ISD’s YouthCAN Lab, Brussels – an optimistic hive of youth activism

Violent extremism and hate speech continue to be two of the most pernicious threats to life in Western Europe today, and are too often a reality for countless groups and individuals made to feel marginalised in their own homes and online. It not only perpetuates division and fear between groups, it also can isolate those most at risk of slipping further down the stream of extremism. That makes events like the Institute of Strategic Dialogue’s Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN) Lab in Brussels particularly important, and particularly promising. 

The workshop

Typically, these 2-day workshops bring together roughly 30 participants from around the world and from diverse backgrounds, drawing them together through a shared passion for civil activism and an ambition to enact real change in communities at home and abroad. The group I joined included Belgian Imams countering extremism daily in local prisons, and communities like Molenbeek in Western Brussels – home to at least three of the Paris 2015 attackers – alongside grassroots student activists and members of the global campaign #TurnToLove, the group whose poignant messages of peace and unity filled newspapers in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena Bombing. People of all faiths and none, from India to Slovenia, joined together to exchange personal stories of marginalisation, hate speech and even attempted recruitment, in an effort to learn, share and teach about what makes a compelling counter-narrative to those of hate, fear, insecurity and ignorance.

The lab itself, run by ISD and generously supported by the King Baudouin Foundation, encouraged a healthy mix of informal dialogue, panel discussions and lectures to teach us participants about successful online campaigns and grassroots projects making waves throughout Belgium. We were given insights by, among many others, Youcef Naimi of CEAPIRE, an Antwerp-based organisation offering training, prevention and support to counter radicalism in Muslim communities; and Ihsane Haouach who, through the Talented Youth Network (TYN) in Brussels, works directly with young people at the community level, to foster engagement and unity to overcome the pull towards extremism. We were also given training into campaign strategy and social media analytics; giving us the tools needed to create our very own campaigns.

The remainder of the lab was spent in groups, divided by sub categories like ‘youth’, ‘faith’ and ‘gender’, and set free to build our own campaigns, to then be presented at the end of the workshop to a panel of insiders. These sessions gave us the opportunity to interact with the others in our groups to share expertise and ideas; and gave us an insight into designing a campaign from the foundations up. This prompted us to think about targeting, message and monitoring of prospective campaigns and helped us form the bare bones of the projects.

A few criticisms

The issue though was that much of these skills seemed to be applicable to any online marketing campaign. Somewhat lacking was any in-depth context framing the practices of extremist groups themselves or indeed exposing attendees to some of the messages deployed by these groups. It would have been valuable to be given an insight into how these groups recruit members, communicate between themselves, and/or target and disseminate their information, as well as engage in online activity like ‘raids’, the use of ‘bots’, or campaign hijacking. Some access to comprehensive field research might have been useful, as would a specific session focused on research into our particular target groups and their demographics, motivations and so forth, rather than merely brainstorming sessions. I often felt that for us to be expected to create an effective, targeted campaign, each group should have had access to input from experts on those extremist groups themselves. Instead, it felt as though we were creating campaigns on behalf of the marginalised but which would only resonate with those already sympathetic to their struggle, without really knowing who we needed to convince or how we could go about doing so

The second key issue with the event was one of structure and (understandably) constrained time. Being only a 2-day event meant that it was difficult to both educate us about online campaigning and extremism; and build our campaigns from the foundations up. I felt that for either of these tasks to be done thoroughly, they would each require 2 days alone, or at the very least a whole day committed to creating the campaign. In reality, we spent a few 10-15 minute sessions thinking through conceptual ideas for the campaign, interspersed with lectures and presentations, then only 45 minutes to fully create a whole campaign message and strategy, and consider logistics. Perhaps this might have been enough for groups whose target audience was other ‘young people’ and their message about general political open-mindedness (which one of the campaigns sought to address); but for such a complex and pervasive issue as Islamophobia among lower-middle-class and working-class whites in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, such brevity simply made any thorough campaign design impossible. In this sense, the event did seem somewhat overly ambitious or its programme poorly balanced.

