TRES CANTOS, Spain — In Spain, academics, journalists, and government and military officials are grappling with violent radicalization, attempting to understand its root causes and to prevent its proliferation. A recent university course co-organized by the country’s Baha’i community brought to light some of the emerging and leading thoughts from a variety of perspectives.
“The purpose of this course is to continue reflecting on the nature of radicalization and ways of addressing it, paying special attention to religion’s impact in society,” said Leila Sant, with the Spanish Baha’i community’s Office of Public Affairs. “In addition, the course tries to offer different perspectives on this phenomenon of radicalization in an effort to give a complete, unfragmented picture.”
The class was offered through a university in Madrid (UAM) from 1 to 3 July. More than 20 specialists in various fields were involved in offering the course, which was organized around about a dozen roundtable discussions. Organized in collaboration with UAM Professor Ricardo Garcia, the course not only allowed students to benefit from the insights being shared, but also opened a dynamic space for contributors to deepen their own understanding of the complexity of violent radicalization.
For several years the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs has been engaged in a discourse on the role of religion in society, which led to a focus on the causes of violent radicalization. The Baha’i writings teach that true religion has a central role in overcoming religious fanaticism, that the power latent in religion can transform anger and hatred into love and respect for the inherent dignity of others. The university course was a natural outcome of this long-term effort, Ms. Sant explained. The Office has recently organized related spaces, such as a day-long seminar on the same theme as well as a roundtable discussion with journalists about the social impact of news.
The relationship between religion and radicalization featured prominently in the course. Prof. Garcia noted that religion can be regarded as both the cause and the solution of radicalization; combatting religious extremism requires understanding the logic of religion, giving due regard to its influence on the lives of many people, and learning to work with religious communities to build social harmony.
The course went beyond simplistic ideas about radicalization to explore its many dimensions.
“It is positive for society to be open to new ideas that are introduced through nonviolence, to listen to perspectives other than your own. That is healthy,” Ms. Sant explained in the course’s opening session. “However radicalization is characterized by seeing a group of people as other than your own, seeing things as black and white, seeing very absolute ideas. This can take you eventually toward othering and violence.”
Course speakers also explored how partisan politics push people to have an us-and-them mentality about supporters of parties other than their own. In a saturated media environment that favors spectacle, only language that is divisive and extreme is heard, speakers explained.
“It is very important not to trivialize politics and to remember that in essence all human beings are equal in dignity,” noted Esteban Ibarra, the president of the Movement Against Intolerance.
Another theme that emerged was the importance of all people having an opportunity to benefit from and contribute to the progress of society. This is particularly vital for newcomers to the country. Speakers, including representatives of the national police and military, explained that social integration is promoted through mentorship and networks such as religious communities.
“In spite of the fact that in Spain there are equal opportunities, some groups find themselves in more disadvantaged social positions,” said Oscar Prieto, a professor from the University of Girona who has pioneered mentorship programs to help young people at risk of social exclusion. “It is because of the lack of people who support them and who act as informal mentors to solve common difficulties in daily life that some people have less possibilities of social advancement.”
Local and national media covered the course widely, as it featured prominent speakers such as the president of the country’s constitutional court, a leader in the country’s civil guard, and leading journalists. The organizers plan to publish a book with the discussions featured in the course and organize future courses through the university.