups in America that some civil-rights groups are warning could become more violent.
The past two months have seen at least a dozen violent incidents involving religious establishments across America, including the massacre of six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most of the other incidents involved mosques and Islamic institutions. A mosque in Missouri was burnt to the ground, shots were fired at an Islamic school in Illinois and six other Islamic institutions were targeted in apparent acts of vandalism.
An Arab Christian church in Dearborn, Michigan, a Jewish holocaust memorial in New York and a synagogue in Florida were also vandalised.
If those acts suggest actions of the extreme political right, violence has also gone the other way. Last Wednesday, a man opened fire inside the Washington, DC, headquarters of a Christian conservative group, reportedly upset at its opposition to same-sex unions. A security guard was wounded.
Some fear more violence. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil-rights group that tracks extremists in America, said the Milwaukee killings did not surprise observers, who had been expecting some kind of copy-cat attempt after the shootings and bombings in Norway last July when Anders Breivik killed 77 people.
“I think we are at a very dangerous moment. There’s a kind of perfect storm of factors favouring the development of [extremist] groups and accompanying domestic terrorism.”
The SPLC has documented a nearly 70 per cent increase in the number of American extremist groups since 2000 and an “extraordinary” expansion – from 149 in late 2008 to 1,274 in 2011 – of so-called patriot movements, often loosely aligned anti-government groups that sometimes form armed militias.
Patriot militants were behind a string of domestic terrorism plots in the 1990s, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.
The expansion coincides with the term of Barack Obama, the first African-American in the White House, but it is not necessarily a classic racist reaction, Mr Potok said. Rather, America’s First Family is visceral evidence of the fact that the country’s demographics are changing – 2011 was the first year in the United States in which non-white birth rates exceeded white birth rates, according to the US Census Bureau.
“Every white supremacist in America knows the census bureau has predicted that non-Hispanic whites will lose their majority in America by the year 2050.”
America’s slow recovery from its worst economic downturn since the depression of the 1930s and rhetoric that previously belonged on the fringe gaining more traction have also provided fertile ground for extremists, Frank Meeink, a former neo-Nazi and author of a memoir, The Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, said in a recent interview.
Mr Meeink joined skinhead gangs in the late 1980s. He said he sees many parallels between now and when Bill Clinton, another socially progressive Dempcratic president on civil-rights issues, took office in 1993 during an economic slump.
The difference, he said, is that rhetoric that used to belong to neo-Nazi groups has become more mainstream and is particularly evident in the language of the Christian Right and the Tea Party, where, he said, some of his former associates had ended up.
“The new lingo is calling everything ‘socialist’.And it’s almost the same as how neo-Nazis used to talk about Jews taking over the government.”
Adding fuel to the situation is the fact that unrestrained political rhetoric is seemingly becoming increasingly common in public places.
In New York City, for instance, posters citing “19,250 deadly Islamic attacks since 9/11/01. It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism” went up last Friday and will be visible for another three weeks.
Buses in San Francisco bear posters proclaiming: “In a war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad”.
Both are paid for by the American Freedom Defence Initiative, run by Pamela Geller, best known for her role in the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy in 2010 and part of a coterie of what Mr Potok described as “professional Islamophobes and the politicians willing to shill for them”.
The controversy over plans for an Islamic centre near the site of the World Trade Center in 2010 ushered in a year when anti-Sharia legislation began to appear in state legislatures across the country and congressional hearings into the “radicalisation” of America’s Muslims – which took place in early 2011 – were announced.
The same year also saw a 50 per cent spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes, according to FBI statistics, bucking a steady decline since 2002 when passions had settled after the attacks of September 11.
Robert Sellers, a professor at the Logsdon school of theology in Texas, warned of a “culture of Islamophobia” at the annual Baptist World Congress in late July.
“I trust that none of us wishes to sin against our neighbours by spreading fear and stereotypes,” Mr Sellers said, according to the Baptist Center’s Ethics Daily website.
Extreme rhetoric has an effect, Mr Potok said.
“When people make completely unsubstantiated and incredibly demonising statements about entire groups of people, they can’t be surprised when those people are subjected to criminal attacks