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Less than two years later, in May 2020, a month before Leviathan ran for parliament, Bihali’s party colleague, Filip Radovanovic, ploughed his car into a migrant shelter in an outlying district of Belgrade, claiming he was protecting his girlfriend. “I don’t want my girlfriend to be attacked by migrants! I don’t want a Muslim state!” he shouted into his phone as he videoed the attack.
Leviathan, which began life as a group of tattooed, shaven-headed vigilantes in tight black t-shirts, missed out on a seat in parliament in Serbia’s last election, on April 3, but it has a significant public profile and almost 300,000 followers on Facebook.
People’s Patrol is similar, emerging out of the suspicion and anger triggered by the flow of mainly Muslim migrants and refugees through Serbia en route to Western Europe in 2015 and 2016.
Both groups portray migrants as rapists and themselves as the defenders of Serbian women from an alien, Islamic “rape culture.”
Social media posts to this effect outperform others, according to a BIRN analysis conducted with CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring tool from Facebook. The groups are praised for their defence of so-called ‘traditional family values’ and hierarchical gender roles, while opposing the empowerment of women and espousing anti-feminist attitudes and misogyny.
Indeed, control over female sexuality and reproduction is central to far-right extremist ideology, experts say. And the Balkans is no exception.
“Extremist groups are ready to use [the threat of] violence against women as justification for their actions against Others,” said Tanja Tankosic Girt, a Bosnia-based psychotherapist and expert in violent extremism. “In their eyes, they are fighting for their nation, families, and communities.”
Eviane Leidig, a research fellow at the Dutch-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, told BIRN: “Misogyny is frequently exploited as the first point of contact and it’s all about entitlement on women’s bodies.”
Eviane Leidig, a research fellow at the Dutch-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. Photo: Courtesy of Eviane Leidig.
In the ‘great replacement’ theory shared by far-right extremists around the world, white people are being displaced by non-whites, and so, the logic goes, controlling white female sexuality and reproduction is a key defence against ‘replacement’ and non-whites. The sexual and reproductive freedom of women is, by extension, a threat to white civilisation.
From neo-Nazi Anders Breivik, who, before killing 77 people in Norway in 2011, wrote that “feminisation of European culture is nearly complete,” to ‘incel hero’ Elliot Rodger, who shot dead six in California in 2014 having vowed to “punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex,” anti-feminist and misogynistic rhetoric is a powerful gateway to violent extremism.
In March this year, a US Homeland Security report looked at what it said was “the specific threat posed by misogynistic extremism,” from men who describe themselves as “anti-feminists” or “involuntary celibate – incel.”
Because of the way these groups systematically demean and dehumanise women, including inciting physical and sexual violence against them, in 2018 the Southern Poverty Law Centre added “male supremacy” to the ideologies monitored on its annual ‘Hate Map’.
This year, “normalisation of misogynistic hate” was part of the UK-based Hope Not Hate’s 2022 State of Hate annual report, while a June 2021 report by the United Nations Development Fund, UNDP, reflected how misogyny is central to indoctrination, recruitment, and the ideology of violent extremism.
“Male supremacist ideology may be found in a variety of forms on the internet,” said Leidig. “Incel is one of the most recent forms. According to them, sex is a basic human right for all males and they have entitlement to it. Women who deny them this right are thus committing a serious crime.”
Far-right extremist groups, meanwhile, are exploiting alleged violence against women by ‘outsiders’ to attract followers.
Research shows that far-right extremists are successfully weaponising memes and narratives against migrants while portraying them as a threat to the women.
“The conspiracy theory of a ‘great replacement’ underpins so much of the ideology of the far right, whether explicitly or not,” said Michael Colborne, a researcher and journalist at Bellingcat.
“‘We’ are being replaced by an ‘Other,’ a replacement being perpetrated deliberately by all sorts of apparently nefarious actors. For different far-right groups and individuals with those views, it’s a matter of identifying those actors – those enemies, in their view – who they think are responsible for this. Among these enemies are often women who don’t have children, or don’t have as many children as these men would like them to have – in other words, educated, professional women whose role in the world is about far more than just giving birth to members of a particular ethnic group.”
(Virtual) reality and violence against women
In a 2018 report called When Women Are the Enemy: The Intersection of Misogyny and White Supremacy, the Anti-Defamation League, ADL, argued that there is a robust symbiosis between misogyny and white supremacy.
Research also suggests that misogynistic attitudes are associated with support for violent extremism.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, studies have shown that support for gender equality is one of the strongest indicators of resilience to violent extremism, while lower support for gender equality correlates to higher support for violent extremism.
Violent and non-violent extremist groups nurture the idea of male supremacy over women and research so far shows that misogynistic attitudes have been a motivating factor in several violent attacks in recent years.
