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Using Intercultural dialogue to counter violent extremism

By Wanjala Wafula

It was a chilly morning in Nairobi on the 1st of April 2015 as I set out to Wilson airport to catch a two hour flight to the Daadab refugee camp in Northern Kenya to continue my consultancy work with a leading international agency. I had been to the camp numerous times and had made friends from Garissa, Fafi, Wajir, Hagadera, Dagahaley, IFO and Kambios. For over two years, I had become a regular visitor to Southern Somalia and my friends there had oriented me to eating canjeero, asour dough risenflatbreadwith an exclusive, marginally elastic consistency that goes down well with Nyirnyir, a Camel meat delicacy reserved for the royal.

As a lifelong third rate columnist who covered the Rwanda genocide, Wagalla massacre, the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi and other numerous terrorist attacks, I had assumed some level of confidence in being able to get a story out of any scene without getting emotionally involved. Yet, what lay ahead of me on this fateful outing was too traumatizing to describe in this forum. In a nutshell, a day after I arrived in Garissa, al-Shabab invaded Garissa University and killed over 150 mostly Christian students in what has became the groups most vicious attack on a higher institution of learning. The site of bodies shred apart by bullets and others whose throats had been slide open is a permanent reminder that the world must think outside the box in its programming around radicalization and violent extremism.

In my view, violent extremism is the promotion and endorsement of a death creed by terrorist groups. It's the explicit spread of barbaric executions through the Internet, the proliferation of anarchy, the lustrous misinformation and the recruitment strategy through the social networks. It's also the cult of martyrdom characterized by the calculated assassinations of civilians and blood splattered all over the streets, concerts halls, museums, Casinos, stadiums, beaches, airports and train stations. I hasten to state that this is happening all over the world, be it in Nairobi, Lagos, London, Paris, Brussels, Tunis or Istanbul.

The root causes of violent extremism are intricate, complex and interrelated. I insist here that the structural setting in which radicalization and probably violent extremism can start to take shape is key. We have to appreciate the fact that violent extremism is the creation of historical, political, economic and social circumstances that include the impact of national, regional and global power politics. Growing horizontal inequalities are one of the consistently cited drivers of violent extremism.

I have had to confront other pundits on this subject who exclusively link poverty to the escalation of violent extremism around the world. Significantly, unemployment or poverty alone is not the solitary thrust factor stirring sadism and extremism. Perceptions of prejudice, human-rights violations, social-political segregation, pervasive corruption or sustained ill-treatment of certain groups are also considered key push factors. When all these horizontal inequalities come together for a particular group, radical movements explode.

In many parts of Africa, the failure by states to provide basic rights, services and security not only contributes to growing inequality but also creates a vacuum that allows non-state actors to take control over state sovereignty and territory. There is a risk that failed political transitions, with weak institutions, law enforcement and checks and balances provide a fertile ground for violent extremism. Weak states thus create opportunities for the physical location of extremist groups.

While violent extremism requires interventions to protect the security of people and assets, prevention of violent extremism needs to look beyond strict security concerns to development-related causes of and solutions to the phenomenon. Experiences in both development and peace-building show, that an increase in the levels of inclusion and tolerance in communities leads to both better governance of diversity and to societies a better shield against violent extremism. I have to reiterate that tolerance for diversity and enhanced intercultural conversations should form the anchor upon which anti-radicalization and violent extremism are addressed.

I propose that intercultural dialogues form the basis of the new global development agenda as envisioned in SDG16 and premised on building peaceful, just and inclusive societies. I affirm that intercultural dialogues amplify mutual understanding and good relations between diverse ethnic, religious, political and the marginalized groups. Intercultural dialogues help stakeholders to Identify causes of tensions in different population clusters hence helping to build understanding and confidence to overcome or prevent tensions before they escalate into the calamities that we are witnessing around the globe. I have seen intercultural dialogues break down the barriers and stereotypes which continue to lead to distrust, suspicion, bigotry and violence.

I propose that we mainstream the hosting of forums that will provide a platform for dissecting the root causes of radicalization and violent extremism. I insist that these forums include the media, education, inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, and all the other stakeholders deemed relevant in adding value to efforts to contribute to effective counter-narratives that can help reduce tensions and turn vulnerable individuals away from the kinds of extremism and radicalization that we currently face

I propose that double our efforts in mobilizing and building the capacity of families, communities, religious leaders, men, boys, women groups, local media personnel and relevant actors for extreme radicalization response and prevention. My strong view is that we need to build on societies, we need to build on youth, we need to empower them to combat and deny the appeal that extremist ideologies have not only on the disillusioned, the marginalized, the cast away, but sometimes on the mainstream educated youth of our cities, both young men and women.

As a parting shot, I wish to reiterate that practitioners active in preventing and countering violent extremism programs often underscore the role of gender inequality and the lack of women’s socio-economic and political empowerment as a major enabler for violent extremism and a major obstacle to preventative efforts. There is an urgent need to zero down on the interplay between gendered religious activism and moderation as avenues to overcoming all forms of extremism.

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