The campaigns

Nevertheless, the workshop produced several potential online social media campaigns, designed to break into echo chambers and provoke engagement by offering alternative narratives to those of mistrust and hatred, pedalled by extremist groups online. One campaign, titled #MyValues, sought to counter the fear among some white working-class Western European groups, of Islam, fuelled by a misperception of the religion as one of violence and hate. It imagined Muslim citizens integrated in their local communities, and engaged in acts of day-to-day compassion and unity; their good deeds all underpinned by values of kindness and respect, so familiar to their extremist opponents, yet themselves informed by Islamic scripture so feared by them. In stark contrast, another campaign tackled the conservative views of older generations, by inspiring young people online to “Make Our ‘Grannies’ Cool Again”, informing them about the threat of fake news and offering information to people’s less technologically savvy relations.

The campaigns themselves were imbued with a tremendous sense of hope; and the enthusiasm of the participants to foster real change online and in their own communities. What the ISD’s YouthCAN Lab demonstrated, was real willingness on the part of young global activists, to counter the most damaging messages of hate they see online daily. It also showed the promise of such fledgling projects, powerfully put forward by a dynamic group with real insights into social media and an understanding of grassroots, online extremism. I’d like to see future YouthCAN events more focused on certain categories of extremism. While the four campaigns were diverse and innovative in their own ways, a greater division of labour in two larger groups may have allowed more thorough research into targets, message and monitoring. This might replace four half-formed and un-costed potential campaigns with two comprehensive, research-driven and immediately implementable campaigns.

The YouthCAN lab in Brussels was undoubtedly a positive experience and certainly productive in bringing together diverse young activists and in giving them the most crucial tools to build their own grassroots and online campaigns. There were also clear ways in which the experience could have been improved. In truth, much of this simply came down to time; but much could also have been improved by dividing the event up in larger blocs, one focused on education, the other on implementation and campaign planning. This is, however, certainly not to overlook the success, importance and enjoyability of the workshop – and other events like it run by the ISD – or to deny the sense of hope derived from having so many enthusiastic and inventive young activists working together to counter the hate and extremism so sadly widespread in our communities and on the internet.

Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf

 

Orthodox Russia – an Ideology of Exclusivity

The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.

The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.

The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.

Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.

This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.

بناء عالم أفضل

الخنجر والرصاصة والقنبلة، لا يعرفون الأخلاق، غايتهم القتل وإنزال الضرر. ولكن من يملكون هذه الأسلحة، هم كائنات أخلاقية اختارت العنف. يستمدون هذا الاختيار من معتقداتهم، ومعتقداتهم مستمدة من القضايا او من الايديولوجيات التي اختاروها، او من الاثنين معاً.

إذا كان اختيارهم للعنف مستمد من التطرف الايديولوجي، ففي هذه الحالة هم يرون ان العالم منغلق وغير متسامح، بل ويجب ان يكون كذلك. فعليه، انه من الطبيعي بالنسبة لهم ان لا يبقون ولا يذرون كل من يقف في طريقهم لتحقيق غاياتهم. لذلك هم يتبنون مظهر القوة التي لا تقاوم.

ولكن، ماذا سيحدث عند تصادم القوة التي لا تقاوم بمجسم ثابت؟ في الواقع، لا يوجد شيء في الطبيعة لا يقاوم بشكل مطلق او ثابت بشكل مطلق. في واقع الصراعات على السلطة، الفعل وردة الفعل يحدثان بدرجات متفاوتة، وكلاهما يعكس الجانب الأسوأ من الآخر.

هل انا أصف داعش؟ قد اكون أصف نموذج كرومويل للجيش الانجليزي في فترة ما بعد ١٦٤٠ ميلادي. او قد اكون أصف الأنظمة الفاشية الأوروبية في الفترة ما بين ١٩٣٠ – ١٩٥٠ ميلادي. كلهم كانوا يعتقدون بأنهم بقوة لا تقاوم، ولكنهم كلهم قد هُزٍموا في نهاية المطاف. إرثهم الذي خلفوه كان ومازال هو العنف.

مقولة أفلاطون الشهرية، “وحدهم الأموات شهدوا نهاية الحرب”.

العنف يولد العنف، وأشقائه هم: العقاب والثأر والهجوم المضاد. الحكومات، بل وحتى الأفراد، يتبنون هؤلاء الأشقاء ويطلقونهم كيفما شاءوا وقتما شاءوا. ولكي نكسر دائرة العنف، يجب علينا ان نقاوم قوى العنف والانتقام من جذورها.