Importantly, rather than being the sole motive, misogyny seems to be interrelated with various other grievances and adverse experiences feeding an extremely hostile worldview in which anger, perceived victimhood and frustrated entitlement are played out through retributive and hypermasculine violent acts.
Since the primary means of communication for extremist groups have been chatrooms, forums, and social media platforms, this virtual space has allowed the amplification of ideas between geographically distant and diverse individuals. By transcending distance, social media platforms have become an ideal radicalising tool for extremist organisations that capitalise on technology.
While misogyny and anti-feminism are omnipresent, mainstreaming these ideologies into extremist groups made them more acceptable to larger social and political circles, allowing portions of society – mostly young men – to radicalise without anyone questioning this path.
This has resulted in the globalisation of sexism among far-right communities, as well as the exploitation of gender as a recruiting technique.
Nedopustivo je nereagovanje Tužilaštva na vapaje jedne mlade žene/devojke koja tvrdi uz gomilu svedoka da je bila zlostavljana. Ovo su slučajevi koje mi po defaultu preuzmemo i zaboravljamo političke, lične ili bilo kakve druge razmirice. Videćete šta čeka gospodina repera. https://t.co/iFYgCYx6t9
— Pavle Bihali (@pavlebihali) December 25, 2021
In October last year, Bellingcat reported on how the Russian far-right group ‘Male State’ incited violence against feminists and women and organised harassment campaigns against people who support LBGT+ minorities. The group’s leader, Vladislav Pozdnyakov, who has more than 100,000 followers on Telegram, encouraged subscribers to go offline and look for victims in real life, Bellingcat reported.
Colborne said Pozdnyakov’s social media activity suggested he may have recently been in Montenegro.
He “used misogyny and hatred of women, including promoting violence, as a way of recruiting young men,” Colborne told BIRN, “while later the group’s ideology eventually coalesced into something they described as national patriarchy.”
Conversations about domestic violence, rape and sexual exploitation are not uncommon within far-right group chats and forums.
“Stormfront”, a neo-Nazi forum founded by U.S. white supremacist Don Black, has a significant following in the Western Balkans and specific sub-forums in which users write in Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian.
A BIRN analysis of the content shows a preoccupation with gender and feminism, with discussions such as “how to find a proper Nazi girl” and “women before and now.” As of April 8, 2022, the latter had just over 140,000 views.
In one conversation, a user from Croatia sought to explain rape, writing: “The act of rape is not just an act of domination; at its core it is subconsciously an act of spreading genes. In war, men rape not only because they want to humiliate the enemy, but also because they want to spread their gene, because if they die, a raped woman can give birth to his offspring (gene), so he managed to spread his gene.”
Underpinning all far-right ideologies, Colborne said, is the notion of “hierarchy, order, and preserving the ‘true,’ real culture that they see as degraded or decayed. It also speaks to the far-right’s obsession with history as they see it, with being remembered, and leaving a mark on the world.”
According to extremist narratives, a women’s natural purpose is to give birth and preserve family; women should be subjugated to men since those strong men are guardians who will preserve humanity.
“Women are seen as less equal than men,” said Leidig. There may be some variation, she said, “But overall, there is this shared commitment towards not viewing women in the same terms of human dignity. Also, very importantly, the entitlement that women serve for man, sexually, romantically, care, all these various aspects of the relationship. So, entitlement is the biggest discourse in these landscapes.”
Tankosic Girt adds: “This constant insistence on biology, gender roles, the differences between men and woman actually has only one foothold and aim, and that is control over women, women’s bodies and the choices of women.”
On January 4, Croatian former MP Ivan Pernar, who frequently shares videos from far-right accounts such as that of Hungary’s Légió Hungária, claimed on Telegram that since women had secured the right to vote, politics had shifted to the left. He went on: “I also wondered why women are welcoming black migrants to Croatia on a bigger scale than men. In the end I found data that 2/3 of women had a fantasy about being raped…”
Such statements are based both on Islamophobia – in portraying migrants as rapists – and hateful misogyny – that women are to be blamed for the sexual violence they suffer. In a rape culture, there are blurred lines around consent, male sexual aggression is accepted and encouraged, and victims are blamed for the violence they have suffered.
Similar but different
Tankosic Girt stresses that the notion of clear gender roles, “sustained through violence,” whether physical, emotional, psychological, sexual or economic, is not limited only to far-right extremism.
“It doesn’t matter which type of extremism we are talking about, whether far-right, Salafi, or something else,” she said.
On June 21, 2021, prominent Bosnian Salafi preacher Elvedin Pezic, who has more than 325,000 followers on Facebook, posted: “Western society morally COLLAPSED the moment they took the woman out of the house and when the woman became everything but a MOTHER!!”
