From Disbelief to Determination: Getting Over Brexit and Trump

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Photo by Matt Brown

Jessica Sofizade

If I could sum up 2016 with one question, it would be: “How did this happen?”

My question is one which has been on the minds of many others these past several months. It is probably clear that, amongst other things, I am referring to both the British vote to leave the European Union and – as if that was not bad enough – the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. I have realised, however, that asking this question is itself the very root of the problem, and the reason for both Brexit and Trump. But let me begin with the initial responses to these events. 

On November 9th, I asked my American friend, “How would you feel if you met a Trump supporter? Would you be angry?”

I asked myself the same question after Brexit. How would I react if I spoke with someone who contributed their vote to the British exit of the EU, and therefore to the unwelcome change in my own status, “stripping me” of my EU citizenship? Would I shout, pouring out my frustrations and objections? Would I refuse to engage with them, or alternatively, would I accept that their views were equally valid?

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, I was in a stage of disbelief. I could not believe that this had happened, and I was convinced that something would change the outcome. I thought, only 51.9% of the vote was pro-leave? That’s not enough of a majority for such a tremendous decision. I, along with millions of others, signed a petition for a second referendum, in the hope that this huge mistake could be rectified.

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Photo by David Holt

I now see that I was, in a sense, grieving. I was grieving for a loss of citizenship, of identity, of a belief system that I thought was solid and shared by those around me. I more or less experienced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first four stages combined into one challenging period of time. Not only did I deny the result, but I was angry at those who voted leave, and the ignorance that I blamed for their decision. I started to bargain with myself, thinking that even if we really had to leave (not in the near future, I hoped), perhaps we could still keep our rights as EU citizens? Most of all, I was depressed by the whole situation, and again asked myself, how did this happen?

So when, you may wonder, did I arrive at acceptance? It is an ongoing process. However, it is a process that has a normative element to it – I should accept the Brexit decision, as well as the election of Trump. This does not in any way mean that I need to agree with these decisions, but rather that they must be accepted as legitimate outcomes, even if they came as a shock to such a large part of the population. This leads back to the main question that I have been asking myself for months: “How did this happen?” The question in itself demonstrates the problem at hand: there were enormous rifts silently bubbling under the surface of our society of which many were apparently unaware. Why were these results such a shock for so many of us? Was it the fault of the polls?

A consequence of both Brexit and Trump’s election has been the unveiling of problems which many had misjudged or were even unaware of. There are divisions in Western demographics which were severely underestimated. In the UK, many of these have now become abundantly clear: the old and the young, those with university degrees and those without, the countryside and the cities. The reasons for such diverging voting patterns are diverse and debateable. Slavoj Žižek has argued that Trump supporters have arisen from a desire for change which comes from a deep-rooted dissatisfaction in the current system, a system which was not challenged by Clinton’s candidacy. This reading could analogously be extended to the case of Brexit.  Another argument is that the blindness towards divisions in populations could be due to “the Facebook bubble” which has arisen in the age of social media. Others say that Brexit was due to a misleading (or just outright untruthful) media campaign, or biased media representation.

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Map of the UK showing the urban and rural voting divide. Image by Mirrorme22

A recurrent theme in these explanations is a lack of communication between different sectors of society. This is where I feel that change is needed: accepting the surprising outcomes of Brexit and the US elections (even if we do not agree with them) will enable us to begin a dialogue in which we should try to understand each other’s views. The dialogue I am advocating could be with friends and family, or on a larger scale, through organisations which are calling for public participation in critical discourse regarding current affairs, such as DIEM25.

We cannot remain in denial; there will be no fruitful discussion whilst those of us who feel we have lost something are still in the first four stages of grieving. The fact that we can even ask ourselves “how did this happen?” illustrates the lack of communication and understanding between different sections of our society, and this is precisely what we now need to work to change. We need to get over our 2016 blues and move on.

Jessica Sofizade was born in London, UK, and did her undergraduate degree in Philosophy. She has studied in the UK, Canada, France and The Netherlands, and will soon move to The Czech Republic for her 2nd semester in the Euroculture programme.

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Online Terrorism: Radicalisation on the web

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Cover of ‘Dabiq’, an ISIS propaganda publication distributed online.

Eric Hartshorne

In my last article we discussed what terrorism is and how the Islamic State got to where they are today. A brief conclusion highlights how terrorism is a method to obtain political power by executing acts of violence directed at civilian targets with the aim of spreading fear amongst a state’s citizens. The process leading up to an act of terrorism may be  referred to as radicalization. Today, much is being made about radicalization on the Internet and how violent extremist groups are using the platform to spread their messages worldwide. This article will explore some of these narratives as well as discussing the methods in place to prevent and combat radicalization.

