Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘Extremists Have The Right To Pursue Their Ideals, But Not With Violence’

Radicalization has become so closely tied to the use of violence against citizens, that each call to radical change sounds criminal. The American researcher and activist Lena Slachmuijlder advocates the respect extreme ideals – on the condition that they are pursued without violence.

  • © Search for Common Ground Lena Slachmuijlder: 'The worse the policy takes care of the interests of the entire population, the easier it is to pit people against each other.' © Search for Common Ground

Lena Slachmuijlder is not a jihad expert. She is specialized in peacebuilding, an expertise which seems totally marginalized today, although the need for ways out of the murderous polarizing is very urgent. In the 1990s she did human rights work in South-Africa, followed by peacebuilding in Burundi and the DR Congo.

Today Slachmuijlder is responsible for the programs of the international NGO Search For Common Ground in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But does it still exist: common and shared interest? And are peacebuilding and dialogue possible in a world where the news is controlled by groups, countries and even presidential candidates who are out to eliminate anyone who is different, or thinks or dreams differently?

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘Violent extremism arises when people have the feeling that they can only express their real or perceived complaints or end an injustice, or societal order they find unacceptable, with weapons. The foundation is thus very humane: one wants to stand up for something one believes is right and just. It’s something universal.’

The foundation is very humane: one wants to stand up for something one believes is right and just. That is from all ages and places.

‘Especially young people are always looking for a movement that wants to replace existing abuses by a better order. They feel cheated by the older generation that has let situations get out of hand or even imposed injustice – think of Apartheid or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The young want to belong to movements that fight these injustices. That is only natural and normal.’

‘But sometimes the aspiration for radical change takes the shape of an extremism that is convinced that its purpose, or even his mere survival, can only be guaranteed when the other is eliminated. This was the case in the nineties in Rwanda and later in Burundi: ethnical extremism drove people to murder on an industrial scale. To respond to this, Search for Common Ground sets up initiatives which invite everyone to rediscover each other’s shared humanity. We also bet on insight into the real motives of the recruiters, who don’t necessarily share the idealism of the youngsters.

Is radicalization to violent extremism then mostly a case of a faulty personal development?

The use of violence or the taking in of extremist positions is always a choice – except for people who are kidnapped

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘No. To truly know the real determining factors, one has to look at the specific context. There is always a mixture of personal motivations, structural causes, economic interests… But one always needs to assume that the use of violence or the taking in of what we experience as extremist positions, is always a choice – except for people who are kidnapped, such as the victims of Boko Haram.’

‘Personally I have no problem with people taking extreme positions. However we should do everything to prevent people from realizing their vision in a violent manner or imposing it. Some ideologies, from neo-Nazi’s to Daesh, are fundamentally built around eliminating others and thus are intrinsically violent. Still one should try to convince them not to use violence anymore.’

How can one convince groups of people who are no longer prepared to talk?

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘It is extremely difficult to build peace while the war is raging. For example in South-Sudan we really can’t work right now. The polarization and the violence between Dinka and Nuer, and between their political parties is too big to operate. The same goes for Syria and large parts of Iraq. But that doesn’t mean that with the big flows of refugees a lot of work can be done, so that they realize that they can be angry, feel frustrated and wronged, but that there are other ways to cope with that than using the violence that destroys the country today.’

If violent extremism should be fought somewhere, than it is in the belt of countries beginning in Pakistan and reaching to Mauritania, right?

Have they been economically marginalized? Is it their religious or sectarian identity? Is it a total lack of a future perspective?

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘There is no simple answer to the violence in these countries, but there are a number of things that can be done. And the first one is and stays prevention. In Tunisia, for example, we try to understand the high number of youngsters that went to Syria to fight. Have they been marginalized economically? Is it their religious conviction or sectarian identity? Is it a total lack of a future perspective?’

And the answer is?

