Recent years have seen the rise of polarisation across Europe, and concern over the role it plays in creating violent extremism. The need for understanding the causes of violent extremism has been made all the more prescient by the start of the global international health crisis in 2020, as researchers and policy-makers express alarm at how the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up new opportunities and created new tactics by Far Right extremist groups. Seeking to understand how polarisation and violent extremism develop and interact is the Building Resilience against Violent Extremism and Polarisation (BRaVE) project, a Horizon2020 EU Commission-funded project, led by the European University Institute in Florence.

The project finds that polarisation has been particularly important in creating the conducive environment for current instances of violent extremism to grow and thrive. Polarisation has created an environment whereby complex social relations have come to be represented and perceived in Manichaean ‘black and white’ terms, as resulting from an essential conflict between two imagined groups – for instance, migrants vs. natives, elites vs. the people; or Islam vs. the West. Such processes are visibly articulated in instances of community isolation, discrimination, relative deprivation and the development of exclusionary identities.

The causes of polarisation stretch back many years. Data from across Europe points to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis as laying much of the groundwork for the political instability we are currently experiencing. The economic and political response of austerity, inflicted on many of the most vulnerable communities, has ultimately boosted support for Right-wing and Far Right parties – following a pattern often observed following sudden economic decline.

The rise of the right-wing in response to the financial crisis has also been accompanied by a shift in mainstream political discussion, with mainstream parties more likely to attribute blame to political and cultural minorities and to push for greater state security over and above individual rights – as seen in discussions over migration, terrorism or the future of Europe. The weaponisation of crises has opened up space for more irregular malicious organisations that promote forms of extremism. Such groups, hostile to current systems of governance, immigration and integration, have been given new legitimacy and platforms and, as a result, have flourished.

Online spaces and social media have further enabled often internationally well-funded malicious groups to grow their presence organically and spread propaganda that amplifies and normalises polarising narratives in already fracturing societies. Thus, the polarisation we see today represents an accumulation of several years of societal problems and is linked to many previous political and economic events.

These processes are now being combined with a new reality following the start of the on-going international health crisis. COVID-19 has brought heightened concern about polarisation and violent extremism. As a result of the pandemic, a several new issues have come to the fore: the mainstreaming of misinformation and conspiracy theories; new articulations of racism and anti-migrant sentiment; and the exacerbation of financial and social inequalities. Whilst it is important to address these issues within the current context of the pandemic, we can only start to make an adequate response by understanding the long-term causes of such polarisation and extremism.

Although these problems are becoming widespread and embedded in our societies, the BRaVE project has identified resilience-building approaches as offering a potential salve. Resilience is understood here as the means by which people can face and respond to adversity, and the variety of different strengths that can be drawn upon in times of stress, anxiety and trauma. By applying this concept at the community and society levels – rather than simply to individuals – such an approach offers the means to combat specific articulations of polarisation and extremism: through greater access to social support, sufficient community resources, better engagement with democracy, or new forms of online resilience.

To support this, the BRaVE project has put forward a host of online resources, including toolkits for measuring polarisation, remote learning courses on intercultural dialogue, the mapping of existing European approaches to combatting extremism, as well as financial and delivery support for grassroots community projects across the continent.

The BRaVE project represents only a modest effort to understand the possible causes of a wide landscape of violent extremism and polarisation. By analysing processes of polarisation, we can understand the patterns behind violence and develop new means of implementing targeted and considered responses. Perhaps most importantly, the project helps to highlight the immense work already being done on the community level to tackle both the causes and effects of polarisation throughout Europe. Such tasks will most likely be all the more important in future months and years, as current uncertainty and instability looks set to continue for some time to come.

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