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Engaging Across Deep Divides to Counter Extremism

Do we legitimize and strengthen hateful ideologies by giving them a voice?

Pictures: White House/Pete Souza

“Celebrate diversity” — on bumper stickers, on school bulletin boards, this statement has been so ubiquitous to have begun to feel tame, until very recently, that is. With the global resurgence of far-right nativist groups over the past few years, this call to affirm difference has now taken on renewed urgency. But what exactly does it mean, and where — if anywhere — are the limits of the kind of diversity “we” wish to celebrate, or even simply engage with? Selen Ercen takes on these questions in the context of violent extremism in multicultural societies in a recent article in the Journal of Peacebuilding & Development. In particular, she asks how (and if) liberal democracies should facilitate respect and engagement across difference with those who may be threatening others in society.

To explore this question, the author examines the approach taken by Australia — a country often seen to be a model of multiculturalism—outlining particular shortcomings of its current strategies for addressing violent extremism and developing an alternative from the perspective of the theories of deliberative democracy and agonism.

Current efforts to navigate diversity and prevent violent extremism in Australia are grounded in two different approaches: “multiculturalism,” popular during the three decades following 1973, and “social cohesion,” emerging in the years following the 9/11 attacks. Although both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, little attention has been devoted to examining how they contend with “deep identity differences,” especially those that may give rise to extremist practices. Multiculturalism — as much as it is often seen to recognize differences — does not go far enough in its recognition of difference to accommodate those groups whose cultural practices may be seen to violate individual rights. As such, multiculturalism has no tools for engagement with cultural groups beyond this threshold. Social cohesion has a slightly different shortcoming: with its focus on establishing “harmony,” it erases conflict-in potentially unhelpful ways-in its bid for communal unity against extremism, silencing rather than providing space for the articulation of difference.

The author argues that a better approach to addressing violent extremism is to accept that conflict will remain in multicultural societies amid “deep identity differences” and to find a way to constructively engage in such conflict, outlining a form of deliberative democracy informed by agonism that Ercen thinks is best equipped to do so. Although deliberative democracy aims to make democratic governance more inclusive and responsive by bringing diverse groups into conversation with each other on the matters that concern them, critics contend that deliberative democracy, as traditionally understood, is not as inclusive as it intends to be. Agonists, in particular, argue that its requirement that participants justify their claims with reasons accessible to others creates a barrier for some potential participants, effectively “leaving ‘remainders’ in the democratic arena” — those who are seen to be “dogmatic, irrational or mad and therefore unsuitable to take part in democratic conversation.” Those sympathetic to various forms of religious extremism are a case in point: they, like many others, may not be able to rationally justify their actions with reasons that others (outside their particular ideological/religious belief system) can accept and may not be able to revise their own beliefs when provided with compelling counterarguments. Simply put, it can be difficult to reflect on one’s own cultural or religious values with the critical distance necessary to engage in rational deliberation with those who do not share the same beliefs/values. Adopting this agonistic critique, therefore, the author suggests that we “broaden the terms of inclusion” in these deliberative contexts, opening them to the participation of those who would otherwise be excluded. The form of respectful interaction required to do so involves always listening to the other side with a willingness to question one’s own identity/position, even if one might not respect the content of the other side’s beliefs.

Building more inclusive engagement across deep divides takes on even greater urgency when we remember that exclusion has been found to be linked to the turn to violent extremism. “Agonistic deliberation” that facilitates engagement between those typically included and those typically excluded, therefore, may be crucial to its prevention. Importantly, the spaces created for this kind of engagement are not meant to limit the very real conflict that will likely persist in such interactions across deep divides, but they can help transform “enemies” into “legitimate adversaries” so that conflict is carried out in alternate modes. The author concludes by identifying four elements of the sort of engagement across difference that she proposes


The question of where to draw the boundaries of inclusion in a diverse and free society is enormously difficult to settle because it rests on a paradox: how and where should that line be drawn if including some (in the name of diversity and inclusion) is inherently exclusionary due to their own exclusionary views/practices? The focus of this article is on those who espouse “violent extremism” — primarily of the religious sort — but its findings could just as appropriately apply to white supremacists or neo-Nazis who propagate views asserting the rightful dominance of one identity group over another. The current conflict between far-right “free speech” activists and anti-fascist activists in the US pushes us to reckon with the real implications of this research: To what extent should “we” engage in inclusive deliberation with those who wish to return the US to its overtly white supremacist roots or Europe to Nazism? Do we legitimize and strengthen dangerous, hateful ideologies by allowing them to be given voice, or does excluding them strengthen them more? Does the venue in which such views are expressed matter — a deliberative community forum versus a street demonstration versus a university auditorium? And who should make — and enforce — these judgments about whose views are acceptable and whose are not?