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘A combination of factors, whereby a lack of economic perspective and the political choices of the regime seem determining for the attraction of the call to a jihad. All over Tunisia we try to bring together “vulnerable” youngsters in youth councils, we give them training in leadership, in consultancy techniques, management skills, … Those youngsters formulate themselves what they want to change in their district or province and for this they collaborate with other youngsters and even with governments. This way they discover that they can in fact be someone, and be respected.

Sounds good, but how much legitimacy can an international ngo from the USA have with youngsters who feel drawn to the advocates of an armed jihad against the West and it’s local “servants”?

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘Good question. Search for Common Ground has headquarters in Washington and Brussels, and is financed by very different sources, including governments. Eighty percent of our employees are “locals”: last year in Tunisia for example there was one Moroccan and one Haitian employee. The others were Tunisian. When in 2012 rumors were spread of us being an American, Zionist organization, it were the members of the youth councils themselves who provided counterweight based on transparent information.’

When local religious leaders are formed to better deal with conflict, identity, dignity and diversity, that can have a great impact.

‘At one point we had an explicitly Salafi imam in Morocco who participated in some workshops around multiple identities and things like that. When he got attacked for this on social media, he went to the person that accused him of “collaboration” to speak things through. He literally found common ground between his Salafism and the respect for the different choices and identities of others. In the meantime he has gotten a wide international range.’

‘This middle level of religious leaders is very important to us. When they are better trained to deal with conflict, identity, dignity and diversity, this can have a huge impact. We work with them in the prisons, where the vulnerability of the recruitment in radical movements is very big. In Morocco these people are active in 70 percent of the prisons.’

‘So it is not about an American organization trying to convince people that radical ideas are wrong. It is not at all that. It is about religious leaders that have gotten additional chances for formation and who use their own insights to approach, understand and guide the vulnerable youngsters. It is also very important to check on the legitimacy of religious leaders or community leaders, so that they don’t get thrown out as turncoats or collaborators. Often this goes hand in hand with the question what the preparedness to dialogue and collaboration produces for the own supporters. This can be economical, but classrooms or acknowledgment of singularity belongs to that too.’

We are now talking about approaching youngsters who feel attracted to violence, but a part of the responsibility for this attraction are the governments, with their corruption and repression, right?

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘Absolutely. That’s why we try to build bridges between the government and the society in countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria and Kirgizstan. In Kirgizstan we united the security services, the human rights groups and other societal organizations to analyze the problem and find ways to prevent the safety apparatus from pushing more people in the direction of violent extremism.’

Dialogue must lead to effective results

‘By uniting them around the table, we also break through the stereotypical behavior of the societal organizations who only sue – often rightly so, because the police arrest the wrong people, use violence and violate all kinds of rights. In Indonesia this has lead to a behavioral code for the security services. In Morocco basic procedures for the safety services were agreed upon.’

‘In Kirgizstan it took two years of gathering with the ministry of Home Affairs, the ministry of Religious Affairs, the Ulema Council, the organizing bodies of the madrassas, the societal organizations and the human rights groups to come to a clear training offer for the safety services and for the religious leaders.’

‘That lead to the production of a film on the history of Islam in Central-Asia and another film on the meaning of jihad – and there was a consensus about these films, who were afterwards broadcasted and used as training devices all over the country.’

‘In other words: the dialogue must lead to effective results!’

It isn’t easy to get the governmental structures on board for this dialogue approach of the radicalization. But what about the economic exclusion, which is in many places translated and transformed into community opposition? Is anything being done about that?

One who believes that this is all about economic exclusion, is mistaken.

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘Poverty is certainly not the only motor of violent extremism. In the Sahel region we have seen that the extremist groups got some support for the action they undertook, and for terrorizing certain groups or communities, but they lack support of the majority. Even though this really is one of the poorest regions of the world.’

‘Of course there is poverty, but there is also the care for one’s self-image and reputation – your dignity. Those who believe it is all about economic exclusion, are mistaken. But this exclusion does indeed play a role in the arising of communitarian oppositions and revolts. The worse politics looks after the interests of the population as a whole, the easier it becomes to turn people against each other.’