The use of propaganda in conflicts is nothing revolutionary, however what differentiates contemporary extremist propaganda from previous forms is the method of communication. When Al Qaida initiated their large-scale propaganda campaign in the early 2000’s they were dependent on existing media outlets to convey their messages. Rather than having to submit material to established media outlets such as Al Jazeera, today it is possible to distribute messages through an array of outlets online. What this form of communication has enabled is that violence promoting groups may spread their ideologies to an audience of proportions unheard of previously. Twitter, in 2016 alone, removed 235 000 accounts that have been deemed to be supportive and active in the distribution of terrorist-related content.

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Usama Bin Laden depended on mainstream media to distribute his messages.

Since the 2014 self-declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate [a form of Islamist government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world] the terrorist organisation has rapidly expanded its global propaganda campaign. At the centre of this campaign is Dabiq, the online magazine written in seven languages by IS own media outlet, Al Hayat. Dabiq aims to offer an insight into the “daily life” of the caliphate and combines gruesome images from the battleground with religious discussions and examples of IS built infrastructure. One example of this are articles where converts to the Islamic State offer “sincere words of advice” to former Christians who have converted to Islam, in turn attempting to establish a link between the terrorist group and potential recruits. Outside of Dabiq, IS have released two issues of Rumiyah – Rome – which focuses less on the theological discussions than Dabiq. In the latest issue of Rumiyah readers are offered a discussion on the psychological and practical problems one might run into before conducting a “just terror attack”. Promoting the knife as the weapon of choice, the reader is offered religious guidance aimed at legitimizing the tactic as well as a practical discussion on pros and cons of different types of knives. IS and other self-proclaimed jihadist groups have previously spread these types of “terrorist-attacks for dummies”, for those interested, instructions for bomb-making are only a few clicks away. IS also produce an Arabic newsletter, as well as French periodical Dar al-Islam.

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Excerpt from ISIS magazine ‘Rumiyah’, giving tips on how to conduct a knife attack.

In 2015 I analysed IS propaganda in comparison to Al Qaeda’s and found a clear distinction between how the two groups have presented themselves through outward directed messages. What the study revealed was that IS presented an identity in accordance with a martial role. A martial role, which is one of two aspects of Arena and Arrigo’s theory “the terrorist identity” emphasises military strength and the overwhelming sense of uniqueness within a group. This uniqueness if founded on the establishment of the caliphate and control of a geographical area. IS control of an area spanning across northern Iraq and Syria,(an area roughly the size of the UK) is a clear distinction to other self-proclaimed jihadist-groups. Although Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are active in specific areas of Somalia/Kenya and Nigeria/Cameroon/Niger/Chad respectively, these groups do not hold uncontested territories in which they are able to produces and uphold infrastructure as IS have. If you are interested in reading more about the self-presented identities of IS and Al Qaida, click here.

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Excerpt from ISIS execution video of American journalist James Foley.

Nevertheless, IS have over the past two years gained recognition for the gruesome propaganda videos, which borrow influence from western culture, such as video games and movies. These videos include countless executions, decapitations, public crucifixions, the tossing of HBTQ – persons off buildings, the Jordanian pilot burnt to death in a cage, and suicide bombings. In a new study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point a group of researchers and military personnel, including leading terrorism researcher Bruce Hoffman, have examined over 9,000 official media products produced by the Islamic State. The study revealed that over 50 percent of produced media focused on issues outside the Islamic State’s borders. These issues contain walkthroughs on how to perform terrorist attacks – such as the one presented in this article –, fatwas calling for attacks against westerners, and several articles condemning and establishing their enemies as the generalizable other. However, new studies are revealing that the group’s presence on social media platforms is reducing.

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A march in Sweden of the extremist right-wing organisation, the ‘Nordic Resistance Movement’.

However, with IS presence reducing on American social media accounts, far right extremist groups have increased by 600 percent on Twitter .Right-wing extremist groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska Motstånds Rörelsen – NMR), which is predominantly active in Sweden and Finland, presents an often overlooked threat to a nations security. In Sweden the NMR are attempting to frighten city officials and journalists. In Borlänge, the movement’s Nordic hub, officials have been greeted by their front steps covered in blood and in southern Sweden a municipal official had his car lit on fire and garage door covered with the NMR’s symbol. Meanwhile in Finland, the government is attempting to pass legislation which would enable the banning of extremist groups. The new legislation is a response to the death of a 28-year old that died of wounds he received at a NMR demonstration. If you are interested in the rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe read my colleague Sabine Volk’s insightful article on the subject.

Nevertheless, European states are actively countering extremist anti-democratic forces online and offline. Out of these anti-radicalization methods online, the use of counter-narratives is becoming increasingly popular, with the EU’s Counter-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, the latest to endorse the methods potential. However, is the hype surrounding counter-narratives justified?

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Excerpt from ‘Dabiq’ showcasing the supposed benefits of life under ISIS.

