Fighting violent extremism & radicalization: Community engagement, Work, Belonging & Empathy

This week’s Courrier International presents, on its front page, the “Anatomy of Terror, what makes people become terrorists?” based on a New Scientist report on the motivation of people to join terrorist groups. The true roots of ISIS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram.... -inspired terror groups, can be found, according to Marc Sageman, Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Center for the Study of Terrorism, in something much more deeper than ideological and religious motivations, and/or personality disorders ( he interviewed 172 jihadist terrorists in jail and carried out various psychological studies on them- the results are extensively shown in his 2004 book Understanding Terror Networks).

The issue to be careful stands in the notion of normality. “People who commit terrorist acts are usually embedded in a network of familial and friendship ties with allegiance to a closed group, be that tribal, cultural, national, religious or political” continues New Scientist “historically, the conditions for the murder of innocents by terrorism or genocide have occurred when one group fears extinction by another group. Ordinary people are motivated to “kill by category” through their own group identity.

The Devoted to the cause character, whose spiritual strength is stronger than his/her physical strength, can be a powerful ( and potentially devastating) driver to join jihadist groups, fusing their individual identity with that of the group. Having “sacred values” for which people are willing to die for ( not so much of discussion, but rather statements without interpretations) can create close-minded characters who only see one solution to their life destiny.

Studies of Vera Mironova, game theorist and mathematician, analyzing individual behaviors in conflict environments, explains that some of the reasons to join jihadist group can be found in high salaries, food and medical insurance provided. Essentially, they do it for the money, not to starve, rather than following a religious ideology or some “sacred values” .

The United Nations Development Program in Africa just released a 130-pages long report on combating violent extremism in Africa, based on 2 years interviews with more than 495 voluntary recruits to extremist organizations Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping point for recruitment. The study finds that the primary forces driving Young Africans into violent extremism are the perception of state violence, weak governance, abuse of power by state actors, all elements that normally flow into economic instability, no jobs, poverty, marginalization and deprivation of the population, spurring people to make the decision of joining an extremist group.

Underemployed youth is a dramatic plague of Africa. If people live below the poverty line, without any economic prospects and/or creating ways for economic empowerment, there is no way violent extremism and radicalization, as the process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social or religious ideals and aspirations that reject or undermine the status quo or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions of the nation, can end. They can only magnify ( and unfortunately- leading to minds destruction and decreased ability to think, rationalize, discuss and find common solutions to problems).

Effective programs to respond to global extremism are the ones implemented by, for instance, the International Organization for Migration, on Labor Migration and Development. In West Africa, the UN agency working in migration inflows and management, has a program on development expertise supporting communities in implementing deradicalization initiatives, helping to ensure that former members of violent extremist organizations are socio-economically reintegrated, among many other critical areas, focusing especially on vocational and technical trainings.

Analyzing it from my point of view, prevention of extremism comes with the opportunity of:

A. Work/Jobs: time invested & allocated to a income-generating activity or a rewarding, job that satisfies the individual and the people around. Meaningful and Impactful jobs, that can produce results, products and/or alleviate sufferings on people or facilitate people’s lives ( i think of engineers for instance, who work to facilitate us, by building transport, infrastructures, bridges, planes and roads to help us move from one place to another, reaching our friends and our beloved ones).

B. Community engagement : daily routine jobs must always be accompanied by a regular amount of leisure time to build and strengthen social bonds. I think of cultural centers, music, sports, language classes, some extra activities that can bond people together, through traveling and spending time together, to make them fell part of a community , of something bigger. You are a good worker, but also a human being who deserves hugs, smiles, affection and sense of belonging to a community, in addition to your family and closed ones.

C. More empathy, compassion and less fear and suspicion: empathy is really natural, genuine and common among Africans ( which unfortunately i could not always find in Europe, except if people know you well enough to help out, listen and support). This is the essence of human beings, which, starting from the Youth of Africa as an inspirational generation who can, through music and a genuine attitude towards life, can bring about the change and the humanization of relationships ( not only about economy, capitals and profits) but revolving around a new way of helping one another, of creating social entrepreneurship, tech hubs and motivating one another to share knowledge and build business together, not in competition, but in solidarity and team work.

In one of the interviews in the UNDP Report, an extremist stated that ‘My parents and siblings had no idea that I joined. When you’re caught up inside the movement, it’s hard to listen to other opinions. It is even harder to accept that what we were doing might actually be wrong.’

When there is no listening, no empathy, no discussions, no open-mindedness and no understanding, it is hard to change opinions and stick to an idea that, in reality, can be wrong. Understanding the dynamics of a country and of a community means being able to engage, interact, listen, accept, support. As in our normal lives, sometimes it is difficult but we must, one day at a time, make the effort to make it happen.

Here I quote Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who said that if you judge people, you have no time to love them. Empathy is really what we need. We are all part of the same Life Boat. The Time for Africa is Now. Let’s make it happen. In Peace.

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