How to outsmart extremism

This blog first appeared in G7G20.

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Francois Reyes is President and Founder of Réveil Citoyen, a French think tank. Every month, Réveil Citoyen organises debates all over France and reaches thousands of people. By confronting opposing opinions, it aims to dismantle the growing trend of extremism in France, and perhaps in greater Europe.

Terrorism hits us harder every day. Cairo, Istanbul, Paris, Beirut, Bamako, these are only a few of the many locations that have suffered and are suffering from the scars of senseless violence. Are we doomed? Do we have to watch our brothers and sisters, our neighbours, our countries fall apart because the spread of this cancer seems unstoppable? Some countries, such as France or the United States, have taken exceptional measures to try and counter terrorism, with results that are yet to have meaning for the general public. The threat is still present, not only in the short term, but also in the long term. So, how do we combat extremism? How do we get rid of the extreme thoughts that have roots in the failures of our past? And more importantly, how do we make sure that future generations will not be tempted to follow the same extremist ideology that tries to bring freedom and liberty to its knees? 

We've heard ideas from the whole political spectrum: upgrade security, install electronic gates in train stations, arm the public, recruit more police, build prevention centres, put in place some kind of de-radicalisation process. Those are all options that are being tried by many nations around the globe. But they are all short-term answers to an issue that will extend way beyond our present time. The truth is that there is a way to fight extremism and the violence that comes out of it in the long term. We have been burying our heads in the sand and pretending that extremism can only be fought with more bullets, more desperation – in a way, more terror. 

What the governments of our world have not yet achieved is a long-term strategy aiming to empower all citizens. We should not leave behind those that do not have the resources to find their place in our societies when we could actually learn from their lives. They could teach us a lesson in humility by explaining how they were left at the doors of our inclusion process, and how we could, from now on, include everyone in our society. 

Believing that including people as much as possible into our societies will lead to less violence, to less temptation towards extremism, and that this inclusion can be achieved by speaking to one another, is something that no state has encouraged or backed up yet. Instead, the state is absent from the actions and negotiations of civil society. Perhaps it is better that way, you ask? Well, yes, without politics being involved things can go smoothly. But the most important task of the state is to make its citizens feel at home. To guarantee them the same inclusion and chances to fulfill their lives with greatness, free of violence caused by extremism. If the vulnerable are tempted by extremism because they need to feel part of something greater than themselves, then we have the obligation to give them something to believe in: an ideal. 

The ideal that people do not have to be fragmented, that communitarianism can be addressed and the issue resolved. The ideal that yes, you can be the daughter of Algerian immigrants and hang out with the children of German-born citizens. The ideal that there is an answer to racism and xenophobia, and that it doesn’t have to spread like this. We can halt it. Fundamentally, the ideal of understanding. 

There is only one tool capable of fighting violent extremism: words. As we see the effects of bombs and guns on people's lives around the globe, let us be brave and arm ourselves with words, with the willingness to change the world through dialogue. Let us bring down violent extremism one word at a time.