Arno Michaelis in Washington Post: “How You Become a White Supremacist”

Parents for Peace member Arno Michaelis has published an editorial in the Washington Post in reaction to the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

Arno’s piece is titled “This Is How You Become a White Supremacist” and recounts the story of his own evolution from a racist skinhead into an acclaimed advocate for tolerance. Here is an excerpt:

When everything is going wrong in your life, it’s much easier to blame Jews/Muslims/blacks/Mexicans/gays/anyone-but-yourself than it is to face your flaws and begin the hard work to account for them. The teenage outcast kid is told that it’s the Jews’ fault he doesn’t have a girlfriend the media they control tells white girls to be attracted to black boys. The middle-aged guy who lost his job has “illegal” immigrants to blame, and take a wild guess who the racist narrative says brings them into our country.

The recruitment process is sophisticated beyond the understanding of the recruiters. There are very complex human frailties that are preyed upon and manipulated without either the prospect or recruiter really understanding the psychological dynamics. Recruiters fail to understand the spiritual mechanics behind a person’s need for love, but they know well enough to look for people who are hurting. Simply put, it feels good for a person to feel a sense of belonging, purpose and value, especially if they lack love in their lives.

Arno ends with an account of his visit to Charleston immediately after the shootings:

Within 36 hours of the Emanuel AME Church community losing their precious sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers, I was on the way to Charleston with Amardeep and Pardeep Kaleka, two brothers whose father was killed in the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin. Arriving at the church after a 20-hour car ride, we joined what we were not surprised to see was a celebration outside. People of all ethnicities, from across the nation, had gathered to combine broken hearts in the spirit of human oneness. The experience was overwhelming in its beauty and defiance of hate. I broke down sobbing.

Before my tears could hit the ground, black members of the Emanuel AME congregation embraced me and held me. I had come to comfort them, but it was their love that comforted me, sending an immensely powerful and indisputable message: When we rebel against the construct of race and love each other as a great human family, hate cannot win.

As an alliance of families, we at Parents for Peace believe that love can win over hate. We will have to stand strong against the forces of extremism that seek to radicalize young Americans.

Arno Michaelis
Video from Event: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?

On April 28th, Parents for Peace collaborated with the Inkblot Project from Boston University for an event featuring former white supremacist Arno Michaelis and former jihadi-sympathizer turned undercover operative Mubin Shaikh. A main focus of the discussion was explorng commonalities in the radicalization process across extremist movements. In introducing the speakers, Parents for Peace program coordinator David Phillippi made the following remarks:

The word extremism brings up some very natural negative reactions: confusion, fear, anger, disgust. After each act of violence here at home, or when we hear about people leaving behind material comforts to travel overseas to a warzone, we ask How? How could anyone do that? Why? Why would anyone believe those things?

We know that this issue is complicated, but we believe that there are answers to these questions. When we listen to the families whose loved ones took that path, when we listen to people who lived that life, and then left it behind, like the two men well hear from today, the previously incomprehensible begins to make some sense.

Now, were not making excuses for violence. But in many of these cases, before the acceptance of violence, there was a void waiting to be filled, a problem in need of a solution. Across the ideological spectrum, groups trafficking in extremist ideas exploit identity crises and other pain points in young peoples lives, by offering:

  • A narrative that explains our complex world in simple terms
  • A sense of belonging to something larger than themselves
  • A higher and clearly defined purpose.

Understanding, belonging, purpose – what young person is not looking for those things?

So as we begin to see that this seemingly alien phenomenon – extremism – is not as far from our own experience as we might have thought, we can start to imagine how we might be part of the solution to this puzzle, how we might have a role to play in helping others find a healthy path through the struggles that we all inevitably face as we try to form our identities.

Here is recorded video from a live stream of the event. (The panel discussion begins around 12:30). Check back soon for more video content of Arno Michaelisand Mubin.

Why Do People Become Involved In Terrorism?

Image of Arno Michaelis and Mubin-Shaikh speaking about radicalization of youth
Parents for Peace Partners with ‘Inkblot’ – Boston University ‘Challenging Extremism’ Initiative

Parents for Peace is excited to be working with Inkblot Project, a challenging extremism initiative led by students of BUs Pardee School of Global Studies and overseen by their professor – noted author and terrorism expert Jessica Stern.

Inkblot is creating original content to promote “human solutions for human problems.” Here is how they explain the origin of the project’s name:

Violent extremism and radicalization, like inkblot images, are complex and filled with ambiguity, but not impossible to understand. Various types of extremism share many commonalities and vulnerabilities, and Inkblot draws on these human issues to inform others about violent extremism in order to prevent loved ones and friends from embracing extremism. Much like how we try to make sense of an inkblot, it is through understanding this human problem of radicalization that we are able to provide real, human solutions.

As part of their campaign, Inkblot is hosting an event (open to the public) titled “Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?” on April 28th at 3:00 PM in the Boston University Law Auditorium. These questions will be explored through dialogue with two individuals who personally experienced entering, exiting, and then working to counter extremist movements. Mubin Shaikh turned to Salafi-jihadist extremism in his late teen years in an attempt to resolve an identity crisis. Arno Michaelis found escape from an alcoholic home in the racist skinhead music scene, a gateway to involvement in violent white supremacy. Both left extremism behind many years ago and now work to prevent young people from being pulled down that path.

Now more than ever, students, parents, educators, and civic leaders can benefit from gaining a new perspective on extremism, an issue that our society is still struggling to understand and confront in a productive way. Bringing together former extremists from different ideological backgrounds helps to illustrate how much these seemingly polar opposite movements have in common in terms of vulnerability, recruitment, and narrative themes. We hope all who attend will leave knowing that although extremism is undoubtedly a complex challenge, we can all be part of the solution.

Be sure to follow Inkblot on twitter and facebook.