How can the stories of former violent extremists be the catalyst for an ambitious community-led crowdfunder? Here’s how.
A beautiful man, or a cold blooded killer: this is the current dichotomy conjured by the name Mohammed Emwazi, or perhaps more commonly his media sobriquet ‘Jihadi John’, a name that elicits widely and rightly held hostility, revulsion and perplexity at the vicious brutality of a murdering IS henchman. In recent weeks, the quest to reveal this man behind a mask has led to descriptions of his personality and actions pre-Syria, from a teacher’s assessment as a steady, ordinary boy to security service assertions of a young man on a violent radical trajectory. Most controversial of these analyses has been the words of Asim Qureshi of the human rights group Cage, who described his impression of Emwazi as a ‘beautiful young man’, a comment interpreted as inappropriate and outrageous in light of Emwazi’s metamorphosis into a killer. Yet the notion that Emwazi was, in the past, ‘very good with people’ (as described by his previous employer), and appeared ‘beautiful’ in character, should act as a trigger for deeper examination, for it hits a nerve in our social psyche – that our defining of ourselves and our fellow humans as inherently good or evil does not accurately reflect the awful reality that ordinary people can commit hideous acts of violence and cruelty.
The path of violence triggers inter and intra community divisions.
The lessons of war, genocide and terror are not peculiar to any ‘type’ of society, culture, or person: the path of violence is a horribly routine aspect of our collective and individual behaviour. In the case of violent radicalisation to extremist groups such as ‘Islamic State’, nationalist movements and the far right, the complex and individual process can be experienced by ‘ordinary’ people, and it is this disturbing reality that should – rather than the jejune finger pointing and outrage of popular commentary – galvanise united, constructive and urgent action to prevent the vulnerability of individuals to the multiple push and pull factors of violent extremisms. This is a politicised arena, and one which – against a backdrop of the ‘War on Terror’ and increasing xenophobia – has triggered inter and intra community divisions alongside mistrust and disengagement between the grassroots and state.
Have formers really renounced violence?
There are many examples of individual ‘turn arounds’, of formers whose pasts illustrate the reversibility of violent extremisms. Sometimes high profile and often controversial, examples include Pat McGee, responsible for planting the bomb which killed and maimed at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, 1984, who now works with Jo Berry – daughter of Sir Anthony Berry who died in the blast – to promote peace and better understanding of conflict. Further afield, the founding leaders of the notorious Egyptian terror group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya now speak out against violence, including theological tracts against their own previous actions, promoting political engagement as an alternative. Less high profile, but demonstrating that these are not exceptional cases, are the formers of violent extremist groups in all our communities, whose personal journeys are testament to change. This change is always unique and unpredictable, the triggers to leave violence stemming from internal change whose roots are often found in external impacts – the reality and futility of violence, disillusionment, a charismatic figure who shakes the surety of extremist belief.
For the organisation of which I am a director, ConnectFutures, part of the long-term solution lies in better engagement across the divides, and crucially, the use of credible, community-rooted expertise including those who have ‘been there and done that’. Our team’s research and practitioner experience, alongside a growing body of academic and policy literature, suggests that the stories of ‘formers’ – those who have followed a path of violence and subsequently desisted, not only demonstrate the diversity and the ordinary, but highlight the prospect of reversing violent radicalisation.
Yet the stories of formers are not just a source of knowledge and understanding: they have the potential to educate and inspire. By sharing the uncomfortable truths about their journeys in and out of violence, and the reality of violent groups, the attraction for young people may be significantly reduced. And while there will always be a small number of blood-lusting sadists looking for a cause, when ordinary young people talk about ‘five star jihad’, adventure, redemption and righteous brotherhood, or standing up for ‘our people’ and justice against exploitative political classes and hostile ‘foreign enemies’, the idealistic romanticism and simplistic thinking – for that is what it is – needs debunking quick.
Hearing the stories of formers, through the route of the crowd-funder
The testimony of formers can cut through the zeal, the black and white thinking, and the fantasy. When you hear that the group you hold as pure and unified is a motley crew of infighting misfits, the attraction wanes. When you know that the leaders of these groups are as corrupt, hypocritical and oppressive as those you rail against, the prospect of joining them fades. It is not from a government official or figure of unrespected and disrespectful authority that these messages can be truly heard, but through credible, candid figures whose experiences can penetrate hearts and change minds. We must accept, as a society, that stories of good versus evil are not as clear-cut as we may think, but in their ambivalence, have a power that can be harnessed for change.
For all these reasons, ConnectFutures is crowdfunding an innovative and ambitious series of short films – five stories of formers for free, public use. If you are interested in pledging your support and giving a donation please click on this site, which should take less than two minutes at: https://peoplesrepublic.co/p/connectjustice/
Check more details of our resources, workshops (for students and professionals) and videos on www.connectfutures.org