The counter-narrative method may be divided into three areas; direct counter-narratives, aimed directly at the messages released by extremist groups.  Alternative narratives offer an alternative understanding of the narratives released by extremist groups aiming at delegitimising the violence aspect within a group’s ideology. Within the alternative method the messenger, i.e. the person/group delivering the alternative message must retain a high level of legitimacy within the intended recipients. In the case of takfir-salfist jihadist, Imams and other Islamic religious leaders may condemn the fatwa’s produced by the Islamic State and produce fatwa’s condemning violence by drawing references from the Quran. More so, the experiences and knowledge of former members of right-wing extremism  has proven to be an effective method for engaging the target audience in preventative discussions. This type of messenger is also gaining traction as a deterrent in jihadist recruitment. The third counter-narrative method is the development of media- and information knowledge and critical thinking amongst youth. This tactic is particularly popular in the Nordic countries. However, despite the new databases, knowledge centres and support for counter-narratives, there is little to no evidence supporting the effectiveness of direct counter-narrative campaigns as part of a radicalization prevention strategy. Rather than acting as a preventative measure the removal of extremist content online, which is a common aspect of counter-narrative campaigns, and messages directly targeting extremist content, are dependent on the publication and distribution of extremist propaganda. Therefore the method is heavily reliant on extremist groups, rather that setting its own preventative agenda.

Another problem facing current preventative campaigns is the difficulty in measuring their success. Security details will always be able to measure the amount of casualties in terrorist attacks and the figures regarding the roughly 30 000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have been waved across most international media outlets. The amount of individuals who have not been radicalized is intangible, and existing measurement tools are inadequate. However, leading actors within counter-narratives such as the British think-tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue are developing instruments for measuring counter-narratives outreach. Nevertheless, measuring likes, comments and shares on social media will not highlight the amount of individuals that have not become radicalized.

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Excerpt from ‘Al Qaeda’ in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine ‘Inspire’. It highlights that the method of radicalising online has been widely adopted.

Although current research paints a gloomy picture for those encouraging counter-narrative campaigns, those promoting alternative narratives and media- and information education have a more positive outlook. Research in the Netherlands, the United States, and the UK, has pointed towards the potential that alternative narratives may be developed as part of complete anti-radicalization campaign. More so, the application of media and information education in youth is likely to develop the critical thinking amongst a state’s citizens, in turn making them more resilient to anti-democratic narratives.

There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to countering radicalization and recruitment to violence promoting extremist groups. However, by combining preventative measures with deterrent methods, which are known as soft vs. tough methods, it is possible to create a long- and short-term strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism. In this, the internet remains an important battleground.

Eric Hartshorne will be back next month with his editorial asking if either Soft or Tough methods of countering radicalisation are more effective. For Eric’s article on the history of terrorism, click here.

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The EU as a Democratic Role Model for the U.S.? A European solution to voter inequality in the US

This essay is moreover a response to political scientist Robert A. Dahl’s famous work How Democratic Is the American Constitution?, in which he points to several democratic issues in the American constitutional system.

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The Constitution of the United States of America is almost a holy document in the US

Sabine Volk

How democratic is the American constitution? asks political scientist Robert A. Dahl in his famous essay. His argument does not leave much of a doubt to the answer: the American constitution is by far not the democratic model constitution that many Americans think it to be. Claiming a more critical stance towards the more than 200 years old script, Dahl discusses several questionable aspects of the American founding document. Amongst those aspects, for example, is the unique electoral system whose outcome does not always represent the will of the citizens, as in the 2000 national elections. Another fairly undemocratic feature is the unequal representation of citizens in America’s second legislative chamber, the U.S. Senate, in which the federal states are represented. Dahl defines unequal representation as a condition in which the number of members of the second chamber coming from a federal unit such as a state or province is not proportional to its population, to the number of adult citizens, or to the number of eligible voters.

“The inequality in representation,” he then finds, “is a profound violation of the democratic idea of political equality among all citizens,” since it goes against the basic democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” One cannot but wonder why unequal representation exists and on which grounds it can be justified in a democracy.  Continue reading “The EU as a Democratic Role Model for the U.S.? A European solution to voter inequality in the US”

All hail President Trump: How Brexit will lead to Trump’s Victory in November

If Brexit taught us anything, it’s to never assume the worst will not happen.

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Donal Trump on his second favourite chair

Emily Burt

I believe Donald Trump will be president next year.

A rolling poll from key swing state Ohio has placed him ahead of his democratic rival Hillary Clinton for almost a week now; and broader polls show the candidates are neck and neck with less than 50 days to go until the November presidential election.

Of course polls can be wrong. And it’s easy to see why people assume Trump is too outlandish, too ridiculous, and unreal to be elected. One of his platform policies is to build a wall around America, paid for by the people he wants to shut out. His son recently compared the global refugee crisis with a bowl of skittles. He eats KFC with a knife and fork – surely there’s at least one state where that’s illegal. With every week that passes, he drops another clanging gaffe that reverberates, painfully, across international media: and the world says this could never happen. Continue reading “All hail President Trump: How Brexit will lead to Trump’s Victory in November”