JK Rowling’s wizarding world of Harry Potter is an exquisitely drawn study of bigotry.
It starts at the very beginning: the four founders of Hogwarts, the school of magic, disagreed about who should attend. Salazar Slytherin believed only those who came from magical families, known as “pure bloods”, should learn magic. The other founders thought otherwise and Slytherin left the school he co-founded. But his exclusionary ideology lived on. It resulted in frequent acts of discrimination, violence and death throughout the saga.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It should. This is not so far removed from extremist behaviours in our own world.
In The Nature of Prejudice, social psychologist Gordon Allport described a continuum related to prejudice in society. It begins with verbal rejection of individuals or groups then graduates to avoidance, discrimination in its various forms, physical attack and — in extreme cases — extermination.
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“Most barking does not lead to biting, yet there is never a bite without previous barking,” Allport said.
This seminal work came out in 1954 — almost a decade after the conclusion of World War II — and contains an analysis of the way in which the Nazi Party in Germany created a situation before and during the war that made the Holocaust possible.
“Verbal attacks at the time of Bismarck were relatively mild,” Allport observed. “Under Hitler they had become ferocious: the Jews were loudly and officially blamed for every conceivable crime from sex perversion to world conspiracy.”
The bigotry that ultimately led to the death of Jews in concentration camps is not a relic of history. Anti-Semitic propaganda is still circulated among white supremacists and other discriminatory groups. Last year, a report from the Simon Wiesenthal Center found that far-right extremists were frequently using Telegram to spread misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism including the denial of the Holocaust.
That same report noted that various channels and groups sought to deify individuals that had been sentenced for heinous hate crimes and acts of mass murder.
The United Nations and governments around the world are now taking a closer look at far-right extremism, but there is also still great concern about the threat of Islamist extremist movements in this toxic online environment. These groups are well practiced at spreading hate through propaganda.
Then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, for example, issued several statements throughout the late ’90s calling for a war with the United States. The displeasure bin Laden and other hard-line al-Qaeda operatives expressed regarding Muslim-led governments that permitted American forces on their soil was well known.
Bin Laden frequently invoked the Crusades to make his arguments against Israel and Western nations.
“The Arabian Peninsula has never … been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations,” bin Laden said in 1998. This statement was issued bearing the title “Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders”.
Bin Laden also used phrases such as “Satan’s US troops” and “devil’s supporters” to further reinforce the negative positioning of Americans in this document. He decreed a fatwa to kill Americans and their allies, and his followers listened. American embassies were bombed in Africa, the navy ship USS Cole was bombed and then New York and Washington were targeted in the horrific September 11 attack.
As Allport points out, this kind of extreme political violence does not materialise out of thin air.
There is always bark before a bite.