If one wants to attain communities, one has to pass by leadership figures. Even when they bestow their power, influence and reputation on Kalashnikovs?

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘Yes. In the Central-African Republic we speak with militia leaders, because they are the ones who can decide for more or for less violence. We know for years now that violence can only be stopped through dialogue and agreements. That doesn’t suddenly change because we call it terrorism or armed extremism.’

‘What is truly new about today’s violent extremism, is that they communicate better than all predecessors.’

‘What is truly new about today’s violent extremism, is that they communicate better than all predecessors. IS is truly masterful in its communication with the world and they use it as a very effective recruiting and mobilization instrument. The challenge however is to better and broader spread the voices of involved people who are in the middle of the conflict reality.’

‘The task for NGOs isn’t to proclaim that conflicts need to be sorted out without violence, but to find the people who announce this at risk for their own life and to strengthen their voices, worldwide. Europeans and Americans shouldn’t constantly be talking about the Palestinian case, but rather make Palestinians with good and peaceful ideas and projects visible. The questions Indonesian youngsters ask about them being Muslim deserve to be heard.’

Yet this doesn’t dismiss the EU of the responsibility of developing and own a policy to answer to both the internal radicalization and the external threat.

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘The first thing the EU should be doing, is to invest much more in smart prevention, based on what we have learned in the past decennia elsewhere in the world about extremism and violence, and on the importance of showing everyone the opportunity to express his or her ideas, as long as no violence is involved with it. The present feeling of urgency must be lead away from the fear and must be directed towards the ambition of becoming the generation where no-one feels the need to use violence.’

‘The sole support of hard military or repressive answers, results into more radicalization and easier recruiting by jihadists; from Indonesia over Kenia to Tunisia

‘Europe should also become aware of the importance of his international performance through diplomacy, trade and development. Depending on the attitude and actual relation with other countries, this performance will hinder or strengthen efforts to fight extremism.’

‘The tendency to solely support tough military or repressive answers from other governments, results into more radicalization and easier recruitment by jihadists; from Indonesia to Kenia to Tunisia. Europe should invest a lot more in initiatives of which midfield and human rights defenders are an essential part.’

‘On top of that I would also plea for a different approach of the youngsters feeling attracted to these extremist organizations. It doesn’t help one bit calling them murderers and terrorists while refusing to see that they are in fact truly concerned about the daily tragedies in Syria and Iraq, but feel powerless in doing something about it.’

But even the well-intentioned youngsters, who left off to Syria to ply for the population they felt connected to, are being transformed into murderers and committers of violence by the IS-machinery. It is thus not only a matter of choice of words…

Simply because one’s enemy communicates in black-and-white terms, doesn’t mean you should do the same

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘But as soon as you do the efford to find out about the true motivations and to respect them, you create possibilities to confront the youngsters with their ideals and to confront them with the reality of which they have become a part. Today’s repression leaves no space for such openness, making returning or translating the disappointment into re-integration almost impossible. Simply because one’s enemy communicates in black-and-white terms, doesn’t mean you should do the same. Rather on the contrary.’

‘One of the advantages of a more nuanced approach, is that the state has access to better information from the groups and communities from where youngsters leave or in which they radicalize. This allows to better act against those with truly bad intentions.’

Shouldn’t Search for Common Ground use more means to change the American foreign policy, in the broader Middle-East? Wouldn’t that be more effective than the almost individual approach that you are developing now?

Lena Slachmuijlder: ‘That isn’t exactly our goal, but we are part of the largest umbrella of peacebuilding organizations – Alliance for Peacebuilding – which has taken a clear stance against the permanent use of military means in our foreign policy. It has also been calling for the abolition of the laws that make it impossible to start a dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah. Although we support this kind of policy influencing, it is not one of our priorities, although we will for example clearly oppose the use of murder drones in Yemen.’

Besides, when youngsters in Pakistan connect with the Taliban or other armed extremist groups, that isn’t solely because of the US-interventions, but also because they don’t see a future in their own country, or because they don’t get one of the ones in power.’

Translated by Eileen Coolen

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