Everyone knew that the situation was deteriorating, and recent events had sensitized government officials to the growing threat of extremist groups within the area’s largest martial arts networks. Local immigration and a shift in the neighborhood’s religious complexion had brought tensions in one community to a boiling point. Groups of previously reliable citizens were protesting outside of a newly constructed place of worship shouting both racial and religious epitaphs.
Law enforcement wasn’t sure whether to move against the protesters or to just try and keep the groups separated until their anger burnt itself out. From their perspective it was difficult to know if either side actually deserved any sympathy at all. The supposed “victims” of these violent abuses had been filling the local courts with petty crimes and nuisance lawsuits for years.
Still, the public safety officials all agreed that it was a bad sign when a group of aggressive martial artists appeared right at epicenter of trouble just to conduct some “public workouts.” The group had recruited a new leader, a regionally famous fighter with a reputation for protecting “the people.” They claimed it was all necessary. Someone had to protect the community from these “outsiders.” That is when the torches were lit.
The Problem of Violence
The still fledgling field of martial arts studies has recently turned its attention to the problem of extremist political violence and its potential connections to the martial arts. Given that so many groups train explicitly to deal with the reality of violence (either to prevent it, or to enact it more efficiently), its odd that this topic is only now gaining visibility. In the 2017 Martial Arts Studies meetings in Cardiff my good friend Sixt Wetzler delivered a paper laying out a carefully constructed framework for considering the intersection of these issues. And pointing to the rising prominence of public groups training for violent street battles within the West’s increasingly polarized political atmosphere, I ended my own keynote with a plea for more scholars to take up these issues.
That is not to say that this is easy subject matter. In many cases our research reflects our personal interests and backgrounds. People write papers about embodied training in their favored styles, or address discursive issues in popular films or TV programs. And it is generally good advice to “write what you know.” Yet in moments of social upheaval that advice can lead to a strange myopia. Few of us are members of extremist organizations, on either the right or the left. And only a handful of martial arts studies scholars have any direct experience in law enforcement or intelligence work. I suspect that (with a few notable exceptions) studies of the intersection of martial arts training and social violence in the modern world lagged behind as it was a research topic without a sizable audience within the field.
It was the appearance of multiple news stories linking the spread of white nationalist hate groups and certain MMA training facilities, fashion labels and fight promotion companies which finally broke this stalemate. Little of what these outlets printed was actually “breaking news.” In February of 2018 Mother Jones published an article titled “The Terrifying Rise of Alt-Right Fight Clubs.” So as to not undersell the story the editor helpfully subtitled the piece (authored by Bryan Schatz) “White nationalists are learning martial arts to prepare for race war.” Much of the same material would later appear in an extended piece in The Guardian titled “Fascist Fight Clubs: How white nationalists use MMA as a recruiting tool.”
The implication of elements of the ever growing MMA community in these recruitment efforts inspired some sustained engagement. This unfolded on Facebook groups and blogs, and Paul Bowman has provided a nice summary of these debates here and here. Following the lead of the reporters in these pieces, much of the discussion has so far focused on how we should conceptualize the mixed martial arts and their connection to these efforts. Are they truly violent sports? Is there something about them that makes them particularly useful to extremist groups at this moment in history? And perhaps most intriguingly, is there an inherent conceptual connection between the sorts of “violence” that one sees in the octagon, and that which has appeared on the streets.
These are all interesting questions. Yet in this essay I would like to outline another set of concerns that is likely to take this discussion in several different directions. And that leads us back to the account of a single violent encounter in the preamble to this essay. When and where did this happen? And in what respects is knowing the answer to that question important? What aspects of community violence are historically and culturally bounded, and when do we cross over into the realm of institutionally or structurally determined behaviors?
It would not be hard to come up with several historical incidents that fit the events I outlined above. Some could be as old as the classical world, while others might appear in the headlines of a contemporary European paper. In point of fact, the “regionally famous martial arts teacher” in my account is none other than Zhao San-duo, a late 19thcentury Plum Blossom master who, while not directly involved in the Boxer Uprising, helped to light the fuse of anti-foreign and anti-Christian violence that would bring Imperial China to its knees.
This is not to say that the sort of xenophobia that was seen in late 19th century China, and the Western ideology of racial supremacy seen within groups like the California based Rise Above Movement (RAM, a violent extremist group profiled in both of the previously cited newspaper articles) are in any way identical. While both sets of ideas focused on the need to “protect” a community from perceived racial or religious threats, the historical, cultural and social framing of these ideologies are quite distinct. That is critical to remember, especially as government or local communities seek to address the spread of violent ideologies.