Additionally, it is important to consider the question of “culture” here. The author discusses violent extremism in the context of multicultural engagement, suggesting that it makes sense to consider violent extremists in some ways as an extension of the cultural or religious group from which they come. But is this how we should consider them? If those sympathetic to ISIS are considered an extension of the Muslim community, then should those sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan be considered an extension of the Christian community? If that sounds odd, if most Christians would bristle at the suggestion and if most Muslims would likewise bristle at the suggestion that ISIS constitutes an extension of their religious community, then perhaps framing the engagement with violent extremists in terms of multicultural inclusion is not the correct approach to take. On the other hand, perhaps casting both instances as extreme versions of particular cultures or religions is helpful insofar as it reminds us of the undeniable diversity, disagreement, and power struggles within cultural/religious groups and prevents any of us from assuming a position of moral superiority over other cultures or religions.

Although it might be tempting to view the participants in these violent fringes as evil incarnate, it is useful to remember that individuals advocating exclusionary goals and the use of violent methods to pursue them — whether in ISIS or the KKK — are still human beings who make sense of their views and actions in some way and are capable of change. Some members of even these vile organizations have reconsidered their participation and risked a great deal to leave. Remembering this fact makes it possible to fathom the sort of engagement with violent-extremist individuals envisioned by the author, while not at the same time requiring us to support or normalize the views they espouse. As the conflict resolution field tells us, it is worthwhile to try to uncover the basic human needs individuals are trying to satisfy through participation in such organizations — and this framing provides an access point in otherwise inhospitable terrain. In the final assessment, we have more to lose from not engaging with those espousing violent extremism, especially when it comes to their willingness to turn to violence.


The bottom line here is that engagement across deep and substantial disagreement — as risky and as uncomfortable as it might be — is necessary for violence prevention. As we have learned from those active in right-wing and ISIS-inspired terrorism alike (or even from lone mass shooters who seem to have no political or religious objective), a common factor is often social isolation, which draws individuals to groups with grandiose ideologies and the sense of connection and purpose they provide. The more we treat everyone as a full human being, not letting anyone be “remaindered” by society — no matter how hateful or exclusionary their views — the less likely they are to turn to violence to get basic needs met.

In our attempts to reach out and engage with those whose views we may consider vile, it may be helpful to keep the following recommendations in mind. First, we should remember that those who espouse exclusionary ideologies are multi-faceted human beings — with histories and families and hurt — who are not defined entirely by their viewpoints and who may be capable, like all of us, of change. Second, we should seek out (or start) community discussions that convene a broad and diverse array of voices (see the “Organizations” list here for ideas), and then really try to listen to those with whom we disagree — remembering that listening is not the same as agreeing. As the author suggests, it makes sense to nurture constructive conflict instead of forcing consensus. Silencing those with exclusionary views may not only backfire by providing fuel for groups who profit from a besieged mentality but also implies that the rest of us are not resilient enough to withstand hearing those views. Instead, individuals with such views should be allowed to speak and then others can and should respond, exposing the paucity of their arguments and the despicability of their vision. Third, when tempted to make sweeping, blanket statements about whole groups of people, we should look instead to draw out internal diversity within cultural and/or religious groups; doing so will help us find cross-cutting commonalities across these groups, access points for engagement and potential transformation. Finally, it is imperative that we support inclusive school environments where children are encouraged to care for one another, organizations focused on leading youth away from violent extremism, and strong mental health infrastructures that can give people the care they need. Such straightforward measures can go a long way in preventing the sort of isolation and hurt that can lead one to adopt exclusionary ideologies in the first place and become active in violent extremism.

Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies. To subscribe or download the full piece, which includes additional resources, visit their website.

Peace Science Digest


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