I was listening to NPR the other morning and heard an interview with a former jihadi, an Indonesian extremist who after serving 10 years in jail for an attack in 2003 that killed 12 and injured 150, laid down his rifle and went to work at a restaurant. He said that he had no regrets about his participation in the extremist group, that he believes that he was defending the Islamic way of life. The only thing he regretted was that he had lied to his parents about where he was going and what he was doing.
What made this man turn around? It was the insight and actions of another former terrorist, a man named Noor Huda Ismail. He has created a social network that recruits and productively employs ex-terrorists based on the belief that rehabilitation is more effective in containing violent jihadi networks than punishment. And I find it completely encouraging that under a regime like Indonesia’s that is not inherently repressive, it is possible for a man like this to create opportunities for bringing members of jihadi networks back into the realm of productive society.
In the same hour of NPR, there was a story that described both the widespread sexual violence that has become common in Egypt and the prevailing attitudes that have allowed men to commit such acts with impunity. Public figures, members of the parliament and preachers opine that if women would stay at home then they would not be attacked. Even women who are appalled by the violence and protest against it will sometimes blame the victim, saying that rape is something that will never happen to a woman who is “honourable.”
Violence against women is so widespread in the world, that when I went online to search for references I was overwhelmed and almost wished I had not gone there. We all know about this: it happens in countries that are represented in the UN, that are bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and there is no consequence to them. Even in the United States we are not immune: as I write, the Violence Against Women Act, first passed in 1994, has not been renewed.
These two reports highlight how the leaders of a society determine public discourse and, with that discussion, influence the actions that are taken to prevent and contain violence. In Indonesia, jihadi violence is condemned, and the attitude that is fostered creates opportunities for men like Noor Huda Ismail to develop alternatives to violence. In Egypt, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, powerful voices condone violence against women despite the existence of laws designed to punish it, and the average person on the street is conditioned to accept rape as simply a regrettable incident to be blamed on the victim.
It would have been easy to hear these two stories in isolation and not notice how they were connected. And this is the overriding message of this blog: take the time to notice how speech in the public domain influences the behavior of entire societies, both for the good and for the bad. To be ignorant or complacent about such speech may determine both our present and our future.