كل الحروب والصراعات تنتهي، وذلك يكون عن طريق إنهاك الأطراف المتنازعة او استسلامها او التدخل الخارجي او العملية الدبلوماسية. ولكن نهاية الصراع نادراً ما يكون بداية السلام المستدام، غالباً ما يكون توقف القتال مجرد انطباع بالسلام، وفي حين انه مجرد هدنة مستقبلها غير واضح.

لسنوات عديدة، لَبٍسَت امريكا وبريطانيا وحلفاؤهم عباءة الأخلاق التدخلية بالشؤون العالمية. وقد رأى الكثيرون ان هذه السياسة جاءت متأخرة جداً او على الأسوأ انها كارثة لكل من يعنيهم الأمر. ولأول مرة في التاريخ المعاصر، نتيجة للبس عباءة الأخلاق الغير صادقة في جوهرها، قد جلبت السياسة التدخلية العديد من ضحاياها الى شواطئ وشوارع الدول المتبنية لهذه السياسة. معاناة الصدمة واليأس والجوع والجرح الجسدي والنفسي لهؤلاء الضحايا تمثل خسارة للغرب، بقدر الخسارة التي يمثلها قتلى وجرحى جنود الغرب وحلفاؤه في الحروب الأخيرة.

وهناك رد فعل عنيف جديد يتجسد في عودة القوى السياسية الرجعية الشعبوية في امريكا واوروبا واماكن اخرى. الشعارات الشعبوية التي ينادون بها تنبذ ما يسمى بالقيم الليبرالية والديموقراطية التي هيمنت على الخطاب الدولي منذ عام ١٩٨٩ ميلادي. هذه القوى الجديد غير متحيزة الى، او تعارض، فكرة الأخلاق الدولية. وسيستخدمون العنف (الخطابي والفعلي) لتأمين حدود بلادهم، وسيولدون عقلية الحصار الوطني، وسيمارسون العزلة عن التدخل في الشأن العالمي، بدلاً من محاولة القيام بالتدخل بشكل أفضل.

لقد تضائل النفوذ الغربي في بلاد الشام، بل وينظر اليه كأمر غير مرغوب فيه. وفي الوقت حينه، قد ملئت قوى إقليمية أخرى الفراغ، ولكن هذه القوى تملك أجندة تاريخية وايديولوجية معادية للغرب. وفي الوقت نفسه، يشهد الغرب افلاسا اقتصاديا؛ فإن منظمة الأمم المتحدة تواجه نقص في الدعم المالي وفي حالة من التحفظ على مجلس الأمن للأمم المتحدة، والنظام الأمريكي الجديد عديم الخبرة ويفتقر الى المصداقية، واوروبا تتفكك كمشروع سياسي. يبدو انه قد تم حصر التدخل الغربي الى جانبين: ضربات عسكرية مستهدفة في بلاد الشام ومن جانب أخر الى القلق بشأن الاتفاقات التجارية في مناطق أخرى. يبدو ان الغرب يعاني من الجمود او التعطيل الأخلاقي.

إذاً من أين ستنشأ طاقة جديدة للتوفيق والتقارب العالمي؟ هل من روسيا او الصين او تركيا او الهند؟ هل نحن في فصل الشتاء الدبلوماسي؟

(لا خير في كثير من نجواهم إلا من أمر بصدقة أو معروف أو إصلاح بين الناس ومن يفعل ذلك ابتغاء مرضات الله فسوف نؤتيه أجرا عظيما) – الآية ١١٤ سورة النساء.

(طوبى لصانعي السلام) – انجيل متى ٩:٥

اذا كان الأجر العظيم لمن يصلحون بين الناس فنحن نحتاج ثورة من صانعي السلام وجيش من المصلحين. (اراميا فاونديشن؟ نكست سينتوري فاونديشن؟ انيشيتف اوف شينج؟) نحتاج تحالف بين الذين يعملون بلا كلل ولا ملل ويضحون من أجل السلام؛ مطالبين بتجديد السياسات الخارجية القائمة على الأخلاق، وتجديد النزعة الدولية، ومد اليد الى الأعداء ووهب شيئا من النور الى أظلم الاماكن.

