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What Napoleon Can Teach Us About Preventing Violent Extremism

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The Arrival of Napoleon at Amsterdam, 1812-13, by Mattheus Ignatius van Bree (Photo: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis)
The Arrival of Napoleon at Amsterdam, 1812-13, by Mattheus Ignatius van Bree (Photo: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis)

When Napoleon escaped from exile in Elba and landed in Southern France, the former emperor had just a handful of supporters. Royalist soldiers, loyal to the reinstated Bourbon King, had orders to arrest him. But those men had not always fought for the king. Many had spent years in Napoleon’s service and had marched with him to Moscow and back.

Instead of giving in to fear, Napoleon took charge of the situation. The king saw him as a fugitive and political exile. Napoleon saw himself as an emperor. He walked up to the men and stared them down, despite the barrels of the muskets facing him.

And when he was close enough, he spoke. “If you would fire on your emperor, do it.”

The incident, whether or not it has been embellished by historians, journalists and biographers, highlights exactly what we are trying to talk about here. How does one man, facing many men with weapons, persuade them to abandon their allegiance and join him? Why do people fight for some causes and not others?

What happened at that moment was a shift in frame. Political ideologies are all stories we tell each other to make sense of our social reality. In one frame, Napoleon was a disgraced former leader who had escaped from prison and needed to be brought to justice. In another he was the rightful emperor of France.

He came onto the field that day with one reality and left with another. The transition took place in the minds of the men who followed him.

Preventing and countering violent extremism is about finding out why and how those shifts in framing take place. When do people stop believing in the legitimacy of the state and human rights and take on dangerous ideas that may lead them to kill? And how can we help ensure they make positive life-affirming choices, instead of dangerous ones?

 

In the war of ideas, a story is often times the most powerful weapon we have. Stories can bring transformative understanding and change. They are one of the single most effective ways to communicate, destroy or birth an idea.

Our campaigns against extremism must first and foremost plant an alternative seed, offering a more powerful narrative than the ones being peddled by extremists.

 

What is being peddled by extremists?

The bedrock of countering extremism is rooted in the art of listening – putting one’s ear to the ground and listening to the seed before it shows signs of sprouting, feeling what drives its growth before it’s even aware of what it will become.

The art of listening is imperative in experientially understanding what an extremist feels and believes.

 

The drivers of today’s violent extremists

Clarion has made it our business to listen to the stories and drivers that motivate today’s violent extremists. In 2018, our nation correspondent and co-director of our Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Training Program Shireen Qudosi joined with researcher Elliot Friedland.

Together they developed a program to prevent violent extremism that de-mystified radicalization by taking data locked in ivory towers and putting it into the hands of the people at the frontlines: parents, educators, faith leaders, law enforcement, civic and business leaders, and elected officials invested in the growth and excellence of the communities they represent and call home.

By the fall of 2019, they developed a complete series of lectures, workshops, articles, podcasts, a white paper and other educational assets aimed at creating resiliency against extremism at the community level. Since then, Clarion has been working hard to bring that program directly to local communities.

Qudosi shares,

“I’m grateful to Clarion Project for investing in and powering the first nationwide preventing violent extremism training program that works closely with local leaders.

“I’m grateful to the leaders we have already worked with over the last year in hand-to-hand initiatives to bring together and collectively move forward entire communities into awareness.

“I’m also deeply grateful to my colleague Elliot Friedland for a year-long immersion in the art, music and literature of extremist ideologies across the board so that we can better develop programming that moves beyond clinical scholarship and into the heart of storytelling and its spellbinding invitation to listen.”

 

Preventing Violent Extremism — a worldwide necessity

Shifting entire populations into a consciousness that understands extremism is not only possible, it is necessary.

In the 20th century, youth turned to drugs to rebel or escape. For 21st century youth, violent ideologies are their drugs. The difference is there are no dilated pupils, staggered gait or slurred speech to give it away.

In many cases, our youth are being radicalized through online networks while engaging in what appears to be perfectly typical 21st century behavior: being on a computer or phone.

One household can now have multiple realities co-existing. Your reality as a parent is very different from the reality of a child plugged into the voodoo of online recruiters. But when nothing looks atypical at the surface level, how do you know who is being radicalized, who is becoming an extremist or who is just having a bad day?

Every parent, teacher and faith leader deserves to understand the pull of today’s violent ideologies and those who recruit for them– how they operate and appeal to vulnerable youth — so that they are empowered with the tools they need to identify, listen, address and monitor these pathways to radicalization and extremism in our children.

 

Clarion Project’s Preventing Violent Extremism Program

Clarion Project’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Training Program is a preventative program. It takes into account psychological and sociological phenomena, particularly dealing with themes of belonging versus alienation and identity formation.

Our PVE program also draws on the experience of practitioners working to counteract the influence of gangs and cults, along with drawing from the real-time experience of former extremists and field researchers.

By training large numbers of key stakeholders to identify risk factors and intervene appropriately, Clarion Project’s PVE Training Program empowers local communities to help themselves rather than relying on top-down government initiatives which oftentimes carry their own problems for communities, including civil liberty concerns.

Preventing and countering violent extremism efforts differ from law enforcement. They focus on persuading individuals to abandon extreme beliefs as opposed to arresting suspects in the process of planning or committing a crime.

The approach of law enforcement to this issue is oftentimes likened to the use of a blunt instrument. Not only do tools like watch lists have a tendency to erode civil liberties, but they can also spiral out of control and come to include many innocent people.

