Google's big idea against extremism needs to learn the important maxim of political violence: "no justice, no peace"?

Google Ideas, Google's think-and-do-tank, wants to combat violent extremism by having extremists and policy makers learn from those who have renounced violence. All fine until you get to the detail: the program is to understand violence as a result of psychological need rather than taking seriously the claims of injustice made. Whatever we may learn from the exercise, peace is unlikely to come from it. The author and a colleague have resigned from their role in the project.

At the end of June, Google Ideas, a new thinktank set up by Google, hosted the Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin. The event was slick, and it was clear that a great deal of time, effort and money had been expended in making the event look and feel like a glamorous Hollywood operation – and this came as no shock. The event included the great and the good from the Council for Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Festival – both of which co-sponsored the event. In the run up to the event itself, participants were given links to a series of youtube clips which featured individuals such as Maajid Nawaz, of the Quilliam Foundation, and TJ Leyden, of Hope2Hate.

The event was based on the principle that to combat violent extremism (a term not entirely defined) required a coming together of ‘formers’ (that is, ostensibly violent extremists, but also a category that included former members of criminal gangs), survivors (that is survivors of violent extremism) and some associated others (of which Robert Lambert and I as co-directors of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter were two). The entire event was predicated on the belief that only those who had once practiced violence, and subsequently renounced it, had the ability and credibility to convince others that they too should renounce this violence. The event itself (much of which can be viewed here http://www.youtube.com/user/formers) took place on a stage of massive proportions, and the audience of some 2-300 looked at two massive video screens, as ‘formers’ and ‘survivors’ took turns, four or five at a time, to recount their stories of how they got involved in violence, and how this violence devastated their lives.

So far so good. There is much to be commended in an approach that brings together those who have deployed violence with those whose lives they have scarred forever – a search for meaningful catharsis and transition from a violent extremist world to a ... non-violent moderate one? Ok, so perhaps Google had some ulterior motives here – youtube has become associated (falsely) with ‘radicalisation’ into terrorism, and an event which demonstrated Google as being a good corporate citizen might be good business tactics as well as morally right – but neither of these have to be mutually exclusive. The event was led by Jared Cohen, who Evgeny Morozov identifies as one of the key proponents of a new US Policy of ‘21st Century Statecraft’, and who has spent the past several years in the US Government and Google trying to flesh out what ‘democracy promotion’ means in technological practice. The attendance of Whitehouse officials and key American journalists then made even more sense. However, it would be unfair and cynical to suggest that Google and/or Cohen were simply exploiting the Summit to score public relations and diplomacy points. There is little doubt that they thought they were doing the right thing in staging the event.

The problem is that the event was not constructive, helpful or progressive. I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable as the true purpose of the summit became clear over the course of the first day. Different panels, organised chat show style with a moderator and three or four speakers sat in cream white armchairs, talked about the fact that they didn’t get enough love from their fathers, and so turned to the streets to become skinheads and gang members; that an overly repressive Catholic upbringing led them to feel that they wanted to be rebellious, and that in gang membership they found (albeit  perverse) social and emotional support that a decrepit society around them had failed to provide.

We never, however, heard this story from the ‘former’ Islamic Violent Extremists, and/or Islamic extremists. In fact, the organisers of the event were so careful to choose former gang members and skinheads who had participated in past violence, but chose not to require a definition of violence for Islamic extremism. While there were some speakers who were in fact former members of Al Qaeda as well as individuals who had fought alongside Al-Shabbab in Somaila, there were all those whose credentials in Islamic violent extremism were less robust. One such individual, Maajid Nawaz, who is a former member of Hizb ut Tahrir, and was an Amnesty  International Prisoner of Conscience when jailed for four years in Egypt, nimbly insisted that while he had never been violent, and that Hizb Ut Tahrir itself was not violent, it has the institutional capacity to call for coup d’états against non-Islamic Governments in Islamic states at some point in the distant future, and therefore is violent extremist. This tangled logic leads one to wonder if Mr. Nawaz now agrees with his former colleague Ed Husein about the proscription of Hizb Ut Tahrir in the UK?