كشخص متديّن، انا اتفهم نقاط ضعف التديّن، ولكن في الوقت ذاته اعرف قدرة الدين على الإلهام وتغيير حياة الكثيرين وإضفاء الرؤية الطموحة والأمل للبشرية في أيام الظلام.

يجب ان يلعب الايمان والتدين دورا هاما في سوريا والعراق في مرحلة ما بعد الصراع. ستحتاج سوريا والعراق الى كل النوايا الحسنة التي يمكن حشدها، والى مشروع اقتصادي واجتماعي غير مسبوق مثل مشروع مارشال. هذه تكلفة ذنوب الغرب وعناد الشرق وعدم ترابط الشرق الاوسط.

في إطار اي خطط مستقبلية للمناطق التي مزقتها الحرب في بلاد الشام، يجب ان تحظى القدس على مكانها في هذه الخطط، تلك المدينة في أعلى التل، التي تمثل نقطة يتجه اليها الكثير من البشر الذين يتوقون للرب.

نتمنى ان نجد الأمل والرؤية والعزم لبناء مستقبل حيث يرى الأحياء فيه نهاية الحرب.

Unanswered questions following the Defeat of Isis in Mosul

Mosul Pic

Iraqi forces have been celebrating the liberation of Mosul after three years of occupation by Islamic State. The victory has given rise to questions about how to ‘win the peace’ by safely rebuilding a more stable and peaceful country.

Now that ISIS may soon be militarily defeated, the real challenge begins, that of offering an ideology of fair play and inclusiveness as an alternative to the ISIS ideology of exclusiveness. Younger generations who have been educated under ISIS have been inspired by their message. Measures could and should be taken to turn them away from such ideologies.

A power vacuum will be left behind in the territories formerly held by ISIS.

While the liberation of Mosul offers a beacon of hope, consider the challenges ahead and the continued desperation of those in Mosul who still face homelessness, hunger and oppression. The city may have been liberated, but fear continues to rule the streets of Mosul.

Freedom of Religion in America

The freedom to believe, practice and preach any religion is an unalienable fundamental right, imperative to the maintenance of social cohesion. In the USA this principle has been protected by both the secular and the religious through legal guarantees and religious edicts; but periods in which humanity has enjoyed this ostensible luxury are rare. And the revival of modern Islamic Jihadism, which arguably began during the US backed liberation of Afghanistan by the Mujahedeen, has allowed an unscrupulous American press to constantly frame the topic of religious tolerance (or lack thereof) solely in terms of Muslim influence. This press bias means that it is more necessary than ever that proponents of freedom of religious practice take a stand against counterproductive prejudice.

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Religious liberty has been a central tenet of modern western civilisation since the ratification of the first amendment of the United States Constitution, which states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

However, these legal provisions did not prevent religious intolerance from pervading American society in the past. One prominent example of injustice is the persecution of the members of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) which began in the nineteenth century and which has continued to this very day, albeit in subtler form. Mormons of the past have been subjected to abhorrent acts of violence including the Haun’s Mill massacre, which saw the death of 20 civilian men and children. The fact that this bloody event was sanctioned by the Governor of Missouri in the infamous Missouri Executive Order 44 is particularly sinister, and provides damning evidence of the poor history of civil liberties in America.

Furthermore institutionalized discrimination is also deeply-rooted  in the USA, with long-lasting ramifications for the religious rights of minorities. One example of egregious institutional intolerance is the ‘Americanization’ of Native Americans  which took place in the 1920s, the effects of which are felt to this present day. The effort included the forcible transfer of over 100,000 Native American children to Indian boarding schools.  Students at these schools were prohibited from speaking the native Indian language and had Christianity imposed upon them. Indeed, they were forced to renounce all aspects of their tribal culture and religion. These schools were integral to the government’s “civilizing” process, such that once a student left, the only characteristic that separated him and the white man was skin color.

Another aspect to the Americanization effort was the vilification and in certain cases outright ban on traditional religious practices, most notably the Sun Dance. Before repealing the law in the 1980s, this ceremony had to undergo various changes to appease Christians and to ultimately survive, becoming a hollow shell of its former sacrosanct self. A more recent example of the government infringing on Native American religious rights is the Dakota Access Pipeline Project.  The pipeline threatens to desecrate sacred sites as well as pollute the Missouri river which most tribes are dependent upon.  Dogs, mace and inhumane incarceration conditions are all used to crackdown severely on peaceful protesters, of which most are Native American. The project, in its entirety, is a perfect microcosm of the gross disregard of Native American concerns throughout history.

