Recent extremist and terrorist violence has been committed by actors and groups with disparate ideologies, geographies, and religions. However, a common thread among the perpetrators of extremist violence does exist – the desire to impose an extreme patriarchal social and political order. Male supremacism is either a primary goal or part of a broader ideological agenda which justifies violence against women and institutions seen to be advancing gender equality.
At its core, male supremacism is a new and more virulent form of patriarchal ideology. It moves beyond the concept of misogyny (prejudice against women) by placing a preoccupation on the restoration of male power at the front and centre of its ideological orientation. This is, in other words, a political project that is centrally preoccupied with the restoration of male power. It is an ideology inherently focused on achieving societal change, be it re-establishing men as breadwinners and heads of the household, abolishing family courts, or the forcible sexual subordination and punishment of women who fail to make themselves sexually available. This worldview and associated violence is therefore not just reactive to perceived deviation, or a means to a wider political end such as the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate or White Power, but aims to restore patriarchy as the desired end goal.
This Insight explores these shared extreme patriarchal visions by examining two distinct ideologies which have been a prominent focus in the field of terrorism studies: Salafi Jihadism and far-right extremism. These ideologies, while distinct, share ultra-conservative social visions and the desire to maintain or impose patriarchal gendered roles, binaries, hierarchies, and norms. They also share the targeting of, or subjugation of, women, actors or institutions that fall outside of or challenge this vision. Drawing on findings from our recent article published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, this Insight explores this new manifestation of violent extremism that places women at the front and centre of its ideological lens, and considers the role of digital technology in the increasing flow of male supremacist ideas.
Even as male supremacists have been increasingly examined in the literature, research on how male supremacism has evolved into a unique ideological orientation has been limited. Similarly, there is only a small body of literature in terrorism studies which considers and compares how patriarchal political visions and related concepts such as male supremacism, misogyny, and masculinism transcend different conservative ideologies. By unpacking the presence of these constructs in case studies of two Salafi-Jihadist organisations (Al-Qaeda and ISIS), two far-right terrorist actors (Anders Breivik and the Proud Boys), and a source of inspiration for some ‘manosphere’ actors like Elliot Rodger, we reveal how male supremacism is a shared feature of these actors and how it has evolved into a distinct stand-alone form of violent extremism.
The Centrality of Male Supremacy Across Violent Extremist Actors
To substantiate our argument, we drew on statements by Salafi-Jihadist and far-right extremist actors and movements which represent their attitudes toward the role of women and feminism in society. These statements indicate male supremacism is inherent within their stated religious/political ideology.
From directives from leadership to governing systems, Salafi-Jihadist declarations display concern for the corruption of women through feminist advancements. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda until he was killed by a drone strike in July 2022, has noted in Al-Qaeda’s online Inspire magazine the costs to women’s ‘honour’ by bringing up daughters in the West, lecturing that ideas of “freedom, femininity, [and] equal rights” were “[f]acilitating and paving to them the way for prostitution and immorality”. Notably, this anti-feminist position is thus framed via ideological opposition to globalisation, the perceived incursion of Western values, and the political visions he sought to impose.
The social and political orders in ISIS-administered territory from 2014 to 2019 similarly evoked orders centred on patriarchy, and a ‘just’ reaction to restore this. At the height of the Islamic State’s power, online propaganda magazines targeted at potential recruits emphasised women’s roles in the home and lauded pious women for providing support and safety for their husbands. These were often shared and disseminated online by ISIS supporters (both men and women), who would also share videos and snapshots of ‘life in the caliphate’ in attempts to normalise life there and draw new supporters. At the same time, ISIS muftis have authorised the subjugation of women both within, and more harshly outside of their group. ISIS abducting and subjecting Yazidi women and other minorities to sexual and gender-based violence, conducting human slavery, and trafficking at least 6,000 Yazidi women and children, can be understood in this context as practising a militarised, masculinised, religious and genocidal nationalism within their ‘Islamic State’.
Far-right terrorism has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2019, the year prior to the commencement of COVID-19 lockdowns, the Global Terrorism Index demonstrated that there had been a 320% increase in far-right terror attacks over the past five years. The same study demonstrated that many such attacks are carried out by individuals. Far-right terrorist Anders Breivik is one such example, operating alone to kill 77 people in Oslo, Norway in 2011. Breivik railed against feminists and feminism in his 1,518-page manifesto, combining warnings about (particularly Muslim) immigration and ‘cultural Marxism’ with claims that “western women have been waging an ideological, psychological and economic war” and that the “fate of European civilization depends on European men steadfastly resisting” feminism. Breivik considered himself the vanguard of resistance and hoped to inspire others.
