Yousef’s choice

Published February 14, 2016
The writer is a development consultant.
The writer is a development consultant.

AS violence erupts through fissures across the world, people everywhere are struggling to understand it. Paris. San Bernardino. Charsadda. Those reeling from the horror of the headlines are often compelled to ask, ‘Who are these people?’

Who are these people capable of indiscriminate brutality against men, women and children? Is there some common grain that numbs their sentience and capacity to feel for their victims? In the borderless phase of the war on terrorism, who is the enemy?

The most incomprehensible are those perpetrators whose choices cannot be explained by a history of deprivation or injustice. Those with access to a certain kind of education and material comfort, whose personal lives are not affected by the destructive forces of international politics. What, for instance, would motivate a couple with a baby daughter to open fire at a holiday party in San Bernardino? Or an IBA graduate to become involved in terror plots in Karachi?


Paths can change in the war against terrorism.


As part of the search for answers, the Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies held a roundtable last year, on the role of youth in curbing both urban violence and violent extremism.

The first person to address the gathering from a Skype screen was a young Norwegian Muslim “who had turned his own life around more than once. Yousef Bartho Assidiq spoke with refreshing honesty about his past” — his personal choice to convert to Islam, and the sense of isolation from family and peers that followed. During his phase of estrangement, Yousef drifted towards the local Islamic centre, where he found a friend and mentor. This friend represented a radical faction at the centre, and Yousef found himself drawn into a spiral. Watching this soft-spoken young person on the screen, it was difficult to believe him when he said, “I could have been in Syria today.”

One of the most powerful aspects of his story was, of course, geography — Yousef had a regular childhood in Norway, which has for years been ranked as “the happiest country in the world”. He defied the stereotype — this was not the brainwashed product of a madressah in a remote corner of a fragile state. His narrative, therefore, is particularly important in understanding what can make the difference for an individual toeing what he called the ‘thin line’ between joining a violent movement, and going a different way.

In many ways, Yousef’s narrative corroborated the theory that basic human needs go beyond the physical, and that intangible social needs can determine the path of the individual. According to late diplomat John Burton, the non-material needs of identity, participation, recognition and security are essential — and when these are unmet, trouble follows.

The conflict within Yousef reached its peak after the Danish cartoon controversy. His group began pushing for reaction that went beyond rhetoric — a violent backlash against the cartoonists. He was almost drawn in, until his mother asked to attend one of his meetings. It was while watching her face during his own speech — neutral, devoid of judgement or opinion — that he came to his decision.

Today, Yousef runs a deradicalisation programme that reaches out to young people like himself, who may be experiencing a sense of isolation in dealing with regular issues. The strategy is simple — social contact, acknowledgement and recognition of identity. It’s what Burton would have called ‘pro-vention’ — proactive prevention of conflict.

That’s not a popular term in the world today. More than anything, the backlash to extremism is itself turning violent, alienating entire communities. Fear of the radicals has created a constituency for Donald Trump’s hate speech, and have validated the masks donned by men attacking refugee children at Stockholm station. In some places, like Tajikistan, policies have taken a turn towards the ridiculous — facial hair has been banned for men, and for women, wearing black.

All these seemingly unrelated reactions have unintended cumulative effects. They reinforce an identity group that sees itself as oppressed and isolated, out of people who would otherwise have no reason to find themselves in the same corner. And it’s happening everywhere, even as each new incident of global terrorism reinforces the nebulous nature of the ‘enemy’.

In all this, Yousef’s story is proof that paths can change. In the war without end, that is the brightest possibility.

On the Pakistan front, too, there are lessons to learn from it before being demoralised by the apparent failures of counterterrorism. The greatest is that military might and policing can only go so far. If conflicts were simply due to inherent aggressiveness, coercive tactics would succeed in containing them. But even while there is need to push back against those who create terror, there is also a place for introspection — and ‘pro-vention’. It is when we start identifying where the damage is happening, that we will be able to make sense of our piece in the global picture.

The writer is a development consultant.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2016

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