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Geopolitical X-Games: Extreme Measures to Stifle Extremist Recruitment, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Apr

This week two major UN events highlighted the scourge of extremist violence and offered testimony to the roles that youth, religious leaders and others can play in reducing threats from terror groups, including threats related to recruitment.

In the General Assembly, a two-day discussion brought to the UN a group of diverse religious leaders to reflect on ways that communities of faith can have more of an impact on bringing terrorism to heel.  Such discussions, featuring presentations mostly by men of middle age, seemed largely devoted to “rescuing” the essence of “true religion” from the falsehoods promulgated by terrorists.  As a former theologian in training, I found it interesting how ‘above the fray’ many of the presentations stayed. Apparently many religious leaders have misplaced an important truth, especially valuable in the context of encouraging youth participation in peacemaking and related activities, that we as a people are judged less by what we profess and more by what we practice.

In the Security Council, the Crown Prince of Jordan (the only speaker under 30 all morning long) led an intense discussion on ways of responding to the growing problem of youth recruitment by terrorists such as ISIL.  The chamber was unusually full; delegations had much to contribute, some of it highliy substantive and practical, some borderline hysterical, some quite sober in its assessments. In the balance between “push and pull” factors leading to recruitment, a number of delegations jointed UN Alliance of Civilizations in highlighting under-employment as a trigger for youth violence. Lebanon noted that youth are both targeted and targeting others. Chile wisely urged efforts to close development and gender gaps as ways to establish credability and build confidence.

It was a bit sad at times, as noted by one of our valued NGO colleagues, to hear youth portrayed as they were in these discussions. For some delegations and even religious leaders in the GA, youth seemed to be depicted as a vulnerable and volatile presence who didn’t know what was best for them and certainly didn’t appreciate all the blessings of home. We apparently need youth to help us combat messages of extremism, but don’t always accord them the respect they deserve, the autonomy of opinions still unformed, but certainly worth a hearing. “Respect” in this instance does not mean deference, nor a cavalier passing on of responsibilities to new generations that we cannot find ways to handle in our own.  It does mean a bit more of what psychologists refer to as ‘de-centering,’ seeing the world through the eyes of young people who, as noted by outgoing New Zealand Ambassador McLay, cannot be expected to trust our “modern state” policies and social structures at face value.

At both events, the Secretary-General was thoughtful and emotionally engaged. Clearly for him, as for many diplomats and non-governmental leaders, there is much at stake in providing what was often referred to as a believable “counter narrative” to the alleged attractions of terrorist groups.  From my perch, his major contributions to both the GA and SC discussions were twofold:  First the insistence that youth not be problematized when it comes to terrorist recruitment.  His statement that youth represent “potential not peril” has been given wide media play, but it represents a positive, helpful perspective. Increasingly over the years, the UN has been host to thousands of smart, aware, committed youth who, as the SG put it, “seek to fight injustice, not people.” This is the image that needs wider play.

The SG also made an important statement in both venues, that extremism is not confined to regions under terrorist control. Indeed, one of the most powerful images of the SG in the General Assembly was the one that drew straight lines connecting discrimination, extremism, and the commission of atrocities. Extremism, he noted is not confined by geographic boundaries, culture or religion.  We are not like ISIL to be sure, but neither are any of our societies exempt from the “push factors’ (noted by Indonesia and others) of unemployment, limited educational opportunity, violence, a lack of inclusion (Nordics) and, yes, discrimination that help to create the vulnerabilities that many delegations seemed to fear.

A recent, extreme example of extremist inclinations came in the form of a now widely known article by Sun (UK) columnist Katie Hopkins on 17 April, demonstrating yet again that vicious attacks on the ‘other’ are not confined to the terrorists. Hopkins described migrants as “a plague of feral humans,” compared them to “a novovirus” and said some British towns were “festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.”

I would suspect that most of the religious leaders participating in the General Assembly debate would want to redefine this ‘shelling out’ as “compassion.”

I don’t want to make too much of the ramblings of a few bigots — we have our share in the US as well.  But in our anxiety to address terror threats with “all hands on deck,” it is important to young people that we acknowledge the limitations of our own cultures, our many strivings and achievements of course, but also our unfulfilled promises.  Youth are often more affected by our hypocrisies than our failures. They are disinclined to accept judgments that ‘all is well’ in their societies of origin when their intensive social media reminds them of all the problems they seemed destined to inherit from adults who aren’t nearly honest enough with them.

As France noted in the Council, it is important to convince youth of the republic’s “relevance” to their lives.  But with so many cultures drowning in celebrity materialism and community indifference, there should be no deceiving ourselves about the degree of difficulty associated with this task.   Nigeria’s call to ‘shield’ youth from narratives of terror is much easier said than done as is Egypt’s call to ‘dry up’ funding sources for youth recruitment. Poland rightly rejected the notion that youth recruitment discussions were in any way related to a “clash of civilizations.’   Such discussions might, however, be related more to a ‘clash of generations.’

Venezuela urged us in the Council to see youth as a “barometer” of our political health and future.  At that same debate, Qatar maintained during the Council debate that ignoring youth is akin to ignoring history.  It’s certainly akin to ignoring skills and attitudes we will require in the future to overcome climate crisis, inequity and other discouragements. As Austria reminded delegations, young people are so rarely heard by decisionmakers, which sows suspicion.  As we seek to prevent terror recruitment and, as Pakistan noted, help direct the energy of youth to peaceful, productive ends, suspicion is the one thing we can most do without.