Deradicalization Starts at the Dinner Table

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Libyan family shares a traditional meal. (Photo: Mahmud Turkia / AFP / Getty Images)
A Libyan family shares a traditional meal. (Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Deradicalization starts at the dinner table — at least that is the possibility for every family across America. No matter what your background, the act of breaking bread and the tradition of a shared meal cuts across cultural and religious boundaries. For traditional families, including immigrant families, dinnertime is still the one tradition that continues no matter how far behind members of that family have left other traces of their inherited culture and identity.

Everyone comes together at the dinner table. If a family is very traditional, chances are the extended family comes together about once a week or once a month for extended periods of time. Given that most adults and children are often distracted by smart phones and other devices, the moments between spending time together, including the evening meal, becomes an even richer opportunity for a conversation. It’s a window to cradle a family’s collective attention in an environment that is safe, comfortable and disarming.

The question is: What do you bring up? How do you raise a tough conversation especially when you can’t control who else will be at that table? The best way to go about it is to use stories. They can be real stories, news events, other people’s lives, things you’ve read, a movie, a TV show — just about anything. 

Here’s what you don’t do:

  • Don’t start with a religious point of reference
  • Don’t give a judgment or strong opinion

Here’s what you can do:

  • Start with a cultural point of reference
  • Ask a question

Let’s look at an example. The recent update to an ongoing eight- year-long story of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, is a great example for how to cultivate dialogue. Bibi was just cleared of blasphemy charges in Pakistan, which prompted enormous crowds of protesters calling for her death. Bringing up this issue at a dinner table allows the family to gently discuss deradicalization in a collective space without having a triggering effect — by discussing the ideas that fuel radical ideology. 

Here’s what you don’t say:

  • “Islam is the problem!”
  • “I can’t believe they’re protesting her release! They’re so ignorant.”

Here’s what you can say:

  • “Did you guys see the protests over letting that woman go?
  • “It really got me thinking, why is this happening …” 

Asking an open-ended question opens up the floor to a conversation that lets you see where other people, especially your children, are holding on that topic. It an invitation to dialogue for all. Should your children be too young to engage, it allows your child to develop a touchstone that can serve them as a compass when they come across these conversations online or among peers.

You can also use these conversation points to gauge your family’s comfort level with these topics and lead with guiding principles you want them to at least carry or reflect on as they walk away. You also open the door to more private conversations later, letting children (and sometimes even the adults) know that you’re a point of reference and you’re available to explore these questions together without criticism or punishment.



How Culture Shapes Childhood

Will the US Stand Up for Asia Bibi?

The Man Who Trained With Tony Robbins, on Child Radicalization

Cup of Water Sparks Death Sentence for Pakistani Mother


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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.

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