HDS Hosts Panel on Extremism and Deradicalization Efforts | News
Experts, including former extremists, discussed efforts to combat hate groups and extremist violence at a panel hosted by Harvard Divinity School on Monday.
The panel included Kristi M. Anderson, a prison reform advocate; former extremists Chris Buckley and Mubin Shaikh; Myrieme Nadri-Churchill, executive director of Parents for Peace, a deradicalization group; and Melvin Bledsoe, co-founder of Parents for Peace.
The conversation – moderated by Susan O. “Susie” Hayward, associate director of the Religious Literacy and Professions Initiative at HDS – included recollections of lived experiences with extremist ideologies and a discussion of ways to combat radicalization.
Maya C. James, an HDS student who organized the event, began by discussing the importance of centering humanity in the fight against radicalization.
“You will soon learn, like me, that what we are discussing here is not politics but a lesson in our shared humanity, the strands of empathy that bind and break us,” James said. “No one is born into hate, nor are they stuck in it forever.”
Bledsoe described his family’s agony upon learning that his son had shot and killed a soldier at a US Army recruiting office after he was radicalized by an Islamist extremist group operating in Yemen. This incident ultimately led Bledsoe to form Parents for Peace with her daughter.
Shaikh, a professor of public security at Seneca College, recounted his close encounters with the Taliban before countering extremism as an undercover agent for Canada’s intelligence services.
Panelists also recognized the power of religion in countering extremism, despite its frequent use as a tool to promote hatred. Anderson, a chaplain and advocate for incarcerated women, discussed the impact of introducing prosocial figures, including ministers of various faiths, into prisons.
Anderson called faith and prosocial influences a “lifeline” to help incarcerated people find purpose and avoid extremism while serving their time.
Nadri-Churchill said religion’s ability to radicalize but also to restore made the conversation especially important at Divinity School.
“As uncomfortable [as] that is, theological schools across America need to be aware of the role of religious people in the process of radicalization,” he said. “At the same time, we have incredible stories of clerics who understand that they need to be a guide, a guide who works with families, not against families.”
Panelists also noted that efforts to counter extremism, such as deradicalization interventions, are not always the same.
Buckley, a member of the Parents for Peace team who previously held a leadership position with the KKK, emphasized the power of drawing on lived experiences in interventions.
Buckley then met a former white supremacist and Muslim refugee who helped deradicalize him, which motivated Buckley to deradicalize others.
“One of the most successful things you can do in an intervention is knowing when it’s not your expertise,” Buckley said.
Shaikh said the availability and feasibility of interventions also differs across geographies, but a sense of humanity should guide these efforts.
“There are different contexts in which interventions can be applied,” Shaikh said. “In our western contexts where we have all these opportunities and abilities, then, I think the most effective ones are those that, I think, at their core recognize a person’s inherent humanity.”