I’ve never experienced violent extremism myself. I’ve never attended the funerals of my friends who have fallen victim to the rage of an extremist madman. I’ve never feared for the lives of my classmates who’ve been recruited abroad to build a utopia for religious extremists. And I have never shed a tear as I walked passed the crumbled ruins of my hometown after devastating terrorist attacks by an extremist organization. I’m just a privileged, white woman, from a developed country. So why would I care? Why would anyone care about the consequences of violent extremism if they’ve never lost a friend, a family member, or a home to violent extremism?
Because there is no such thing as a vaccine to protect against extremism. Because “oh, it won’t happen here” is no longer a valid excuse in a globalized world. Because extremism can be fought and conquered if we work together.
I challenge you to find a single human being on the face of this planet who, either at one point or another in their lives, has not felt that they don’t belong. Try as you might, it’s impossible. “Belonging” is a human need only marginally less important than food, water, and shelter. Questioning our belonging amongst family, friends, and community, is as natural as blinking. Only when we feel accepted by our peers do humans experience psychological peace.
So what happens when someone is told that they don’t belong? Even worse, what are the heartbreaking consequences that unfold when an individual is told that their innate characteristics make them unwanted members of society? What if tomorrow you were told precisely that? Pack your bags and go back home. We don’t want you here.
Well, would you?
And yet, millions around the world are subjected to prejudice and exclusion based on intrinsic human characteristics: age, gender, skin color, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and religion. That’s a lot of people who feel that they don’t belong.
Fear of alienation is the Achilles heel of functioning and prosperous societies. Extremist organizations, both political and religious, exploit this feeling of not belonging to recruit its members. Their words dig deeper and deeper into one’s thoughts until everyday interactions are interpreted as hateful messages. This alternative narrative of hate brainwashes its prey into believing that they do not belong to the societies they live in; that they are not and will never be accepted by their peers; and that the only solace to appease the need for belonging is to join their cause. Every hateful narrative is like a ticking time bomb until the fear of not belonging surpasses the tipping point into violence: tick, tick, tick.
But what if we told someone that they do belong?
The lesson that needs to be learned from extremists is that they are highly effective at communicating hateful propaganda. On the other hand, counter-extremists face the daunting challenge of communicating a narrative of love and acceptance, at an even higher decibel, in order to be heard. These social justice crusaders are tasked with letting even the most different know that they do belong. Counter-extremist organizations such as Extremely Together and The Quilliam Foundation focus on shifting the narrative from hate to love, and opening extremists eyes to the reality that they too are worthy of belonging. Developing counter-speech can be as easy as recognizing prejudices before they influence one’s actions, or showing compassion to someone who’s experienced discrimination and exclusion, yet, the consequences can be life-changing.
How life changing? You could be preventing yourself and others from attending funerals, nervously waiting for signs of life, or rebuilding your home from crumbled ruins. If the objective phenomenon of globalization, the process of increasing interconnectedness throughout the world, still doesn’t convince you that immediate actions need to be taken against extremism, then consider this… There is no such thing as a vaccination against hate either.
Everyone is susceptible to hate and fear. And once the tipping point is reached, there’s no telling who fear’s next victim will be. The only antivirus we have is love, acceptance, and hope for a world in which differences are celebrated and people, regardless of skin color, gender or religion, belong together.