At a friend's birthday party this past week, I had the privilege of having an in-depth discussion about contemporary violence with journalists from Muslim countries. This gave me the chance to ask politically incorrect questions. Friendship, compassion, and warmth are curiously powerful weapons against extremism and fear. When there is space, when we feel free, we can ask...when we ask, we can learn.
I asked a woman from Bahrain how people in her country were responding to ISIS. I asked because I wanted to better understand how Islamic countries perceived ISIS -- a group as much after her country as they are against mine.
Her answer surprised me.
She said some people are surprisingly swayed by the ISIS narrative. They seem to agree that their plight -- their disappointments in life -- might actually be the result of shirking the tenants of Islam. This reductionist approach provided people with a false -- albeit much desired -- clarity.
Of course most people, she says, are not swayed but many are.
Saudi Arabia & ISIS
She quickly turned the conversation towards Saudi Arabia, sharing a perspective I had not yet heard. She said that Saudi Arabia denies that ISIS comes from its territory. It is actually illegal to suggest this in public. She said that the United States wants so badly to partner with Saudi Arabia it too is denying the country as a source of ISIS' power. Not to say that they support ISIS, but they foster an environment in which ISIS thrives.
Western Fascism and ISIS Extremism
As I listened to this passionate, inquisitive, warm and articulate woman with large dark eyes and a Burberry-patterned hijab, I began to think about how Western civilization can be as sloppy about stopping fascism as the Muslim world seems to be about stopping ISIS. When faced with uncertainty and a belief that one has little control of one's destiny, stories about impurities as the cause seem to flourish.
Sometimes this is good. After the economic collapse in 2008, economists and business leaders talked about returning to "fundamentals." They meant business basics-- don't spend more than you make. Don't bet the farm on a virtual cow, etc.
But sometimes the call to fundamentals gets wonky and sometimes it turns from wonky to downright destructive.
France's National Front Party Marie Le Pen talks about returning to a "pure France" and Donald Trump's rhetoric is not far behind. During panic, we quickly want to separate the "good" people from the "bad." If someone gets a cancer diagnosis, the approach is to separate the "healthy" cells from the "sick" cells.
These approaches disregard the systems in which these people function. The environment in which cells become sick. If you just cut out the cancer without changing the host, you'll likely just see it pop up again.
Same is true with extremism.
The Western world needs to be careful not to slip into purity discourse. If the Western world wants the Muslim countries to stand up to ISIS' calls for purity, then I figure it ought to do the same.
I have studied World War II far too long and been through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum too many times with survivors to miss the early tremors.
Let's not think just because the hatred comes from our people that it is superior to other people's hatred.
A couple of weeks ago through the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution, I organized a Town Hall Meeting at George Mason University about the events of the day. I framed the discussions about the recent attacks in the form of the question "Barbarism v Civilization?"
Many people appreciated having the space to come together and consider the events of the day. One texted me during the event and another walked out because they were seeking a more intimate and emotional space in which to discuss how the attacks.
In response, I organized, again through the Narrative Center, a World Café. Because this event seemed to be an even greater crowd pleaser, I wanted to share the format to encourage others to adopt this mode of discussion in your schools, community groups, churches or even offices.
ISIS World Café Considering our Experiences of and Responses to Violent Extremism
The World Café style event enables participants to speak together in shifting groups about their personal experiences and the impact of the recent violence in Europe and the Middle East.
No one needs to be an expert on anything for the World Café structure to bring forth profound and surprising conversations.
This kind of meeting is a response to the lack of public spaces we have for discussing today's events.
While TV and the Internet brings us news, it cannot provide connection or the support of thinking out loud and together. Schools have the structure for that kind of conversation, but the pressures of coursework and outside activities often pull us away from these important and sometimes uncomfortable discussions.
In this space, students and others bring authentic concerns, questions and uncertainty as well as ideas.
World Café's have often led to breakthrough ideas and future initiatives. Your participation is important even if you are not sure how you will contribute.
The events are guided by several questions. The ones below are being used at our event at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. People sit in tables of 4-5 with a large piece of paper all drawing their thoughts. In 15 minutes the tables change except for one anchor who tells the new group where the last group left off. Then the discussion starts from there. This format generates interesting discussions.
The point is to make the event cozy. We had candle lit tables, treats, and markers on the table for people to draw their thoughts and trace the conversation. Ours went very well. People wanted to do more of them and bigger ones. They seem to be a productive response to the alienation created by technology and our speedy lives.
If your organization has funding, as a scholar and practitioner of conflict resolution, I am available to come lead the cafe (please contact me here) or you can find more information in Juanita Brown's book, The World Cafe.