For three days at the end of June, Google Ideas did something risky, brave and potentially world-shaking. They brought together former extremists from all over the globe — from the neo-Nazi youths of Milwaukee to the radical Islamists of Tower Hamlets — and, in a spirit of inquiry, asked the big question: How do you reach out to black-and-white thinkers intent on harming those who don’t share the same views?
Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas think/do tank, explained why the emphasis had to be on preventing recruitment in the next generation: “Fifty-two percent of the world are under the age of 30 — the vast majority at risk socially or economically, and too many will turn to violent extremism”, he told over 200 “formers”, survivors, activists and academics gathered together at a conference hall in Dublin.
It is constantly said that there are no counter voices to violent extremism within the Muslim world, but I found many here. For instance, there was a Somali-born Canadian, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who spent six months with the Somali militant group Al-Shabab before returning to Canada to found Generation Islam, a group that aims to steer Somali-Canadian youth away from radicalism. There was Noor Huda Ismail, who joined the Jihad in Afghanistan as part of the extremist group Darul Islam and is now running the Institute for International Peacebuilding in Indonesia. And Usama Hasan, formerly fighting with the Mujadeen in Afghanistan and one of the leaders of the call to Islam in the U.K., who turned modernist liberal Muslim after the 7/7 attacks compelled him to de-radicalize.
At Google’s Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), many came face-to-face with people they once regarded as enemies and may still have regarded with suspicion. Nobody quite knew whether this potent blend of former jihadists, former inner-city gang members and former right-wing extremists, mixed together with a number of survivors from international terrorist attacks, would be an inflammatory device likely to push people further apart, or create a melting pot of shared ideals.
The format was sometimes uncomfortable, with “survivors” chairing panels of three or four “formers”, their job more to tease out answers than to tell their own stories. The goal was to look for commonality — not in the old ideologies, but in raw human experience. Indeed, what so many of the “formers” shared was a history of emotional abuse leading to emotional detachment, the search for identity within the group and the ruthless pursuit of power through violence.
The conversations were often profound and more frequently than I’d imagined forgiveness was talked about as a tool for change. When former gang member Sammy Rangel reflected that “the world needs more forgiveness”, everyone applauded. Muslims spoke out about reclaiming the word Jihad from fanatical interpretations — best summed up by the Muslim friend of a former white supremacist who was reported to have said, “Jihad is our own inner struggle to make peace where war is present.”
The route into violent extremism varied, but with almost all it started young. Susan Cruz, a child immigrant in the States who turned into a transnational gang member, described how after being bullied at school hers was an active choice to be “perpetrator rather than victim.” Christian Picciolini, author of Romantic Violence and once involved in the early American white power skinhead scene, talked about the “intoxicating need for power”, while one-time neo-Nazi skinhead TJ Leyden told how his ideology had given him a sense of “purpose, direction and power”. Arno Michaels, also once deeply involved in the white power movement, succinctly summed up what most knew: “The more violence and hatred I put into the world, the more the world gave back me, which in turn only validated who I was and what I stood for.”
The same was true for the former Islamic extremists, though most cited a single political event that had moved their lives toward violence, in many cases the Bosnian war. As one former Islamic extremist from Indonesia told me, “If they were massacring white-skinned Muslims in Bosnia, what would happen to us next?” Many agreed that with young Muslims so often branded in the West as “the enemy”, a flight into extremism was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The route out of violence for many “formers” also revealed patterns: all eventually felt dehumanized by their actions. For Suzan Cruz, it was “slow-motion suicide. I didn’t realize that the person I was hurting was another human being, because I’d stopped seeing myself as a human being”. And Ruth Rach, who had associated with members of the Baader-Meinhof group, explained that “I had to do violence to myself in order to do violence to others.” For almost all the “formers” the enemy came more from within their own groups, born out of jealousies and the fight for position rather than from those who held opposing views or belonged to rival gangs.
For some it was having children of their own that first sowed the seeds of doubt. For TJ Leyden, for instance, it was witnessing his 2-year-old son racially abuse a black person on television that soon turned his initial swell of pride to alarm: “If I was this way, coming from a non-racist family, then how would my son turn out?” For others it was running a business or working with the public that made them see how difference was not necessarily to be feared. As Christian Picciolini said, “As a good business man, I realized I had to treat everyone fairly.”
Many slid quietly over time out of their movements, moving neighborhoods, sometimes countries; others, like Picciolini, left the movement as a leader, in one bold gesture. The majority of “formers” still face death threats.
The commitment from everyone who attended the Dublin summit was to work together to tackle this century’s surge into violent extremism, to amplify the extraordinary stories we heard and to recognize that those who once clung to black-and-white thinking — and embraced violence as a means to an end — were the best people to defeat it. As one “former” put it, “The poison and the antidote are brewed in the same bath.”
All the “formers” I met in Dublin are tireless advocates of non-violent resistance who believe in responding to aggression with compassion, and meeting hardness with softness. Arno Michaels explained how he responds to teenagers who tell him that revenge is the only way to get even: “I offer them a challenge: I say, ‘Who has the courage to step up and break this cycle of violence?’” He nodded in agreement when Yasmin Mulbocus, a one-time member of the radical Islamist organization Al Muhajiroun, declared, “A strong man is not he who wrestles his enemy to the ground; a strong man is he who can control his anger.”
By the end of the Google Summit, former racist skinhead Angela King admitted that her earlier fears that former, hardcore, male, sexist skinheads might “direct me back to my little corner of the world with a laugh and a shake of the head” were unfounded. King acknowledged that the Summit had been one of the most profound experiences of her life, having gained in Dublin “a network of individuals the likes of which the world has never seen, dedicated to ending violence, and armed not with guns or bombs, but with knowledge, respect and love for humankind.”