Over 70 people gathered together on Monday 28 April for The Forgiveness Project’s second ‘Conversation on Forgiveness’ in London, Can Compassion Win the War on Violent Extremism?. With the event focusing on whether radical compassion can win the war against violent extremism, the venue of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace (a church destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993) was especially poignant.
The conversation was led by Rachel Briggs OBE, who is Research and Policy Director of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Director of Hostage UK. Rachel introduced the evening by expressing how it was an “honour to give privilege to the voices and stories of real people in a way that helps us understand better the problems of violent extremism and the practical steps needed to solve them.”
First to share his story was Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist and one-time organiser of the White Aryan Resistance in Canada, who began by reversing the question and asking the audience to consider whether perhaps a lack of compassion can open the door to violent extremism.
Tony described how, having felt unheard and insignificant as a child, he eventually discovered an identity and sense of belonging within the punk rock movement. Soon his involvement in the extreme fringes of the scene, led to a desire for power which resulted in him becoming a leading propagandist for the Aryan cause, spreading its message to 30 million viewers on TV. “As long as you are carrying unresolved anger and hatred around it will always express itself as violence. Someone once asked me how I lost my humanity, I didn’t – effectively I traded humanity for acceptance and approval,” he explained.
It was only the birth of his first child that enabled him finally to connect to another human being and for the first time feel worthy of someone else’s love. “To be a racist you have to have a closed heart but having a child opened me up and made the ideology eventually become irrelevant” he said. He also admitted that “my hardest challenge has been forgiving myself – it’s a process and something I still struggle with.”
The profound impact of becoming a parent was a sentiment shared by Hadiya Masieh, the evening’s second speaker. A former female Islamic extremist, Hadiya was recruited by Hizb ut-Tahrir radicals and worked with them for a “lost” decade recruiting new converts into the movement.
Hadiya explained that, whilst her story may differ from Tony’s, there are many similarities. An ambitious student, she moved from Yorkshire to university in London, where she was quickly radicalised. “They initially made Islam very accessible although actually it was the political message of Islam they were pushing. So from being quite open-minded I started to speak the same rhetoric as they did. My beliefs came from compassion – I genuinely wanted to solve the issues of the world – but from that grew hatred.”
After 10 years recruiting people to Hizb ut-Tahrir, it was the July bombings that started to shift her thinking. Whereas the 9/11 attacks had left Hadiya believing the West had received a taste of their own medicine, the London bombings, being so close to home, made her empathise with the victims. After that she started to question the group’s ideology, and was eventually asked to leave.
Since then she has spoken out against extremism and is part of the Against Violent Extremism network – an advocacy group made up largely of ‘formers’ and survivors. Given Hizb ut-Tahrir’s controversial emphasis on recruiting young Muslims, Hadiya now focuses her counter extremism work on university campuses, knowing how easy it is for vulnerable young people to become radicalised. Her emphasis is on bringing different faith groups together in a spirit of dialogue and conversation. “I often wonder if I was speaking to myself what would I say. Exposing young people to other experiences, rather than lecturing them, works best,” she added.
Each storyteller’s narrative inspired enthusiastic debate amongst attendees, with a key theme being the value of simple acts of compassion in everyday life. Reflecting on Einstein’s message that we cannot solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created the problem, Tony’s final statement seemed to resonate with the audience: “I wanted to change the world but what I learned was I have a far greater impact by changing myself in the world.”
Our next Forgiveness Conversation- Do you need God to forgive? – will take place on 19 May.
To find out more about the upcoming series and to join in the debate visit www.theforgivenessproject.com/events. Tickets cost £11 and the monthly dialogues are all held at St Ethelburga’s Centre in Bishopsgate, London