Regardless, the rationale behind the conflation of extremism and violence in the case of Islamic extremism became clearer as the event unfolded. Google’s SAVE event represented a deliberate attempt to conflate gang violence and neo-Nazi skinhead violence with Islamically inspired violence – as though because they all included the word violence, they were the same phenomenon.

As Lambert and I both sat through the first day of the Summit, we became increasingly concerned about a strategy that seemed to focus on denuding political violence of its political context. By sticking 'formers' - skinheads, gang members and chosen (safe) 'Islamic Extremists' (the majority of whom had never participated in any form of violence) on the same stage, and to claim that this violence is only a result of a search for camaraderie and identity; to deny any authenticity to ideas of national liberation, struggle in the face of oppressive power, and/or a sense that sometimes violence is, while hateful, perceived as the only viable option in some struggles, seemed more like a radical defence of the status quo rather than a deeper search for answers to violence. In fact, it seemed that to qualify as a former, you not only had to renounce violence, but in addition any idea that had underpinned the violence in the first place.

To deny a politics of violence could make sense if you were talking exclusively about criminal violence (i.e. an inner city gang fighting over drug dealing territory) though some would say that even this violence is not apolitical. It might even make sense if you seek to delegitimize the crass and evil ideology that underpins a neo-Nazi white supremacist outlook – though even here the political questions are thrust into the fore, what appeals about this ideology amongst its followers –why did they choose this specific path and not another? But to naively proclaim that Islamically inspired political violence is a search for identity, fatherly love, and camaraderie is as dangerous as it is ignorant.

Intriguingly, there was no mention over the course of the summit of the one conflict that often unites Muslim perspectives, no matter ethnicity, sectarian orientation, class, race, gender etc: Israel-Palestine. So we were left with a series of burning questions, such as: are Palestinians only involved in violence because they lacked the love of their fathers or because they were looking for camaraderie, or because they lack an identity? Was global Muslim concern about mass genocide and rape in Bosnia and Chechnya morally equivalent to skinhead belief in white supremacy? Is protection of drug dealing turf that lays behind gang culture the same as a concern about the justness of the Western invasion of Iraq? And what about Libyan 'rebels' who currently seek to overthrow the remnants of the Qaddafi regime?

None of this is to deny the terrible nature of completely misguided and totally wrong and deviant Islamically inspired violence that may have resulted from such inspiration – the immoral and needless killing and injuring of innocents through a mistaken strategy based on real concern. But does that mean that initial concerns, such as the cruel oppression and suffering of many Palestinians, the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, or the Russians deployment of the harshest of military tactics against civilian populations were in and of itself, wrong? Does 21st Century Statecraft really mean Western neo-imperialist thought control that proclaims, in the face of terrible iniquities and injustices, that might is right and challenge to the status quo is wrong?

Attendees at the Summit included former members of armed black South African groups, who while regretful for the violence they deployed in the face of the brutal, repressive, immoral and despotic apartheid regime, saw no illegitimacy in their cause, and explicitly recognised that terrorist violence was a specific tool deployed desperately as the only viable tactic in asymmetric conflict rather than a millenarian pursuit of friendship and manhood. Furthermore, these individuals pointed out that the state deployed this same tactic against them and the horrifically oppressed and destitute blacks that they were defending. I wonder, would Nelson Mandela, who has never renounced the founding or activities of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the violent and armed wing of the ANC, have been defined by this Summit as a current or a former violent extremist?

