Terrorism and hate crime expert Brian Levin spoke recently to the California State University, Northridge community about the complexities of extremism and hate, two increasingly important trends facing the nation and the world. With the rise of domestic hate groups and recent international terror attacks, Levin explained how distrust, political dislocation, nationalism, religious tensions, inequality, demographic changes and economic shifts contribute to the emergence of extremism and hate crimes.
Levin is the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, and teaches criminal justice at California State University, San Bernardino. Over the course of his career, he has interviewed numerous extremists from all over the world — from prisoners in the Middle East to white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
“What these folks all have in common is they opt out and they view themselves as being part of an uneven war in which their culture, their lives and their legitimacy is at stake,” Levin said. “No matter what kind of fanatic you look at, that’s the common theme I found over many years.”
In his lecture at CSUN, Levin shared local and international hate crime statistics, focusing on Muslim-Americans who have suffered from the prejudice against their community in reaction to terror attacks.
“If people feel that a peer group or a leader identifies someone as a legitimate target of aggression, that can help catapult people toward violence and intolerance,” he said. “Prejudice is distinguished by inflexibility to respect new information. Most hate [crime] offenders act on negative — but not deeply held — stereotypes. That is why many of the hate groups are becoming politically active and endorsing mainstream candidates.”
With seven major terrorist attacks by extremist groups such as ISIS or TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) — causing hundreds of fatalities around the world — March 2016 was one of the deadliest months in decades. Many Americans have responded with hate crimes against the Muslim-American community and increased support of radical presidential candidates who reject Muslims.
“Hate groups see their messages being retransmitted in the mainstream and are rallying behind certain candidates,” Levin said. “Retaliatory hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. spiked by nearly three times in the months after the Paris attacks. But torture — along with banning Muslims or [surveillance of] broad communities — [makes us] lose against the terrorists we say we are trying to combat.”
Levin explained that the lack of trust in the government holding society together enables extremism to flourish by causing more Americans to prefer an authoritarian type of governance in their pursuit of security — sacrificing freedom, tolerance and democracy.
“It goes against our national goal of being a beacon for tolerance,” he said. “But where is the outcry?”
Instead of excluding minority groups, Levin encouraged Americans to include them in civil life and show empathy toward outsiders in order to attain a stable and complete society. He discussed the frequent accusations against President Obama, who spoke out against bigotry and prejudice multiple times.
“President Obama has been called everything from not a real American to a Muslim — as if there’s something wrong with being from a different faith,” he said. “Saying that Muslims aren’t fit for the presidency or that we have to surveil them or ban them … [causes] the exclusion of patriotic Muslim-Americans from civil society.”
Levin’s lecture was held in Sierra Hall’s Whitsett Room and organized by CSUN’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, as part of its Richard W. Smith Lecture in Cultural Studies series. Dean Stella Theodoulou said she was pleased with the lecture’s outcome and that Levin’s visit was a real honor for the CSUN community.
“The response to Brian Levin’s lecture was extremely positive,” she said. “One of the many responsibilities of the university is to provide a forum for dialogue around issues that affect the community that we are part of. Professor Levin provided a thought-provoking and extremely informative lecture on a subject that is of great concern to each one of us.”