Yet the ease with which one might fit this outline to several cases suggests that there may also be structural and institutional issues that need to be taken into account. The association of martial art training with political or social extremism is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it restricted to only one side of the political spectrum. For every alt-right MMA club that one finds in California, I suspect that one will be able to locate a Marxist boxing gym in France or Italy.
Nor, when examined in historical terms, does there seem to be a very strong correlation between the sort of martial art being practiced and the probability that it will be radicalized by an anti-systemic group. In Japan it has always been the traditional Budos, with their strong associations with a (mostly imagined) Samurai past, that are the most likely to appeal to both violent ultra-nationalist groups and organized crime syndicates. Yet I doubt that many American MMA practitioners would look at these judo, kendo or aikido schools and find their practices to be notably “violent” by the standards of televised UFC bouts.
One challenge that we face is that since many of us are directly involved in the practice of the martial arts, it can be difficult to see beyond the boundaries of our own experiences and communities. In effect, we have a difficult time perceiving our communities as an outsider with different goals might. This is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to understanding why a particular extremist group might be interested in infiltrating a practice or what their goals might actually be.
To gain some clarity on these issues we might begin by taking a step back from the martial arts themselves and considering what we know about the ways that violent extremist groups typically operate. This is a subject that has been studied extensively by both social scientists and law enforcement personal. While students of martial arts studies have a unique perspective to bring to the table, we should note that there is already a well developed body of empirical observation and theoretical literature that we can draw from.
One of the first things that a student of terrorism might point out, for instance, is that we should carefully consider both halves of the phrase “extremist organization.” While we tend to put a lot of mental emphasis on a group’s views or ideology (often because they are horrifying), if we wish to understand what they actually do on a day to day basis we must remember that they are basically a voluntary social organization. To survive in the short run they must solve immediate problems like generating a funding stream, recruiting personal, managing their public image and coordinating with other actors. Any extremist organization that fails at these tasks will not be a problem for every long.
To better accomplish these basic goals radical organizations occasionally insert themselves into a wide range of social movements, many of which do not appear to have anything to do with violence. Sports organizations, on-line communities, new religious movements, musical sub-cultures and international charity organizations have all proved to popular targets for ideologically motivated violent groups. Each of these provides opportunities for extremist organizations to craft communities in which they can radicalize members. In some cases these cover organizations also help to raise money, operate across international borders or improve the group’s “brand.”
When seen in this light it is not at all surprising that violent organizations, either in the current era or in 19thcentury China, would be interested in hand combat schools. Yet I suspect that the actual martial arts skills gained are not the most critical aspect of their organizational calculus. In modern society martial arts clubs are ubiquitous to the point of being almost invisible. Whether an ultranationalist judo club in Japan, or an MMA school in the United States, both organizations provide groups with a chance to cultivate marginal and dissatisfied individuals in an environment that is likely to generate little suspicion.
From a social scientific perspective these recruitment drives are actually quite enlightening. As martial artists we tend to mentally divide our actives into the serious business of physical training and “everything else” that goes along with being a member of an organization. This second category might include such banal interactions as chatting in the locker room, carpooling to a local tournament or meeting up at the gym for strength training. The friendships we create, the on-line media we consume, the social community that we build, all of these things are typically seen as “secondary” to the serious business of physical training.
Yet when trying to understand the function and social value of a martial arts school, we need to be willing to reverse this way of thinking. In actual fact, it is within the realm of the secondary where we find these practices’ greatest value. As any martial arts teacher can attest, it is the friendships that are made in a training hall that keep many students coming back week after week. It is there that they are exposed to the media that their fellow classmates consume. And it is largely through these “secondary” social channels that martial arts communities articulate what their practices mean, and hence what their identity actually is. Embodied experience is never self-interpreting, which is precisely why so many political, national and social groups have found the martial arts to be useful over the last hundred years or so.
Again, trends within the Boxer Rebellion help to illustrate this basic relationship between a group’s seeming primary purpose (to impart individual skills) and its actual social utility (to reinforce group bonding). Historical and eyewitness accounts suggest that relatively few Chinese Christian were killed with the sorts of hand to hand combat techniques that were taught by the local martial arts communities that the Yihi Boxers drew from. Instead we find accounts of execution squads rounding up local Christians, locking them in their own churches, setting the building on fire and shooting anyone who tried to leap out. Paul Cohen noted that fire, rather than Kung Fu, was the Boxer’s weapon of mass destruction. While we tend to fixate on their claims to magical invulnerability in hand to hand combat, it is often forgotten that much of their magic dealt with the control of fire as they sought to burn entire neighborhoods to the ground.
Does this then indicate that their martial arts training was useless on the battlefield? Not at all. It was on the boxing grounds of Shandong that the Boxers who would terrorize Beijing were welded together into a somewhat cohesive, radicalized, social unit. It was these “secondary” aspects their martial arts training that laid the necessary social foundation for the tragedy of 1900.
