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Experts, including former extremists, discussed efforts to counter hate groups and extremist violence at a panel hosted by the Harvard Divinity School on Monday.
The panel featured 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 the Professions Initiative at HDS — included recollections of lived experiences with extremist ideologies and a discussion on ways to combat radicalization.
Maya C. James, an HDS student who organized the event, began by discussing the importance of centering humanity in combating radicalization.
“You'll soon learn, as I did, that what we are discussing here is not politics but a lesson in our shared humanity, the strands of empathy that bind us 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 U.S. Army recruitment office after being radicalized by an Islamist extremist group operating in Yemen. This incident ultimately led Bledsoe to form Parents for Peace with his daughter.
Shaikh, a professor of public safety at Seneca College, recounted his close encounters with the Taliban before countering extremism as an undercover operative with Canada’s intelligence services.
The panelists also acknowledged religion’s power in countering extremism, despite its frequent use as a tool to promote hate. Anderson, a chaplain and advocate for incarcerated women, discussed the impact of introducing prosocial figures, including ministers of various faiths, into prisons.
Anderson referred to faith and prosocial influences as a “lifeline” in helping incarcerated people find purpose and avoid extremism while serving their sentences.
Nadri-Churchill said religion’s capacity to radicalize but also to restore made the conversation especially salient at the Divinity School.
“As uncomfortable [as] this is, divinity schools across America need to be aware to address the role of clerics in the radicalization process,” he said. “At the same time, we have amazing stories of clerics who understand they have to be a guide, a guide that works with families, not against families.”
Panelists also noted that efforts to counter extremism, like deradicalization interventions, are not always the same.
Buckley, a Parents for Peace team member who formerly held a leadership role within the KKK, stressed the power of drawing upon lived experiences in interventions.
Buckley later met a former white supremacist and a 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 know when it's not your expertise,” Buckley said.
Shaikh said that the availability and feasibility of interventions also differ across geographies, but a sense of humanity should inform 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 which, I think, at its core, recognize the inherent humanity of a person.”
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