By Mr. Chris Blakely
Many international efforts to “counter violent extremism” revolve around three lines of effort: military/law enforcement victories, international development, and social media campaigns to undermine so-called “slick” propaganda from terror groups like ISIS. During the Fall 2016 semester, a team of George Mason University students decided to take a different approach by focusing on stories. They organized a peer-to-peer project around an effort to disrupt and complicate overly simplistic violent extremist narratives.
During preliminary research, the team found several mainstream news articles baffled by the Kosovo’s seemingly high number of fighters heading to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Simplistic narratives were easy to find regarding Kosovo’s experiences with violent extremism. After receiving a primer on Kosovo’s experience with violent extremism from Mr. Shpend Kursani of the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, the team began contacting civil society groups and universities in Kosovo.
Instead of crafting a traditional “intervention” based out of an idealistic American-centric solution the team “went local” and reached out to potential partners in Kosovo. Alejtin Berisha and Kushtrim Kokollari of Universum College were the first to express interest in the project.
Professor Kokollari and other members of the University were ultimately instrumental in the coordination, promotion, and success of the project.
The project intended seek and raise awareness of alternative narratives of violent extremism while advancing educational opportunities through financial scholarships for young Kosovars. During the the course of the project, students from Kosovo sent essay and video submissions to the @YourStoryKosovo project about their insights and experiences regarding violent extremism and outsider’s understanding of Kosovo youth. The campaign culminated in a “virtual dialogue” between the students at George Mason in Virginia and Universum College in Ferizaj on December 2nd, 2016. Approximately fifty Universum College students attended this event in which students discussed the essay and video submissions while sharing their ideas, narratives, perspectives, and solutions to challenge extremism.
The George Mason students were encouraged by both the boundless enthusiasm and tremendous contributions of their peers in Kosovo. They were also encouraged by the reported impact of their campaign. Not only will the scholarships support the continued university education of their peers, but this campaign gave voice to stories not previously heard or widely known. These new stories, with their new characters, episodes, and plotlines create complexity to contrast the simplified narratives supporting violent extremism. Introducing more complex narratives creates space for new understandings and possibilities for action to counter extremism.
A brief survey of campaign participants in Kosovo noted these stories made a difference. Fifty-two percent of respondents described encountering new stories by participating in this campaign. While over sixty percent described these moderate to major change to their understanding of stories they heard previously.