Violent Extremism and Nonviolent Resistance

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On November 8th, the International Peace Institute (IPI) hosted a conversation on violent extremism and nonviolent resistance, or “people power,” the factors behind the choices individuals make to pursue these divergent paths, and how the international community can lend meaningful support at the local level.

“What nonviolent resistance is about is having the agency to bring about change [and] so by virtue of joining a nonviolent movement, you are engaging in activity that is bringing about changes in your society and shifting power, and that is very very appealing to people who often have lived under conditions where they believe they have no power,” said Maria Stephan, Director of the Program on Nonviolent Action at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). “Violent extremist leaders, terrorist organizations want young people and others to believe that the only way to effectively resist tyranny, injustices, corruption, exclusion, inequality is through armed resistance, through violence, you meet violence with counter-violence, you meet profound injustices with violence because it works. And fundamentally and empirically we know that that is not the case.”

She said that a study of 330 violence and nonviolence campaigns that she coauthored found that nonviolent campaigns were in fact two times as successful as violent ones.

A key conclusion, Dr. Stephan said, was that group identity played a critically important role in making people choose the nonviolent response. “Being on a winning team is an important motivator, in many cases, so we found that the reason why nonviolent resistance has been so much more effective than the armed struggles against these types of opponents is that they attract massively more participants.” Nonviolent resistance held more attraction for more people, she said, because “men, women, young, old, disabled, able-bodied, rural, urban, everybody can participate in some way in nonviolent resistance. And when you see numbers and other people participating because they can, there’s a powerful feeling of solidarity, and a sense of agency in the fact that ‘we can do something together.’ And I think that that is a really essential element of what allows this type of grassroots activity to challenge violent extremism.”

Michael Niconchuk, Senior Researcher at the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab for Neuroscience and Social Conflict, said that people fear threats to their group conformity from cooperation with other groups and will take radical steps to preserve it. “Introduce the paradigm of threat, and all of a sudden the willingness to cooperate across select group lines plummets, and that’s documented across studies. And you’ll also notice in a context of both strong intra-group trust and perceived threat that the quality of intra-group decision-making of efficacious decisions among group makers skyrockets.”

He continued, “When a group’s identity is is any way threatened, there is generally a consolidation of norms and shrinking of norms around a few core concepts that then signal ‘this is who you have to be’ and any deviation from that risks being ostracized from the group and again these systems that we have are quite ancient, so what is the worst thing that could possibly happen in the time of threat if you are a gazelle, if you’re a chimp, if you’re any social species you’re by yourself, you’ll be dead. So the human brain and body tend to avoid that potential ostracism at all costs, even if it means giving up ethical values and norms that were once considered dear.”

A raw comparison of the advantages of membership in nonviolent and violent groups favors the violent, he warned. “The two can potentially fill very similar evolutionary needs around belonging, meaning, significance, status, but there’s a key difference: when you put a gun in someone’s hand and when you don’t. And we’re very bad and not creative at designing non-violent interventions that facilitate group cohesion but that also imbue a sense of meaning. It’s easier to make change when you have an AK-47 than if you’re picking up trash.” The mission for the international community, therefore, is figuring out the “design principles” of violent groups to incorporate into nonviolent ones, without incorporating the violence.

Jake Sherman, Director of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations, said that while violent extremism poses a significant global threat, military responses to it had demonstrated limits in addressing grievances and that responses in general “fail to take a holistic approach that could definitively weaken the basis of these group ideologies.” Experience showed, he said, that “nonviolent action rooted in communities and relying on the collective action of ordinary people can be an alternative pathway to address grievances and thus prevent further violence.”

Mari Skåre, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations, said that even though violent extremism stifles development and hinders economic and social growth, it still holds attraction for those who lack economic opportunity and feel marginalized. “Grievances and hunger, perhaps, for meaning and inclusion can lead individuals, particularly young people, to violent extremism,” she said. “Extremists understand the power of women and youth so they want them, they want us on their side. We need to understand the social construct and roles in our society. We need to have a gender perspective.”

Noëlla Richard, Youth Policy Specialist of the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said that her agency sought to nurture “youth-led activism” and “youth-positive resilience” as a way of “breaking the cycle of violent extremism.” She cited examples from Sudan, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines and warned that less than a fully committed effort would be counterproductive. “Engaging with young people in a tokenistic way or engaging with them as liabilities will never suffice as a genuine preventative approach and will actually make damage,” she said.

Nilofar Sakhi, Lecturer, Global Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Afghanistan Peace Process at George Mason University, said that anyone born in her country over the past 40 years would have seen only violence and war. Creating a “culture of nonviolence” under such circumstances meant that it “has to be taught very systematically through educational institutions, through religious institutions,” she said. “Modeling of non-violence by political elites, for example peaceable transfer of power… could impact how people can build non-violent agency.”

Leanne Erdberg, USIP’s Director of Countering Violent Extremism, said that since violent extremist groups are “so nihilistic, they are horrible to civilians and armed actors alike, and so we forget the fact that this is a human problem, but ultimately these groups only exist as long as people still join them.” In different local contexts, extremists are adept at making the case for why “radical change is possible.” She called it “part of a twisted vision of change” that succeeds in making a group attractive. “If group identity and the perception of power are part of what makes these groups attractive, then we need to be thinking more creatively about alternatives that give young people vehicles to fill those needs positively with something that’s good for their societies overall.”

The meeting was cosponsored by IPI, USIP, and the Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN, and the moderator was Mr. Sherman.