“We need to keep having these uncomfortable conversations because the alternative is violence”


In the first plenary session of the One Young World Summit 2016 in Ottawa, former Islamist and Founder/Chairman of Quilliam Maajid Nawaz spoke candidly with Soren Lerche, a former left-wing extremist from Denmark. They touched on the importance of, and challenges to having the meaningful conversations about extremism and what youth can do to counter it. The barriers to having these conversations were ironically emphasized by the reduced panel on stage, with two out of the four scheduled former extremists refused visa entry into Canada.


Maajid calls this the Voldemort effect – we need the Harry Potters in the world to call “the-thing-by-its-name” because if we are not having the conversation the only other alternative is violence. The “Other-ing” of the ‘enemy’ within extremist movements is allowing extremist movements to persist and thrive, but it is also a key in de-radicalization and countering violent extremism. According to Soren’s reflection on his extremist views, it is this Other-ing that both justified his violence against fascists, and which ultimately led to his de-radicalization.


It was not an attraction to violence but rather lacking a sense of belonging that led Soren to join a left wing, anti-fascist group in Denmark. Soren justified his violence against fascist groups, neo-nazis, and skinheads by viewing them through a veil of violence and labelling them as an ‘Other’. It was only during the 23 hours a day in a Danish prison cell that Soren began questioning the rhetoric of violence, largely motivated by renewed communications through letters with his family.


Soren’s story is far more common than most think. His story mirrors the journey that thousands of former extremists have traveled, regardless of political stance. Lacking a sense of personal belonging while finding this belonging in an extremist group is an overwhelming driving factor that continues to push young men and women down the path of extremism. The Other-ing of groups and individuals that allows the justification for violence is effective because it dehumanizes the Other. As Soren said, “it is a process to build up to that violence”, a process that can be reversed through the right intervention. The de-radicalization framework is built on alternative narratives that allow for a humanization of the ‘Other’ and options for productive non-violent action and dialogue. For Soren, the catalyst that motivated his de-radicalization was his family.


Opportunities for intervention must be capitalized on. One of the greatest opportunities for intervention is the nuclear family, as Soren experienced. If anyone is going to notice the early warning signs, it’s likely to be the family. Campaigns like Families Against Terrorism and Extremism (FATE) are building the capacity for families to be a central player in intervention opportunity. The FATE campaign educates mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters to identify the early warning signs of radicalization and offers techniques for appropriately addressing them. This is just one of a growing number of initiatives confronting violent extremism with education and conversation rather than violence.


It was not until Soren spent his time in prison that, through his questioning of the movement’s violent rhetoric, he came to the realization that violence cannot create peace, only more violence. The realization is a simple one but an important one. Engaging in violence to strive for peace and democracy delegitimizes the movement and perpetuates a cycle of violence. It is not through violence but rather conversation that violent extremism can be countered and peace achieved. With challenge, comes change.