How to build resilience to violent extremism
Given the terrible injustices endured by so many, why aren’t more turning to terrorism?
On March 15th I was with my daughter in Melbourne participating in the School Strike for Climate. Stopping for a coffee after the rally, I checked Facebook on my phone. A post from a Muslim American friend on the other side of the world alerted me to an attacker in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. He’d seen the perpetrator’s livestream video and could not bear to repost it. While children around the world were focused on protesting for climate action, a young white supremacist was committing a massacre. And he was doing it in a remote part of the world that was on low alert for terrorism. We would later learn that the Australian perpetrator had killed 50 people and injured around 50 more, many of them seriously.
As New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern emphasized in her eloquent response to the tragedy, the terrorist’s actions remind us that violent extremism is not the domain of any one group of people. Acts of terrorism in the Global North are typically tied in tabloid media to Muslim-background minorities. But the Christchurch massacre reminds us that terrorism is also the province of the far right, something that received comparatively little attention until this attack. Indeed, incendiary hate rhetoric of the far right is regularly given a platform by prominent world leaders, politicians, and media that have been conditioned by assumptions of white innocence.
Radicalisation and resilience
Extremist groups, whatever their stripes, make a range of promises in order to seduce and recruit people. To be effective, there must be an existing vulnerability in an environment conducive to their messaging. Those recruited typically perceive themselves as victims. Lack of employment, purpose and future-orientation often feed this vulnerability. These ‘push’ factors make it easier for violent extremist groups to recruit people with their unique selling points (or ‘pull’ factors). Some are attracted by what appears to be an offer of restored entitlement or dignity. In the case of recruitment to violent extremist groups such as the Incel movement, recruits may see themselves as victims of feminism. Other groups deploy white ethno-nationalistic and anti-Muslim narratives on social media that claim white Europeans are under existential threat. This vision ignores – and is in direct opposition to – the dignity of others.
This illustrates one of the key features of violent extremist ideologies: exclusivism, or a worldview that privileges us over them. Together with a refusal of complexity, partitioning the world into black and white sustains this mentality. When we reflect on the conspiracy theories of white supremacist groups (the notion, for example, that they are victims of ‘white genocide’), we can witness their violent logic as a response to a perceived threat, however unrealistic. For if we are to successfully address this phenomenon we must understand that perception often counts for more than reality.
Resilience as strength
Resilience-based approaches to addressing violent extremism focus on what is keeping people resistant to violence, rather than what is making them vulnerable to it. Instead of asking why people are radicalising to violence, the question becomes why aren’t more people radicalising? Given the terrible injustices endured by so many, why aren’t more turning to terrorism? Resilience experts have pioneered a way of thinking that shifts the burden of being resilient from individuals, and focuses instead on resilience as a socio-ecological phenomenon. In this paradigm, resilience is a dynamic process that can be enhanced or diminished by the allocation and negotiation of intersecting contextual factors and social resources.
What resources do we need and what contextual factors should we address to prevent further terrorist attacks like the one in Christchurch?
Three things strike me as particularly urgent:
First, we need to dramatically improve how we regulate media reporting on and offline to ensure that it respects the dignity and rights of the communities it represents. The democratic governance of social networking sites and mainstream media platforms should therefore be our top priority.
Second, we need to increase our focus on interactive and inclusive engagement through investment in resources that nurture future-oriented convivial culture and democracy – the arts, education, employment and inclusive sporting opportunities. Peer-led mentoring should be encouraged. We must invest in resources that foster a sense of meaningful participation in society, that give us time to reflect and to interact with one another.
And finally, we need to mitigate risks from environments that foster extremist hate and contempt for socio-cultural otherness, especially in contexts marked by structural social inequalities. Violent extremists exploit the widening polarisation of societies based on economic and political inequalities. They promote enhanced narratives of felt victimisation and disadvantage while attributing blame for such disadvantages to the very people who actually struggle most with their effects. It is this polarisation - and the skewed distribution of local, national, regional and global resources - that must be addressed if we are to build resilience to socially and politically motivated violence.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).
The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.
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