Since 9/11, however, Islamophobic hate speech constitutes the single greatest threat to freedom of religious practice. Individuals such as Pastor Terry Jones espouse false anti-Islamic rhetoric, and utilize national media platforms to spread their hateful ideology with little resistance from the US government. Events organized by Terry Jones such as the annual Qu’ran Burning congregation, have resulted in an increase in the harassment of Muslims in the US. These provocations also inadvertently strengthen Jihadi recruitment programs, deepening the schism between Islam and the West.

America, a country self-described as the leader of the democratic free world, is steeped in unappreciation for the pluralistic nature of religion in society. Its continued apathy when addressing the grievances of religious minorities is worrying and the recent election of Donald Trump would seem to indicate that this unfortunate state of affairs may endure.

Engage, not Prevent – a review of a Select Committee’s report on the Government’s Anti-Terrorism policy

“Identifying the tipping point for many men and women thinking of joining Daesh remains the holy grail in our fight against radicalisation”.

It emerged a couple weeks ago that one of the Bethnal Green school girls who left Britain for Syria in 2015 had been killed in a Russian airstrike.  Kadiza Sultana, along with Amira Abase and Shamima Begum were a part of a surge of young people heading out from Britain to join organisations fighting in Syria and Iraq.  The numbers are deeply concerning; a recent report estimates that around 850 have left, with 125 losing their lives (the NCF believes the real figure to be considerably higher).  Kadiza Sultana and her friends from East London have become a statistic in a recent Select Committee report that addresses concerns over the Government’s Anti-Terrorism policy.

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Kadiza (second row, second from left) is just one of 850 young Britons to have fled to the Middle East.  A Select Committee is calling for the Prevent Strategy to be reviewed and overhauled.

The report, published on 25th August 2016, has highlighted a number of problems with the Prevent Strategy, and offers options to make the strategy more accessible to those that need it most.  The report centred on the issue of combatting radicalisation and extremism amongst vulnerable people, and draws on how The Home Office, schools, health organisations, social media companies, security services and the press all have a responsibility to enhance their resources with the aim of engaging communities, instead of alienating them.  The committee felt that the current system used for Prevent was causing more harm than good.  Security Minister Ben Wallace argued that the strategy had been reviewed numerous times to “ensure it works,” and that “for Prevent to work, we all need to get behind it, not stand on the side lines undermining it”.  However, Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow has called for a proper assessment of Prevent, to “really understand what works and what doesn’t”.

The Select Committee have called for a review, and have encouraged a community led approach.  As of this moment, the strategy is viewed by many in local communities as a “big brother” security operation.  Harun Khan, deputy head of the Muslim Council of Britain has also expressed his concern, claiming that many young people feel they are being viewed as “suspects” rather than feeling welcomed and encouraged to speak out.  The real focus of the strategy should be around building a relationship between various influential community groups and the state.

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Prevent was criticised after hidden CCTV cameras were placed around predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham

 The most promising set of options to improve Prevent was the strategy suggested for dealing with families and the rehabilitation of those affected by extremism.  In order to bridge the silence that characterises the relationship between the state and the communities, the committee highlighted the need for an easily accessible advice and counselling service, particularly for parents, but also for other loved ones and friends who may have concerns about people being radicalised.  If this were to be put in place, perhaps with community organisation members acting as part of the team of advisers, we could identify the tipping point where individuals start to embrace extremism.  The issue is a complex one, but engaging with families, would build up an extensive array of counter-narrative case studies.

Finally, with regards to the committee’s stance on rehabilitation, empowering young people to have a voice and use it with confidence seems to be the most commanding way to combat extremism at a grass roots level in the UK.  The committee advocated a programme that helps young people from vulnerable communities in acquiring critical reasoning skills and a sense of belonging and purpose, so that they could be aware of any manipulation or grooming.  Sara Khan, co-founder of the anti-terror organisation ‘Inspire’, has looked at girls like Kadiza as victims, who “lack the critical thinking skills” which “is what makes them vulnerable to Islamist extremist propaganda”.