In fact, apparently the prism of violent extremism and 21st Century Statecraft seem to imply that the state can do no wrong. Despite the real testimony of individuals such as the aforementioned South African who suffered cruelly at the hands of the Apartheid regime, formers were only those who renounced the tactics and challenges to existing status quos. Instead of 'former' state violent extremists being up there, the conference had a panel entitled "Leveraging Formers and Turning the Tide Against Violent Extremism" – almost pitched as a ‘best practice’ using Colombia as an example of how to turn insurgents against their cause and use them to undermine persistent challenges to an incumbent regime. The panel was moderated by former President Alvaro Uribe who explicitly proclaimed during his panel that he ended the Colombian Civil War by 'leveraging' formers against conflict. Uribe is a seemingly controversial choice for this, as he was accused of having at least second level (and familial) links with right-wing militias and narco-traffickers and of leading a government which perpetrated widespread abuses of human rights by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Yet Uribe wasn't described as a former.

One would think, as well, that the Dublin location for the event would provide a perfect launching pad into discussing and analysing the political roles that can be played by individuals such as Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams, or even by individuals such as Gusty Spence and the late David Ervine. These four individuals, accused, in some cases convicted, and in all cases interned by the British State, were (and continue to be) key voices and leaders in the transformation of the conflict in Northern Ireland from one which was predicated on ‘terrorist’ violence to one which is inherently non-violent and political. These four individuals never renounced their cause, though they may deeply regret the past effects of their violent tactics. Were they counted as Google formers? Perhaps that’s why while survivors of the Troubles were invited, individuals such as those mentioned above were not. In fact, the only representative of Irish Republicanism speaking at the entire event was a former member of the ‘Official IRA’, and someone who had throughout the 1990’s (and ultimately incorrectly) challenged the moral capacity of Republicans and Loyalists to come together to leave violence and enter politics through the Good Friday Agreement.

So it was slightly mindboggling how SAVE could take in Ireland place without even stopping to consider the fundamental lesson of a transformed Northern Ireland: how not listening to grievance directly led to 30 years of violent conflict. Peace in Northern Ireland was only transformed when Government and actors listened to each other - and sought mutually painful political accommodation of the other’s substantive political concern. However, the premise of the Summit was ultimately antithetical to the Good Friday process - because there was an implicit denial that there could be political rationales behind such violence.

SAVE could have been about using technology to think about pursuing justice without violence – something which Google, along with Facebook and Twitter is uniquely placed to comment on and enable. Afterall, this was the early lesson of the Arab Spring - the power of civil disobedience to challenge despotism and Western backed derogation from human rights– of being extremely angry with repression and doing something about it. Western support for the counter-revolution, in Tunisia and Egypt, literally encouraging forces of the ancien regime to delay and block political reform in the name of stability, are now in the ascendant – blocking those whose love of democracy is extreme enough to demand real constitutional reform and free elections today, rather than accepting empty promises for tomorrow. How long should people in those countries accept these fetid remnants of corruption and despotism? Or would a movement that sought to pursue democracy through active political disobedience which uses violence as a tactic against a repressive state also only be about a violent extremism based on lack of fatherly love?

Ultimately, I explicitly abhor violence, and want to do everything I can to stop it - but ultimately I was reminded of the tension between Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. In the Oxford Union Debates of December 1964, Malcolm X said:

I don't believe in any form of unjustified extremism! But when a man is exercising extremism — a human being is exercising extremism — in defense of liberty for human beings it's no vice, and when one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings I say he is a sinner.


The quote, coming after Malcolm X had left the Nation of Islam, is indicative of the importance and benefit of feeling immoderate in the face of injustice. In the American media at the time, they were portrayed as great rivals – the one a preacher of hate, racism and violence, the other non-violence and brotherly love. Yet both were committed to the notion, as expressed by Dr. King that: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. While both Bob Lambert and myself, have resigned from the Google Ideas network Against Violent Extremism, I would urge them moving forward to remember the age old adage “no justice, no peace” when considering why they want to neutralise political rather than criminal violence.

About the author

Jonathan Githens-Mazer is a professor in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, of the Strategy and Security Institute of the University of Exeter.