In action

2 / March / 2017

Q&A with Alex P. Schmid: “We need democratic leaders who can serve as credible role models”

In we intend to offer a platform where experts on PVE/CVE can express and disseminate their ideas on how to tackle […]


In we intend to offer a platform where experts on PVE/CVE can express and disseminate their ideas on how to tackle the violent extremism phenomena. In this occasion, top expert Alex P. Schmid  responds our Q&A to share his views on what is needed to build an effective new narrative. In his opinion, we need credible democratic leaders that can serve as role models, and that “politicians can look up”. At the same time, he underlines that our narrative must be “persuasive”, and he also stresses “reform over revolution, peaceful change over the use of violence, and moderation over extremism”. All of it, with the urgent task of revitalizing “our humanistic values, developed since the renaissance and the 18th century enlightenment”.


Club  de MadridDo you agree with the idea that now is  more important than ever to put the emphasis in the prevention agenda to tackle the violent extremism threat?

Alex P. Schmid: Prevention presumes that we are aware of what leads to the unwanted situation. The official Western discourse has identified ‘radicalisation’ as the push/pull factor – to the exclusion of less comfortable factors like: role of the Wahhabi/Salafist interpretation of Islam or Western support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East or Western military Interventions for resources (oil) or geo-strategic reasons (keeping Russia out and Iran down). There is no shortage of officials paying lip-service to prevention but when budgets are allocated, the bulk of money usually goes to instruments of  repression and control and to consequence management and not to the prevention of extremism which must be prevented even when it is not (yet) violent, whether it is secular (like Communism and Fascism were) or religious (like Islamist jihadism).


CdM: One of the elements of the prevention agenda is the need of finding a new narrative. However, do we all have the same concept in mind when we talk about “new narratives”? Should we focus on counter narratives or in alternative narratives?

APS: We live in a world flooded by public relations campaigns, advertisement campaigns, religious missionary campaigns, political party election campaigns, etc. These all try to appeal to us by including elements of some of our core narratives (hard work leads to success, good people get promoted, God listens to sincere prayers, etc). Yet in our hearts most of us know that reality is often very different. That makes many people cynical, depressed or hypocritical. Many of us are full of doubt and therefore unsure how to act.

On the other hand there are those who have no doubts – those who fanatically believe in a single simple truth despite the fact that the world is complex and science does not support most of the faith-based truth claims. They act in absolute conviction although they are generally totally wrong. We can try to dismantle in our counter-narratives the simplistic narratives of such ‘true believers’ but unless we can offer an alternative to their simple narrative that answers their needs as well, we are not likely to succeed.


CdM: You have written that an effective narrative should be identity based. However, it is also said that we should also be focusing on our values, many times referring to the liberal democracies values.  How can we find a common ground between identity based messages for communities that in some cases are not democratic in countries and messages based on democratic values?

APS: Our identities are based on positive values that appeal to ourselves and hopefully also to others. Liberalism with its focus on freedom and laissez-faire capitalism  and democracy with its focus of equality (one man – one vote) are in crisis (although we should not forget that other systems are also in crisis but censorship and repression does not reveal the full extent). We see the rise of illiberal democracies and we see some people voting against their own best interests, misled by populists who promise simple solutions to complex problems and placing the blame on human scapegoats rather than structural factors.

The economic crisis of 2008 has led to a widespread disenchantment with capitalism but nothing better has come in its place. Less than half of the world’s people live in functioning democracies. Human rights are under attack worldwide. We have failed to invest enough social capital in the other side of the human rights medal – human obligations. Unless we foster, through education, a greater sense of solidarity, both individually and collectively, the human rights system that is nominally in place worldwide and upheld by the United Nations will collapse. The human  rights system is based predominantly on individual human rights while many societies (or their governments) still see collective rights as their priority. That creates tension between individual and collective identities. Yet there is common ground. We all want security, we all want a better future. But we disagree on how to get there.


CdM: In your opinion, why do you think that ISIS has been so effective? Is there anything we should learn from them in order to build a new narrative able to defeat them in the propaganda field?

APS: ISIS was effective in luring more than thirty thousand young people from almost one hundred countries to Syria but that stream of men and women has dried up as ISIS’ battlefield successes declined and as defectors revealed the huge gap between what the Islamic State with its Caliphate pretend to be and what it does –  to other Muslims as well as non-Muslims. In its propaganda, ISIS uses video-footage that is as sleek as some Hollywood movie trailers and its glossy magazines are well-made and its total propaganda output in more than two dozen languages is impressive (though now declining). ISIS’ propaganda onslaught has not been matched in either quantity nor quality by its enemies.

The ISIS narrative is drawing from the social capital of the Qur’an and from the glory periods of Islamic history; that is the basis of its appeal to Muslims. To match it we have to revitalize our humanistic values developed since the renaissance and the 18th century enlightenment and mix these with the achievements of science.


CdM: Is the gap between what we preach and what we do is undermining democracies credibility in order to create and spread new effective messages one of the biggest challenges we are facing?

APS: Since we are no angels there will always be a gap between what we pretend to be and who we are. However, that gap can be narrowed and democracies have internal mechanisms of self-improvement which other systems of government do not have. What is now perhaps most needed are democratic leaders who can serve as credible role models. Many young people seeking to build their own identity by identifying with prominent figures look for role models in sport or entertainment rather than in politics. That is a bad sign. We need politicians people can look up to.

Some democracies in the West have been good democracies at home but when it comes to foreign and military policies and alliances, the democratic substance has gone down. That has raised the charge of hypocrisy. But the say-do gap in non-democratic systems is usually much larger than in democracies and that advantage has to be exploited by democratic leaders.


CdM: From your perspective, which should be the role of the Club de Madrid in this process? What can the Club de Madrid and its Members do to be helpful in building a new narrative to prevent violent extremism?

APS: The members of the Club de Madrid have the experience of leadership and they know better than most others how democratic governments and societies work. Released from the responsibility of office, they can afford to speak out without having to worry about getting re-elected in the next election. Academics have tried to ‘speak truth to power’ but are often not heard by the powerful and not infrequently they are also not in possession of ‘truth’ to begin with. The ex-powerful of the Club de Madrid, on the other hand, are in a better position to be listened to by the now-powerful.

The collective wisdom of the members of the Club de Madrid is an invaluable resource to strengthen the position of democracies and to advance democratic solutions in the world. All good politicians are good orators and all good orators have a good narrative. Therefore the members of the Club de Madrid are in a vantage position when it comes to formulate a new narrative that is persuasive, one that stresses reform over revolution, peaceful change over the use of violence and moderation over extremism.


About  the Interviewee: Dr. Alex P. Schmid is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for CounterTerrorism – The Hague (ICCT) and Associate Professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs (ISGA) at The Hague Campus of Leiden University. Previously he was Extraordinary Professor for Conflict Resolution at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and later held a Chair in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, where he was also Director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV). Prof. em. Alex Schmid has also held various other positions, including, for nearly seven years, Officer-in-Charge of the Terrorism Prevention Branch of UNODC in Vienna. He is currently Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI), an international network of scholars who seek to enhance human security through collaborative research. Until 2009 he was co-editor of the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Since then he is Editor-in-Chief of Perspectives on Terrorism, the largest peer-reviewed independent scholarly online journal in the field of Terrorism Studies.



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