About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine jokingly called me ‘an extremist for peace’
I laughed and exclaimed I was proud to be given the title, and I ‘couldn’t think of a better kind of extremist’ and joking aside, I am still very proud of the title bestowed upon me from my friend.
However in the last week that title has taken on a darker context for me; one which I am sure many would find difficult to understand. I have started to feel like an ‘extremist’
My voice for peace – goes unheard, and my frustration increases.
Although I am in no way in danger of taking to violent action, I certainly feel more and more that I can associate and understand the feelings of those who become radicalized extremists.
Until last week and the events in Woolwich I was frustrated, but accepted the general apathy towards ‘peace’ we have in the UK. Peace is something we mainly take for granted. Generally, it’s only something which concerns you if you have direct experience of a ‘loss of peace’ as I have.
Stop someone in the street and ask them if they would like peace, and most people will say ‘yes’ but inspiring that into action, or indeed helping people understand it’s something they can help create, is a far more difficult task. So I accepted the general apathy which surrounds me, confident and reassured in the knowledge that most people ‘want peace.’
But then a man was killed on the streets of Woolwich in an act of political violence, terrorism as most would define it. Understandably, people became angry, but rather than the calls for ‘peace’ that I as a survivor of an act of political violence on July 7th would hope for; I was suddenly confronted with my social media timelines, and popular media being filled with hate fuelled messages, racism, and hate speech. I have begun to question if the majority around me really want peace. It doesn’t feel like they do.
People have asked if the actions of two men upset me, but no one considered that their own hate speech, their racism and anger would cause me even deeper distress; that I can see where those feelings can lead.
I can logically tell myself how rare the actions of those two men are, despite that being of no comfort to Drummer Rigby’s family or friends; however I cannot tell myself this racism and hatred which has surrounded me for the last week is rare. People who did not know Drummer Rigby or indeed probably not know much about Islam, have felt justified in speaking messages of hate; not realising that in doing so, they are providing a mandate for further extremism for those on the fringes of being radicalised. They not only marginalise members of the Muslim community, or far right; they make me feel marginalised too.
Recruitment to radicalisation is a complex subject, there are many causes and influences; there are political reasons and there are personal reasons.
A sense of unjust politics, or unfairness in the world, a feeling of being unheard, that no one cares, the dehumanisation of ‘the other,’ a loss of identity, altruism (yes altruism), hopelessness, and in the context of a suicide bomber, the misguided view that the only way they can make a difference is if they die for their cause.
In the last week, I and many others with direct experience of political violence have tried to raise our voices for peace and calm; yet it feels like we are being drowned out by racism, calls for counter extremism and potentially more violence.
The mass popular media seem more interested in reporting on the context of hate than actually examining the reasons for why such violence takes place. Violence sells newspapers, peace doesn’t.
The response of the government, keen to be seen to be ‘doing something’ has been to focus on censorship and ‘catching’ those already radicalised. I know from my discussions with former extremists; that approach (as well as being expensive) is far too late. Extremism will only be resolved if you are able to reach out to people before their desire for violent action takes hold.
I also know that censoring extreme views only goes to give them credibility or glamour in the minds of those going through the radicalisation process. Particularly young minds – tell a teenager they ‘shouldn’t do something’ and 9 times out of 10 they will be even more tempted to try ‘it’ no matter what ‘it’ is. I remember being a teenager myself once!
Funding for community peace building has been drastically cut in the last two years under the Prevent programme, yet it is only at this level are you going to reach the individuals who become extremists.
Difficult conversations need to be held, conversations that many people avoid holding, for fear of being labelled as either racist, or an extremist – depending on your background. The context of politics and foreign policy is an important one, but politicians alone are not able to resolve these issues.
There are a small number of us in the survivor community, both survivors and bereaved family members who are not only prepared, but are uniquely placed to hold these dialogue conversations; to listen to and show understanding of another’s point of view, as well as empathy. Our soft voices are listened to in a way a politicians never could be. I hold no hatred towards either the people who hurt me, or the community they claimed to represent.
Sadly, as funding for such dialogue programmes and community work is cut, it is now becoming more difficult to find funding for such dialogue than it is to have the conversations themselves.
I have spoken to former extremists who have told me how powerful and transformational it was for them to have kindness and the willingness to listen shown to them by a survivor or victims family. We are no longer ‘the other,’ we both begin to learn we share far more than what separates us.
Indeed this week has taught me that more than ever. I feel the frustration, the hurt and the hopelessness of ‘an extremist’ I have a desire to help bring about change which has left me in tears of despair and frustration for much of this week. In a world calling for violence and revenge my tiny voice for peace feels mostly un-heard , unwanted and ignored.
I have thought so many times, maybe I should leave the UK and go somewhere I could make a difference, perhaps Gaza, perhaps Syria, somewhere I can really help people who want and need support. I have considered the risk, and that there is the possibility I may not return alive from such places. Having escaped with my life once, I know I would be willing to die for peace, even if I only make a difference to a few. What stops me packing up for somewhere like Syria? Knowing the real danger, that should I go, I would be doing so on the understanding that I may stand a chance of becoming a martyr for peace myself. And the question – does that place me in the same shoes of those who tried to kill me almost 8 years ago? Does that make me as ‘bad’ as them? If I would die for peace.
So I am an ‘extremist for peace’ more than any of my friends joking would ever know.
I do understand what an extremist may be going through, more than any one of my friends could ever imagine. The only difference is, I am willing to speak with them quietly, to understand more, to resolve our differences, and to work with them to create peace for us all.
So I am an extremist for peace.