Inkblot, a challenging extremism initiative of Boston University students that Parents for Peace worked with this spring, has produced a toolkit aimed at helping young people engage in a productive way with a peer who may be turning toward extremism. Though it focuses on the scenario of helping a friend, many of the strategies and suggestions contained in the guide are equally relevant for a parent or anyone else concerned that a loved one is involved in extremism.
Our shared approach is based on the understanding that the appeal of any form of extremism for many people lies in the illusion it presents of explaining and resolving all of their personal struggles:
“Extremist ideas and groups become something people value, love and feel proud of. It gives them a sense of purpose, meaning, and belonging. Your loved one may be dealing with an internal crisis that the extremists claim they alone can fix. Your goal is to be a friend to them, and hopefully help them see that they don’t have to cling to extremist ideologies in order to find validation and support.”
The toolkit tells us that “the pathway to radicalization is different for every person.” This is why family and friends are often in the best position to notice something is wrong. Their concerns arise organically – not by checking a list of supposed warning signs, but by noticing shifts in attitudes, associations, and actions.
The toolkit emphasizes a patient, calm, non-confrontational approach:
“Remember, you are trying to engage with your friend and figure out what’s going on with them, not make assumptions and judgments right away.”
“You don’t want to turn the conversation into an interrogation. You want to build trust and that means having a two-way conversation by sharing your own perspective and opening up about your own struggles, goals, and ideas.”
“Try to get them to share their own personal perspective and feelings. In doing so, you want to sympathize with and respect their thought process without rationalizing, validating or supporting their destructive behavior or ideas.”
It also suggests not going it alone:
“Talk to others who may share your concerns and help you connect with your friend. They can help you clarify how unusual your friend’s behaviors are, how long this has been going on, and what might have influenced these changes.”
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.