“We need narratives to promote respect, even on conflicting views”

Sensemaking / “We need narratives to promote respect, even on conflicting views”

Gulalai Ismael, founder of Aware Girls, Pakistan, on the urgent need to counter violent extremism and address the needs of young people.

By Gulalai Ismail / 08 Apr 2015

There are many instances in history of religious ideologies being manipulated to incite people for violent political movements. Nationalism has also been used again and again to mobilize common man to adopt violent means for all sorts of sociopolitical change.

More than a decade ago, I started working against the brutal rise of militancy. I saw a mother burst into tears during a seminar while narrating her account of how her 12 year old son was hijacked and motivated to fight in Afghanistan. She wasn’t at all aware of his intentions and came to know only when, months later, the family received his dead body.

This was the wake-up call which motivated me to stand up against the radicalization of young people by the militants.

It was shocking for me to see how young people are mobilized to become part of organized political violence. Initially, I was unable to understand how young minds are convinced to commit violence. As I started questioning it, I found the extremists have developed strong narratives, effective enough to brainwash young minds. Advancement in media technology has been used very effectively by the extremists to reach out to young people in the form of video games, short films and Jihadi songs, which are easily transferable and reach far away within no time.

A large number of scholars of Social Sciences have suggested that our lives and societies are shaped by stories. Narratives are central in defining identities, relationships, diplomacy, politics and culture. The stories we hear shape our behaviours and our responses to the circumstances we are faced with.

To counter violent extremism, it is important to develop alternative narratives based on empathy and compassion, keeping young people at the centre. Our narratives should address the psychology, aspirations and needs of young people. Crucially, these narratives have to be communicated through media which attracts young people.

To attain long-lasting peace, we need narratives to promote respect, even on conflicting views. This requires a combined effort - across all academia, activists, private and public sector, policy makers and in particular the youth. Young people must be at the heart of this agenda, to escape the paradigm of seeing ‘youth’ as either the problem or the beneficiaries. Instead, we must recognise young people as equal partners in the peace process.

Gulalai Ismail is a Pakistani human rights activist. She was brought up in Peshawar, and established the organisation Aware Girls in 2002, aiming to challenge the culture of violence and the oppression of women in the rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area in the north west of Pakistan. Ismail received the 2013 National Endowment for Democracy Award, and was recognized among Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. She is Chairperson, Aware Girls. www.awaregirls.org

Image Credit: National Endowment for Democracy / YouTube

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