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“I did not know I was being radicalized”: understanding violent extremism

Published 08/10/2016 by Global Communities

“I did not know I was being radicalized”: understanding violent extremism
Preventing violent extremism must be led by local voices. The solutions cannot from the outside, but from the same people who would become the extremists

This article originally appeared in Thomson Reuters Foundation News.Written by Selline Korir, Global Communities
Those words were spoken to me by Salim, a 27-year old Muslim from Nairobi’s informal settlement of Majengo, the place he says from where the “foot-soldiers” of Jihad are recruited.

Salim was being recruited, with his radicalization beginning at the hands of someone who had gone to school with his mother. This acquaintance was known as a layabout: he drank, smoked cannabis and wore his hair in dreadlocks. Then, he disappeared, returning a few years later, clean living and dressed in traditional Islamic clothing. He took young men out of the slum camping and swimming, prayed with them, and showed them videos of Syria and Iraq. He explained that the West is at war with Islam and that the way they could defend their community and their families is to join militant Islamist group Al Shabbab. Salim was not being “radicalized:” he was seeking a way to serve his community, his God and his people.

I met Salim through my work in conflict mitigation with Global Communities, a global development organization focused on community-driven development. For the last four years I was project director of a USAID-supported program called Kenya Tuna Uwezo, meaning “we have the power.” In 20 years of working in interethnic and interreligious conflict, I have learned that to prevent violence, we must first understand the people who commit acts of violence and their underlying grievances.

Residents from Huruma in Nairobi celebrate International Peace Day. Over the last four years, Global Communities has been implementing the Kenya Tuna Uwezo program to combat interethnic and politically-motivated violence in Nairobi’s informal settlements.

Entering Majengo had been difficult. We were challenged for our support from the United States, as messages of a war against Islam had taken root throughout these communities. Hearts had been further hardened by the actions of the security forces whose response to violence had been reciprocal violence and aggression.
Gradually, by meeting community leaders on their own ground and in their own time, we built trust and understanding. We learned the push and pull factors that drive people to violence. Some, like Salim, were devout, but heard only from extremist preachers who distorted their beliefs. Others were career criminals who, told they are destined for hell, are given a shortcut to paradise in holy war. Women also play a key role in recruiting fighters. Majengo has many women-headed households with long-absent fathers. When someone offers to put food on your table for your six other children if one of your sons goes to fight, it is easy for a mother to push her son to war. Lack of economic opportunity is another driver, but education alone is not enough to overcome this. An educated person without a job and discriminated against for his ethnicity or faith can quickly burn with resentment and become an educated extremist.

We asked the community what they would do to counteract this recruitment. In Majengo we brought extremist and moderate preachers together in front of the community to have a moderated discussion on their interpretation of key verses in the Koran. An extremist preacher later admitted his distortion of the text. We brought together police and the community in a soccer match. Now there are police who come to talk and learn when there are problems, entering with trust instead of bullets. We linked up youth to employment opportunities.

Salim (second from left) with Selline Korir (third from left) and other KTU peace advocates during a visit to Washington DC earlier this year where they spoke to policy makers and members of Congress about the importance community-based efforts for countering violent extremism.

The success can be seen in people like Salim. He became involved in our efforts to reduce violence and friction between the community and the security forces. He received legal training in his rights under the constitution of Kenya. He reconnected with moderate clerics. “I began to de-radicalize myself,” he describes it. Today, Salim runs online platforms through Facebook and WhatsApp for young Kenyan Muslims to hear the voices of their peers and of moderates that counteract extremist messaging. After two years, Salim says recruitment in Majengo is no longer in the open. The community will not stand for it.

Preventing violent extremism must be led by local voices. The solutions cannot from the outside, but from the same people who would become the extremists. It need not be expensive. In Salim’s case all he needed was a portable WiFi router that allows him to manage the online platforms and provides others free access wherever he goes.
I was asked recently on a visit to the United States what definition of violent extremism we use. My answer was: “We do not define it, we let the community define it in a way that makes sense to them.” Salim says: “Violence is not an act of religion. It is an act of crime.” As we reel from acts of violent extremism in around the world, there are lessons to learn from our experience in Kenya. I urge policy-makers around the world to support this community-level preventative approach wherever they seek to end violent extremism. Listen first, build trust, then empower local voices to lead prevention.

Selline Korir is the Countering Violent Extremism Advisor for Global Communities, as well as the founder of Women’s Rural Peace Link in Kenya. In 2014, she was the winner of the University of Augsburg Mitek Pemper Award for Reconciliation and International Understanding.