It is important to note the success of the UK’s security services in preventing tragedies on the scale which have been seen elsewhere, and that should be highly commended.  However, the approach used by previous governments to counter extremism has so far not achieved the success that we have desired.  The Select Committee recognised that local communities, community leaders and young people are willing to cooperate and tackle the problem if the correct strategies were put in place to enable positive changes.  That being said, the report urged the Government to not squander this opportunity to harness the powerful force of community engagement.

By Nihal Patel

The complete failure of the UK’s Anti-Extremism Strategies: Why the Danes do it better

Commandment, Thou, Shalt, Not, Law, Rule, Tablet, Ten

The controversial UK counter-extremism strategy known as Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent) has been extensively criticised since it was launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings. Despite millions of pounds being invested in the programme and undergoing several reforms, the Prevent strategy remains deeply flawed and continues to do more harm than good in the struggle against violent extremism.

The Prevent programme aims to “respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat from those who promote it; to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and to work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation that we need to address.”

While these are honourable goals, the Prevent programme is not achieving them in practice. One of Prevent’s initiatives requires teachers to observe their students for radical behaviour, which the National Union of Teachers (NUT) says leads to “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom.” Training for these teachers to spot extremism has not been consistent or comprehensive, and Alex Kenny of NUT reports that the training has been of “very varied content, provided by a multiplicity of organisations, without accreditation or regulation.” When teachers do make reports, 90% of their referrals end without action being taken.

In schools, surveillance of this type means that certain topics cannot be fully discussed; this creates further misunderstanding about extremism and limits discussion about crucial topics. Schools have the potential to be a helpful tool against extremism by giving students a voice when they might feel marginalised in other aspects of their lives; the Prevent programme deprives schools of this ability.

Perhaps the most condemnatory flaw of the programme is its disproportionate targeting of Muslims. Between 2007 and 2010, 67% of the referrals involved Muslims despite the fact that Muslims made up only 5% of the population. Additionally, the allocation of Prevent funding was based on the number of Muslims in each area. Treating Muslims as suspects creates a precedent for Islamophobia and isolates young Muslim students, potentially damaging their relationships with their teachers, peers, and communities.

The Prevent strategy needs to reform to combat violent extremism through open, honest discussions in schools which allow students to voice their opinions and receive guidance from trusted adults. Rather than treating vulnerable members of the community as suspects and arresting them, the UK needs to establish programmes which focus on the reasons these people have been radicalised in the first place—whether that is fear, ignorance, hopelessness, or another factor which needs to be addressed.

This is exactly what the Danish approach, called Aarhus, aspires to achieve. Steffen Nielsen, a crime prevention advisor working with Aarhus, says that unlike the UK, “We are very upfront. If we have very clear information that you have fertiliser in the basement then we will pass that on. Otherwise we have a principle that no information goes to the secret service because we can’t work with people if they think we are passing on information.” The goal is to facilitate dialogue and trust rather than spying on the population.

When Danes return from Syria, Nielsen says that under the Aarhus programme they are embraced when they come home. “Unlike in England, where maybe you’re interned for a week while they figure out who you are, we say ‘Do you need any help?’” The idea is not to tell them they have done something terrible, but to allow them to talk about their experience.

Another important difference between Aarhus and Prevent is that Denmark makes the distinction between extreme views and violence as a result of extremism. Nielsen says, ”We don’t spend a lot of energy fighting ideology. We don’t try to take away your jihadist beliefs. You are welcome to dream of the Caliphate. But there are some means that you cannot use according to the penal code here. You can be al-Shabab all you like, as long as you don’t actually do al-Shabab.” The problem is not extremism, but violent extremism, and citizens are allowed their opinions as long as they are not harming others.

The method of ISIS is violence and hatred. The only way to combat this is by offering a country which facilitates dialogue and trust, and will listen to the young people at risk of being radicalised rather than isolating them. Programmes such as the UK’s Prevent and Denmark’s Aarhus have great potential, and could have the ability to either push citizens towards radicalisation or to show them love and bring them home. Currently, the UK’s Prevent is pushing its citizens into the arms of violent extremism.