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A Counter-Narrative? Ruminations Around Holocaust Memorial Day

Azza Karam is the Secretary General of Religions for Peace, and Professor of Religion and Development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

A mother holds her child in the Al Dhale'e Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) Camp in Yemen. The war in Yemen continues to ravage the country and its people, senior UN-appointed rights investigators said, in a call for an international probe into suspected war crimes, and sanctions against the perpetrators. Credit: YPN for UNOCHA

NEW YORK, Feb 2 2021 (IPS) - For more than two decades, the mantra was “PVE” (preventing violent extremism) and/or “CVE” (countering violent extremism).

Millions of dollars were spent, new NGOs and think tanks emerged, government policy papers were drafted, countless books and articles were published, large and small scale initiatives developed – indeed almost an entire industry in development and foreign policy spaces thrived.

Complete with UN resolutions and entire units inside the UN system and intergovernmental entities were created to focus on this (thinly veiled religious) violent extremism.

It would seem that PVE/CVE also delineated political positions in certain countries. Were you of the PVE or the CVE inclination? The difference between these two positions was not whether one considered violent extremism to be a – largely – religious (and let’s face it, Islamic-focused) set of features, but whether you were seeking to be politically correct about the endeavor, or just ‘call it like it is”.

Of course, all this generated multitudes of arguments, analysis and ‘alternative views’. By and large, the consensus – and certainly where multi million dollars of investment were going – appeared to be, that ‘developing a counter narrative’ was the way to go.

Horrific gang violence, atrocious drug-related violence, spiking gender-based violence, sexual violence in conflict and non-conflict settings, even domestic violence, school shootings, policy brutality, all soared. But none of that of course, is violent extremism.

In the US, throughout the 1990s, several incidents took place – Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992; Waco, Texas, in 1993; and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The sight of men carrying torches in Charlottesville and braying anti-semitic and anti-everything decent slogans, apparently was … well, clearly, freedom of speech.

While on the other hand, peaceful demonstrations against the oldest and most vile of prejudices which intersects with and informs so many other prejudices – I mean racism by the way – those we did see as worthy of brutality and force. And that brutality and force was also not violent extremism.

With all that, to many of the pundits (‘experts’, intellectuals, intelligence communities) in the ‘developed’ part of the world, none of all this qualified as violent extremism. No, violent extremism, and its kin, terrorism, were what, by and large, Muslims did.

And the Muslims, by the way, were not really a religion. In fact, maybe they were not even human. Our kind of humans, you see, don’t do violent extremism. ‘Our’ kind of humans do good, old fashioned pro-Life kind of religion, informed by wholesome [western] values which are worthy of export as part of an ongoing mission to bring light to the world.

And when some of those things turn ugly and even contravene international standards of human rights (as if those are even relevant), it does not get labelled what it is, because ‘there are good people on all sides’.

When nations turn away or intern those seeking refuge and those displaced by their own duty bearers, and when these people end up cold and without clothes in the coldest of times, or separated from their loved ones in manners reminiscent of the stories of earlier Jewish internment camps, that is not violent extremism.

When there are over two million Muslims in “reeducation camps” (because of their propensity to ‘Islamic extremism’ of course) – no, not in Nazi times back then, but right here, happening right now – that ‘reeducation’ is not called violent extremism.

Even genocide – when we dare to name it – is not violent extremism either, apparently. You see, if a powerful government commits it, it is not violent extremism. And the label of genocide is anyway facetious and disrespectful and libelous and plain wrong. Some say. When they dare to speak.

We needed to watch the Capitol of the United States of America, besieged by men with war paint on their faces, wearing animal masks, military-like fatigues, brazenly waving the flags of states which once went to war with kith and kin to defend human slavery, former (and currently serving) military and/or police officers, even women with a mission apparently willing to scale walls to enter “the people’s house” – and get shot dead by terrified, seriously understaffed security people.

We had to wait to see these macabre sights of yet another awful US reality TV show, to begin – only begin – to name it. So now that we have named it, shall we draw upon the decades’ long ‘expertise’ of NGOs, human rights actors, think tanks, governments and the industry, academia, which largely focused on the Muslim other?

All those who valiantly created “counter-narratives” to deal with this variant of the virus of violent extremism? Or are counter-narratives only something we invest in when it comes to others outside of ‘our’ kind?

And what is the counter narrative to rampant hate of the multiple, intersecting and difficult to discern forms of ‘otherness’, when divisiveness, bitterness and ignorance are normal in so many parts of the world?

For we spent decades normalizing othering. Even as we sought to deal with violence, we did so by ‘othering’ (rendering different from ‘us’) the perpetrators and the actions, even when they were us. We even othered violence itself by defining an extreme form thereof! As if violence was not bad enough.

As we sought ‘counter narratives’, we affirmed the us-versus-them world view: our narrative was, would be, better than theirs. But hate is not a narrative. Hatred is felt, it is embodied, it is lived – and it is actively justified.

Hatred feeds on othering. Othering is the fuel which makes hatred rage as the fires that consumed our earth did in 2020 – literally as well as metaphorically.

The antidote to othering, to the roots of hatred, is to recognize the power inherent in our diversity. All faiths teach that diversity is manifestations of the Divine, and/or that the Divine resides in diversity – sometimes in polar opposites (e.g. Destructor-Creator).

All faiths try to teach that power is not about institutions and boundaries. Instead, ‘power’ is to love the diversities. Yet still we persist, and our religions and our politics and our institutions persist, in the politics of othering, and defining the boundaries of us versus them.

When will we learn, that we are one and the same? What will it take?


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