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Sticking together is key to countering violent extremism

Radical thinking and extreme ideas are not always a problem, but using violence to achieve extremist goals always is. Violence does not solve problems, but learning how to live and work together, and finding common purpose despite our differences, does. These are some of the key research findings presented by Professor Michele Grossman, Research Chair in Diversity and Community Resilience at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, at a recent Australian conference on countering violent extremism. The Point Magazine caught up with Prof. Grossman after the conference and asked her what the current research says about building community resilience to violent extremism.

Can you tell us about the focus of the research you presented at the conference and key findings?

My presentation focused on what it means – and what it takes – to develop resilience to influences that can radicalise people to violence. The presentation, working from a range of previous research findings as well as my own current research projects, highlighted that radical or extremist thinking itself is not the challenge: using violence to achieve radical or extremist goals is.

Pathways to violent extremism are almost always socially embedded, even for those who appear to be ‘lone actors’ – which now include more young people and more women than previously seen in Western countries.

 This means that solutions promoting resilience to the ‘violent’ in violent extremism must also be socially embedded. We know that violent extremist propaganda and recruitment targets social resilience vulnerabilities, including feeling like (or being) a victim; feeling disconnected from family and community, feeling powerless and unrecognised, and experiencing a strong sense of injustice about the world we live in. Violent extremist propaganda plays on these vulnerabilities, appearing to offer antidotes that can help reverse these negative or humiliating experiences through promising a transformation built on violent action from victim to victor; being heard and respected; gaining belonging, bonding and approval from peers, and getting to take concrete action to correct a world perceived to have gone wrong.

Violence and conflict do not solve problems; learning how to live and work together to find common purpose, goals and outcomes despite differences does.

"Working with young people to develop the ability to be more analytical and sceptical when presented with partial or selected narratives that purport to be the ‘truth’ or the ‘facts’ about something is vital"

What do you believe is the best method for engaging with young people who are disengaged from society?

 This is a really complex issue, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. Young people, their needs, their discontents and their yearnings can be as diverse as any other sector of society you care to look at. However, there is robust research out there that suggests the following can help young people to build resilience in ways that help combat disengagement and alienation from their communities and the broader society These include connecting young people with systems and networks that work for them, not against them or in spite of them, and helping young people develop andapply the skills they need, both emotionally and cognitively, to deal with adversity and challenge in their lives. This includes knowing who and where to turn to for support when they need it. 

Working with young people to develop the ability to be more analytical and sceptical when presented with partial or selected narratives that purport to be the ‘truth’ or the ‘facts’ about something is vital – this is called cognitive literacy and it is more important than ever in these information-rich, analysis-poor times as the result of competing political narratives and the changes brought about by social media saturation of both information and influence.


How is “community resilience” used as a key element in countering violent extremism and enhancing emergency preparedness and response?

Community resilience helps develop strong sense of connection, belonging and the empowerment to find solutions together to common problems, rather than feeling overwhelmed or waiting for others to come and tell you what to do. 

It’s crucial to remember that community resilience to the things that can make people vulnerable to violent extremism is a two-way street. It is no good telling people to work on their sense of community belonging, connection or resourcing by reaching out to others, if those others ignore, reject or humiliate the hand that is reaching out to them. Rejection, humiliation, indifference and lack of acceptance drive people further into their own identity shells and harden resistance to connecting with different others. We all have a responsibility, at every level of society, to make sure we are not asking others to become ‘resilient’ when we ourselves are failing to exhibit the same resilient behaviours, attitudes and actions.

Do you have any final comments?

Learning how to live well with each other in contexts of intensifying cultural diversity, and how to cope and even thrive in the face of adversity, both speak to the realities of life in the 21st century for all of us. If we can learn to do these things well, and demonstrate through our choices and our actions what it means to stick together and support one another in both good times (cohesion) and bad times (resilience), we will have come a long way towards mitigating things like racism, intolerance and violent extremism that threaten our social wellbeing and our futures.


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