Likewise, when reviewing the footage of recent riots that can be found online, it seems unlikely that a few months of BJJ or MMA (or HEMA) training is going to make the average skinhead that much more effective in a messy brawl with Antifa or law enforcement. I am as much an advocate of martial arts training as anyone, but the most important function that these clubs serve is likely to organize their members into a somewhat disciplined unit, to coordinate with other likeminded cells, and then to get their guys onto the streets. Certainly strength training and a basic familiarity with fighting might help. But at the end of the day individuals are motived to fight for communities, not training styles.
All of this may seem obvious. I hope that it does. Yet approaching extremist groups from an institutional perspective reveals important strategies for understanding and deterring their spread. Perhaps the first of these is that there need not be any direct ideological correlation between the types of venues that groups use for recruitment and their ultimate political or social goals. For instance, modern MMA, 19thcentury Plum Blossom and traditional European Longsword are three very different martial arts both in terms of cultural background, social structure and patterns of imagined violence. Yet each has proved to be an attractive target for radical groups looking to recruit members and coordinate their agendas.
We commit a grave error by treating MMA as some sort of “gateway” to the world of social extremism due to its inherently “violent” or competitive nature. While conceptually interesting, debates as to whether we might legitimately call what happens in the octagon “violence” in the same ways as a deadly political street fight misses a critical point. There is little violence in Scandinavian new religious movements, yet they too have become, at times, a site of extremist recruitment. There are good reasons why groups might want to recruit members from charities or other organizations that have no visible connection to violence at all. I am sure that if we looked closely enough we would also find some level recruitment happening at Wing Chun training halls, karate dojos and Kali schools. What is critical is the way these activities can be discursively framed and deployed, and not necessarily anything inherent in their embodied practice.
At the current moment MMA is probably attractive to extremist groups simply because it is so popular with young males generally and is aligned with several trends in popular culture. Its most important assets may not be the brutality of its practice, but the fact that it has crafted a fashionable pop culture aesthetic. Indeed, it may simply be the practice’s “soft power” that make it an attractive target for subversion. Its highly networked structure also make it both commercially flexible and a decent platform for the sorts of networking that extremist groups may seek to engage in.
If these social characteristics make martial arts organizations attractive to extremist groups (on both the left and right), they also suggest some options for deterring their spread. Consider, for instance, the role of social capital in this type of institutional framework. “Social capital” refers to the decentralized bonds of trust and reciprocity that are created within small communities that can then be applied to larger networks.
All group interactions create social capital to one degree or another. Yet they do not always create equal amounts of trust, (bonding capital) nor are they equally good at extending this radius of community (bridging capital). When we look at the specific MMA schools and fight promotions implicated in the news articles cited earlier, it becomes apparent that they are in many ways pretty marginal cases. This makes sense as, once created, communities rich in social capital tend to be somewhat conservative in character (even if very supportive of their members). My prior research looking at religion and terrorism suggested that communities which were rich in social capital were more resistant to radicalization attempts. Relatively disconnected and marginal groups tended to be low hanging fruit for extremist organizations both because they had less to lose, and less ability to resist corrosive social discourses.
This suggests that one important strategy for containing the spread of extremist ideologies in the martial arts is to focus more attention of building healthy communities with many points of intersection, both with other hand combat groups and the community at large. Such organizations are much harder targets for radicalization. However, containment strategies that focus on state surveillance, or anything else that corrodes trust (and therefore social capital) within the community, might backfire in unexpected ways. If we weaken the bonds of reciprocity either within martial arts groups or between them, social capital theory suggest that we might actually increase the probability that these movements are captured by anti-systemic actors. [Incidentally, efforts by the late Qing dynasty to monitor and suppress its own hand combat schools seems to support this hypothesis, but that is an argument for a different post.]
The modern martial arts function as a type of social machinery. Like any machine they perform work, the normative implications of which have more to do with the hand at the controls than any inherent property of the practice itself. It is the fundamental amorality of the martial arts that allows them to be co-opted by both nationalist forces and advocates of regional identity, often at the same time. Likewise, the same embodied experience of kickboxing or rolling might be used to support discursive structures that emphasize a sense of the profound human equality in some circles, or radical hierarchies of difference in others. What really matters is the supplementary forces that construct and give meaning to these experiences.
An institutional approach to the problem of extremism not only suggests viable strategies for containing these movements (a topic that I hope to return to in a future essay), but it also reveals something critical about modern hand combat groups. It is often the secondary and seemingly supplementary aspects of our practice that have the most profound impact on the community around us. We neglect them at our peril, both as scholars and concerned martial artists.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”