The sanctity of marriage and marital relations, child-rearing, gender differences, intimacy, and dress codes are often used by extremist groups to promote religious conservatism.
“Salafist influencers tend to build religious arguments around these seemingly irrelevant human behaviours, alternately labelling them as obligatory, sinful, and demanding,” said Tankosic Girt.
Pezic has seen his following on Facebook grow by more than 20,000 in the past six months.
“All extremists groups offer a simple narrative and it’s catchy,” said Colborne.
In 2014, Minber.ba, an Islamic webpage in Bosnia giving advice on Islamic life, published an article saying that a woman is obliged to have sex with her husband.
Tankosic Girt said that such beliefs “reflect long-term abuse dynamics,” by telling women that their bodies are in the service of “her husband’s satisfaction, regardless of permission.”
Domestic violence and violent extremism
Regardless of the underlying ideology, an understanding has emerged that violent extremists are almost always men with a history of violence or harassment of women.
“For example,” said Leidig, “in previous incel attacks they all have reported previous domestic violence or rape against women. So, this is a red flag, these types of behaviour that often precedes these types of violent terrorist incidents.”
According to some researchers, this correlation could simply be due to the prevalence of domestic violence. Domestic violence, however, is an expression of entitlement, a form of intimate terrorism, and the greatest cause of female killings globally.
Experts argue that our understanding of violent extremism must include history of domestic violence.
On the inside, little is known about the violence that female members of far-right extremist groups endure. A 2018 research paper by author and researcher Saeida Rouass shed some light on the everyday experiences of three women from far-right and white supremacy groups.
“All the men were abusive,” one of the women said. “But all of the women were insecure and seeking so I think that because all of the men were like that, we just kind of accepted it. […] Women are told “you’re our most precious commodity,” “you’re the mothers of the white race,” “you’re going to be cherished” and women are placed on a pedestal in this way but then at the same time you say the wrong thing and you get a backhand and you know there is a lot of abuse especially intimate partner violence but it’s not always just that…”
Tanja Tankosic Girt, a Bosnia-based psychotherapist and expert in violent extremism. Photo: Courtesy of Tanja Tankosic Girt.
And it’s a vicious circle, said Tankosic Girt.
“Principal vulnerabilities are developed within the family context, since parents are the ones that primarily build behaviour patterns of children,” she said.
“For children, the first partnership model is the parents. If a young person grows up in a family where domestic violence is present, it contributes to the personal insecurities, insecure environment, and family dysfunction, which later makes those young people receptive to extremists’ groups, while later, in most cases, they are the ones expressing that adopted model of behaviour in different forms of violence against women.”
Recruitment, prevention, and intervention
Extremist groups – from non-violent to violent, be they far-right or inspired by the Islamic State – are exploiting anti-feminist ideologies and misogynist narratives as recruiting tools.
Laura Bates , author of the new book Men who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists, the Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All, has said that “there is a kind of radicalisation, a kind of grooming happening online whereby young men’s problems and insecurities are co-opted by organised online extremist groups.”
Misogyny is omnipresent. In a 2019 OSCE-led survey in Bosnia concerning the prevalence of violence against women, 48 per cent of women said they had experienced some form of abuse, including intimate partner violence, non-partner violence, stalking and sexual harassment, since the age of 15.
In the UK, one woman is killed on average every three days by a male current or former partner.
According to Leidig, misogynist narratives and violence against women “are largely accepted in mainstream culture and may be expressed with little opposition, but they are not seen as a threat.”
Feminists, meanwhile, are equated with a supposed ‘Western agenda’ to undermine nations and are seen as influencers of government decisions, even though women are still underrepresented at the political level.
Finally, anti-feminism offers to address a genuine sense of grievance. On social media platforms such as Reddit, 4chan, Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, young men have developed new terms to express their frustration at rejection.
Even if extremist ideologies do not directly support terrorism or incite attacks, they generate dangerous social divides and influence radicalisation that undermines democratic norms.
Such language poses a particular threat to the Western Balkans, especially in the context of inciting violence toward women or migrants; such narratives threaten the decades-old fight for gender equality. Indeed, this form of radicalisation – in which women are the enemy – is likely to pose serious long-term social, political, and security concerns, experts warn.
“They pray on entitlement and a sense of inadequacy,” said Tankosic Girt. “It all stems from that feeling of inadequacy that drives them to a search for their own significance.”
For states to respond effectively, she said, “we must take a step back, and properly evaluate the work done so far.”
Evidence shows that intervening in the spread of racist and hateful misogynist ideas in public discourse, including on the Internet, works to prevent terrorist acts.
All of BIRN’s interlocutors on this story stressed the need to properly include and observe family dynamics and the influence of domestic violence.
When planning intervention, “there should be a focus on therapy as a form of intervention but the one that places entitlement as a right to man at the centre of discussion,” said Leidig.