In contrast, resilience programs related to preventing or countering violent extremism focus on how to build strong social cohesion and responsiveness to potential crises, both strategies that reduce the alluring pull of extremist groups.

In fact, in working with local communities, the leadership and resolve of local police chiefs in bringing together leadership across different sectors has been inspiring and instrumental to the success of PVE programs.

 

PVE is often misunderstood

To some detractors, the very concept of PVE is at best a thinly-veiled attempt to carry out counter-terrorism surveillance under the guise of community outreach; at worst, it is viewed as an Orwellian attempt by the government to manipulate local leaders into criminalizing criticism of government foreign policy.

To some, it seems like a soft approach to dealing with terrorism, rather than letting law enforcement deal with crime and the military deal with foreign threats.

Much of this has to do with the context surrounding PVE, in particular its historic focus on Muslims due to the fact that Islamist extremism inspires more terrorism around the world than any other religion.

Theocratic political movements (and their surrogates) — often operating contrary to the religious teachings they claim to represent — have under their banners implemented regimes which carry out horrific human rights abuses, including persecuting women, homosexuals and religious minorities with abandon.

It is also the case that for the past 500 years, European countries and their colonial offshoots have conquered almost the entire world, enslaved huge numbers of people and carried out wholesale genocide, ethnic cleansing, deliberate religious and cultural eradication campaigns and more.

These atrocities only ended on a large scale within living memory, and the aftershocks are still very much a part of public life.

While substantial progress has been made in the last century against white nationalist and other similar movements, these groups are still around, still seeking a return to the old order of domination, partly rooted in their rejection of enlightenment. Ironically, in their goals, race supremacists are not that different from other supremacists including Islamist supremacists.

There are also unresolved political tensions created in the aftermath of decolonization which impact community relations in the West.

The most notable of these are in Kashmir as well as in related tensions between India and Pakistan and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Until these conflicts are resolved, they will continue to be causal drivers of extremism and used by manipulative recruiters to draw in new members.

All these ideologies are converging in our generation and fighting in a shared space, often feeding off the presence of each other, while other newer, extreme ideologies are also surfacing. The world is witness to an ideological “perfect storm” that forecasts increased violence as we move deeper into the 21st century.

Clarion Project’s PVE program aims to identify and mitigate the drivers of violent extremism in the West pertaining to all extremist movements, identifying ideology as one factor among many in why and how individuals are recruited and groomed into becoming extremists.

 

What exactly is extremism?

Extremism is a relative term, referring to something outside the views of most people. Theorists commonly agree on a “common sense” definition of extremism — one that views politics as a zero-sum game for power and espouses a willingness to use violence and other nefarious means to achieve that power.

Historically where such movements have obtained power, they have used extreme force and authoritarian measures to maintain it. It is reasonable to expect today’s extremist movements would do the same.

Further, “extreme” refers to ideologies which are opposed to democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and which view violence — especially violence against innocent people — as acceptable means in the pursuit of their goals.

 

Radicalism versus extremism

The concept of “radicalism” is central to any understanding of extremism. Radicalization precedes extremism by first conditioning a person’s worldview so that only one view or one reality is accepted as truth.

Whereas a radical accepts only one worldview, an extremist is willing to use violence to secure that world view.

The first step in understanding what world order is desired by extremists and why it is so desired is to listen. Listening is essential if we hope to collectively craft a sound, competitive counter message.

 

Counter messaging, counter extremism and deradicalization

There are three main categories of PVE programs: counter messaging, counter extremism and deradicalization.

Counter messaging programs focus on debunking radical ideologies so people are not drawn towards extremism in the first place.

Counter extremism programs attempt to reduce the factors that drive people into extremism and intervene with specific individuals who may be on a pathway to radicalization.

Deradicalization programs attempt to deradicalize individuals who have already been convicted of terrorist acts so they can be reintegrated into society following their prison sentence.

Within these broad categories are many different subtypes of programs which are often tailored to local contexts and the resources of the organization carrying it out.

Each of these types has different pros and cons. Counter-messaging programs are similar in structure to anti-drugs programs like DARE which is run in schools and focuses primarily on ideology.

Like anti-drug campaigns, counter-messaging campaigns seek to highlight the harms of extremism and detail specific reasons why the ideologies they counter are wrong.

However, these programs face the same risk of shortcomings as DARE programs do, namely that “just saying no” or having a message based on the negation of an idea or product is not enough of a preventative measure.

It is, in fact, no message at all. In addition, counter-extremism programs built on the back of hollowed out counter-messaging campaigns, run the risk of accidentally glorifying the ideologies they seek to counter and of introducing young people to ideologies to which they otherwise never would have been exposed.

This is why simply having lunchtime high school programs on hate symbols, for example, without fleshed out supportive programs reinforcing desired values, can do more harm than good.

All this is to return to the start of our conversation, to first step back and understand fully the stories extremists are selling.

That’s what our program does: addressing at the roots the stories extremists are telling, identifying those vulnerable to its powerful pulls and giving practitioners the tools to fight for the lives of our children.

 

To learn more about Clarion Project’s PVE training program, or to access our free white paper, contact Shireen Qudosi at [email protected]

To request a PVE lecture, workshop, or training presentation, please contact Zach Sicherman at [email protected]

To learn more about Clarion Project’s Preventing Violent Extremism program, visit https://clarionproject.org/pve.

 

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Shireen Qudosi and Elliot Friedland

Qudosi is Clarion Project's national correspondent and co-director of Clarion's Preventing Violent Extremism Program. Friedland is a researcher.

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