October 24, 2015

How to fight extremism?

Sevgi Akarçeşme

I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, this week to deliver a speech at an event hosted by the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest at the Clinton Presidential Center.

After a listener asked whether I planned to publish my remarks, I thought I should share the highlights of my address with the readers, given the privilege of having a column.

Here is my take on the root causes of extremism and the remedy:

When we talk about extremism, we often think of religious extremism. If you go out on the street and ask what extremism is, you will most likely get responses revolving around Islam. It is not fair to any faith to be blamed because of attacks committed in its name, but when terrorists claim that they act in the name of Islam, they are nominally accepted as Muslims. As Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who inspires the Hizmet movement, has stated, a Muslim cannot be a terrorist and a terrorist can never be a true Muslim.

Still, today Muslims carry the burden of a tainted image of their own faith because of such attacks and the connection between Islam and terrorism. When you go beyond stereotypes and analyze deeper the root causes of extremism, you come across another problem: the violation of human dignity.

The Arab Spring first broke out in Tunisia; it was a quest for human dignity. The 26-year-old street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire. It was a reaction to helplessness. The act itself was extreme, but not an example of terrorist extremism. Yet this extreme act was also a reaction to extremism. How so? It was a rebellion against the dictatorship, in itself an extremist form of rule, that governed the country without any accountability and left people helpless.

The Arab Spring quickly spread to the rest of the Middle East but it did not bring about the desired results of democracy due to a lack of deeply rooted political and social institutions. After all, we talk about dictatorships in which a real civil society could not thrive.

Iraq was not a country that was directly influenced by the Arab Spring but the power vacuum in the country that followed the American invasion caused the Sunni Iraqis to feel growingly disillusioned within the new power equation that excluded them. That, among other reasons, provided extremists the ground to flourish. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was born in Iraq and spread easily to Syria, where there was another power vacuum, following the civil war. The outrageous and extreme atrocities of ISIL are indeed assaults on human dignity.

Terrorist extremism is born out in places that have weak institutions, insufficient channels of political opposition, disrespect for human dignity and, of course, an education that teaches true respect for peaceful coexistence. However, as Mr. Gülen says, having suffered oppression is no excuse for causing it or for failing to condemn terrorism.

It would be a mistake to assume that extremism is limited to the Middle East. We often neglect racist or fascist extremisms that are still present in the heart of Europe. Many European countries suffer from the rise of extreme right-wing movements or, to put it accurately, racist and xenophobic political parties because people feel less secure amid declining economic prosperity and during an influx of refugees who do not look like or live like them.

Even in a country such as Norway, which champions human rights and is known for its immigrant-friendly policies, a racist far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik could emerge and claim the lives of innocent students.

The US is not immune from examples of extremism either and I am not referring only to 9/11 or the Boston bombing. Even the Charleston shooting, which was motivated by racism, is an example of extremism. Such individual acts of extremism also display a profound lack of belief in human dignity.

How to fight extremism? People, including but not limited to Muslims, must promote human rights. The universal values of dignity and liberty are also the most basic of Islamic values.

As cliché as it sounds, education is the most guaranteed method. It is the longer and more difficult road as it requires patience and pays off in the long term, but if we truly instill a respect for others, peaceful coexistence and the beauty of harmony in children, we will see what we sow.

Teachers with high ideals are the most important medium but we should not underestimate the role of the responsible use of language by media outlets.

There are countless lessons to learn from the Arab Spring -- not to interfere in the domestic affairs of countries, not to expect democracy to flourish with interventions -- but the most important lesson is that we first have to understand that human dignity and freedom are at least as essential as bread and butter issues and are a universal quest for everyone.

Assaults on human dignity will never be completely eliminated, but we can alleviate the problems through commitment to educating citizens and creating democracy.

Published on Today's Zaman, 24 October 2015, Saturday