Social media played a pivotal role in Breivik’s radicalisation. He was active on Twitter, spreading his critical perspectives on Islam and socialism for a prolonged period before the attack. He obtained over 1000 email addresses from social media and sent his manifesto to these accounts. Then, he uploaded a 12-minute-long video to YouTube moments before his attack, sending it to over 7000 Facebook friends. These actions are demonstrative of his understanding of the power of the internet and social media for the dissemination of his message.
In more recent years, we have seen the emergence of new formations that have been proscribed as terrorist organisations in Canada and New Zealand. The hypermasculine and fervently anti-feminist alt-right organisation The Proud Boys—deeply involved in the 2017 Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally and the January 6 attack on the US Capitol—have mirrored this sense of grievance and call for violent redress. Their involvement in the January 6th insurrection, including their instigation of critical breaches of the building, has seen several members of their leadership plead guilty to seditious conspiracy.
Social media and encrypted messaging applications played a key role in the formation of the Proud Boys, enabling them to recruit both locally and nationally through the dissemination of their message. One reporter labelled them “the most successful extremist group in the digital age” due to their ability to mainstream their messaging. Women in this worldview have two primary roles: procreation and housekeeping. The Proud Boys claim to “venerate the housewife”, and assertions from founder Gavin McInness that “either your [sic] women, and if you are, please stop fighting men, or you’re not women and your face is now punchable” clearly advocate for violence against women who deviate from subordinate positions. While their violence is at present more rhetorical than physical, this fervent hatred of feminism and desire to resubordinate women to the domestic sphere is demonstrative of a pattern that is pervasive across far-right and Salafi Jihadist groups alike.
With the advent of social media, we have seen new formations of anti-women ideological development and activism as male supremacists have found each other in online spaces. Advocates of male supremacy are primarily located on the ‘Manosphere’ – a broad network of online actors divided into four main movements, each with their own sub-ideological currents – Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), Pick-up Artists (PUAs), Incels, and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOWs). Research by Roose, Flood, Grieg, Alfano and Copland found that MRAs on online forums demonstrated the highest potential for individual acts of violence of any category across the study. Even though terrorist activity has emerged from this space, it has been difficult to get authorities to take the ‘Manosphere’ seriously. It is only very recently that some nations, such as Australia, have referred to violent misogyny or ‘Incels’ in their threat assessments. Canada has led efforts to treat incel attacks as acts of terror, including prosecuting an individual under terrorism legislation for attacks motivated by Incel ideology.
Indeed, indicative of a rapid emergence of male supremacist violence since the emergence of the internet and social media, Tomkinson et al. found that from 2009-2019, a total of nine attacks in North America, resulting in 53 deaths and 69 wounded, could be attributed to Incels. Most prominently, Elliot Rodger killed 6 and wounded 14 in 2014, in an act his online manifesto claimed was a “day of retribution against men who have ‘pleasurable sex lives’” and a “war on women” brought on by “the crime of depriving me of sex”. Incel violence constitutes a new formation of violent misogyny and terror against women. However, it also echoes the grievances, self-righteousness and determination to use violence to enforce compliance that characterises far-right and Salafi Jihadist ideological orientations alike.
The findings above suggest that future research should pay attention to misogynist or anti-feminist narratives across a diverse ideological spectrum, particularly among those whose utopian visions embrace extreme patriarchal orders, and who call for and justify violence to attain this vision. Such research should also look more closely at their stated grievances; the attribution of blame for said grievances; the targeting and justification of violence; and how these intersect with other categories such as ethnicity and race. This also has important implications for practitioners seeking to prevent and reduce violence in society, including the importance of paying attention to anti-women and anti-feminist narratives.
Common to all actors discussed above is the dissemination of their grievances and recruitment narratives through social media. It remains lawful for tech companies to deliver content that is harmful and promotes violence against women and girls. Similarly, social media companies are not held accountable for the swathes of male supremacist material hosted on their pages, nor do they act often enough to remove those disseminating it. A great deal of work remains to ensure that tech and social media companies alike view male supremacism in the same vein as far-right and Salafi Jihadist content and act accordingly.