Should We Empathize With Extremists?

Image by Abode of Chaos

Image by Abode of Chaos

When U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in a recent Security Council speech that an Israeli drive to build settlements beyond its territory partly fueled Palestinian extremism, it drew ire from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There is no justification for terror,” responded Netanyahu. “The comments of the U.N. Secretary-General encourage terror.”

In the epochal ‘war on terror,’ the Netanyahu ‘them versus us rhetoric’ has dominated—from ground zero in New York to the bloodstained cafes of Paris.

Amid these ruins, anger and vengeance fester. But could this very human reaction to affliction exacerbate our struggle with violent fundamentalism?

Throughout history, humans have reacted to perceived grievances, oppression and struggle with violence. While ends do not justify the means—understanding injustices, rather than suppressing them, are the key to peace building.

Mr. Ban’s explanation for the Palestinian violence—occupation, settlement encroachment and a paralyzed peace process—was not offered by way of justification for violence. But he was seeking to bridge divides and perhaps connect Palestinian and Israeli narratives through a call for introspection.

For a victim of violent extremism it would be more gratifying to respond with commensurate force. But in order to break cycles of violence, targeting motivations are essential to de-fueling the fire.

Of course, grievances can be distorted and amplified, but no dialogue and divisive policy toward those associated with radical thoughts does little to halt or reverse the radicalization process. In fact, it solidifies it—by entrenching the view that ‘terrorists will be terrorists.’

In a recent study, the Quilliam foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, noted that

“[Governments] must…ensure that the grievances that are exploited by extremists are not unwittingly exacerbated and that counter-narrative approaches are not derailed.”

Radicalization, defined as the process by which an individual or group comes to adopt extreme political, social or religious ideals, is not unique to any region or religion. It happened in 1930s Nazi Germany—and is occurring today in Burma, led by radical Buddhist monks opposed to Islam.

Though highly idiosyncratic, radicalization appears to find energy from a nexus of state building failures—be it ethnic conflict, economic inequality or social injustice, perceived or otherwise.

A greater awareness of the environments in which extremist ideologies, religious or otherwise, could permeate has led to a growing Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) movement.

The Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence firm, analogized CVE to inoculating against disease as opposed to costly and ineffective approaches of treating it after an ‘infection.’

For example, the UK’s Prevent CVE initiative broadly aims to support those vulnerable to extremism, address grievances and challenge ideologies.

But, many CVE programs have under-performed for lack of a clear vision and funding for essential community and NGO-level participation say experts.

Fashioning coherent, coordinated and well-resourced CVE programs on a domestic level is key to long-term security—alongside measured military action, intelligence gathering, law enforcement and state building assistance.

As events in Paris showed last year, nations remain exposed to homegrown extremism, which thrives in the dense, destitute and segregated districts of our capitals.

Molenbeek neighborhood, on the edge of Brussels—where several arrests were made in connection with the November Paris attacks—had a reputation for unemployment, crime and drugs. But, it largely fell under the radar amid Belgium’s bureaucratic and decentralized governance systems.

Such vulnerable environments will become ever more volatile as the estimated 27,000-30,100 battle-hardened Jihadi fighters who are currently in Iraq and Syria start filtering back to their home countries.

Yet for the past 15 years we have let anger drive our counter-terrorism policy, with quick-fire military reprisals to satisfy the short-term illusion of security. As things stand now, efforts aimed at de-radicalization, together with counter-narrative and general community development policies closer to home have barely gathered steam.

The desire to vilify those who commit and associate themselves with terrorist acts is understandable.

But we must not let such emotions cloud our awareness of the very rational processes and environments that lead people—at home and abroad—toward extremism in the first place.

Image courtesy of Abode of Chaos

About Tej Parikh

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist currently based in Southeast Asia, and recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic conflict and fragile states. He tweets at @tejparikh90.

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