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In London, two strands of extremism share the same world view

My kids learned to think of Seven Sisters Road, the north London street where a man ploughed his van into a crowd of Muslims in a terrorist act early Monday, as a place of sensory extremes. We'd frequently stroll along this teeming thoroughfare through the heart of Finsbury Park, and they came to know the highlights: The Turkish greengrocer beside the Greek fishmonger, the haphazard palaces of discount shoes, the Africans selling racks of this and that under the bridge, and, at some point on almost every walk, an angry guy screaming at strangers.

The angry guy would sometimes be wearing a shalwar kameez and shouting about Islam and politics and war, or sometimes he'd be a white guy shouting about the Muslim menace and the globalist scourge. On Monday night, Britain and its Prime Minister were forced to confront a fact my kids had quickly figured out: Those guys are the same sort of extremist. Though their anger may be directed at opposite targets, they are motivated by the same basic idea, the same political vision, and they pose the same threat.

That became sickeningly apparent shortly after midnight Monday, when a man, reportedly named Darren Osborne, drove a rented van into a crowd of worshippers on that familiar stretch of Seven Sisters Road while allegedly shouting anti-Muslim slogans.

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This attack was the latest in a long sequence of terrorist-style acts by figures motivated by the politics of intolerance and exclusion – attacks that include the murder last year of Labour MP Jo Cox by a man, Thomas Mair, who was a member of right-wing parties opposed to her pro-European Union stance.

But it was also part of a sequence of attacks by equally angry British men involving vehicles, some of which have been motivated by the politics of jihadi extremism and the ideas of the militia army that calls itself Islamic State. The most recent such attack occurred only two weeks earlier, when a group of men shouting jihadi slogans ploughed into, and then stabbed, crowds of people on London Bridge.

While these may appear to be two strands of extremism, one Islamist and the other far right, ostensibly posed against one another, any up-close examination of their opinions and rhetoric reveals that they have the same view of the world, the same mirror-image political goals, and now the same tactics.

One of the first to mention this similarity Monday was Brendan Cox, the husband of Ms. Cox, the slain MP, in a message he posted: "Far right fascists & Islamist terrorists are driven by same hatred of difference, same ideology & use same tactics. We'll defeat both."

That view was picked up by Prime Minister Theresa May, who had been criticized previously for turning a blind eye to her country's right-wing terrorism problem. On Monday morning, she denounced it as an equally serious threat, calling this attack "every bit as sickening as those which have come before… an attack that once again targeted the ordinary and the innocent going about their daily lives … There is no place for this hatred in our country today."

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The parallels between these two extremisms had long been visible on Seven Sisters Road.

At some points, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the angry guys on the street would be yelling Islamic stuff. The Finsbury Park Mosque, around the corner from Monday's attack, had been taken over by a one-armed former Afghan Mujahadeen fighter who called himself Abu Hamza, known in the tabloids as "hooky mullah." After the congregation banned him in 2002, he would stand on the street outside the mosque just off Seven Sisters Road, gather a small crowd, and shout wild-eyed speeches calling for the death of infidels and praising terrorists.

The multi-hued congregants seemed relieved when Abu Hamza was arrested in 2004 on charges related to organizing terrorism. (He is currently serving a life sentence in the United States). Their mosque is now a moderate place with an explicitly anti-extremist message.

But, in part because of the mosque (and the soccer stadium), the area would often attract far-right extremists from the British National Party, the National Front and other such movements – often linking their anti-Muslim message to the mounting anti-European Union "Brexit" campaign they backed.

They often seemed hard to distinguish from the jihadis in their strident tone, their belief that the world is divided into incompatible civilizations, and their intolerance of the plural and diverse life of modern Europe that is so abundantly visible on Seven Sisters Road. On Monday, the two groups showed themselves to be identical in every imaginable way, including the worst – and we can hope that Britain will now turn against both equally.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More


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