I think we are starting to figure it out.
In a time of crisis and heartbreak, vigils like the one in Toronto following the mass murder in Orlando offer hope and healing. “Homophobia cannot be fought with Islamophobia,” was the title of article that described the powerful words of grief, pain, love, care and connection spoken by leaders from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in my city. I couldn’t be there, but was moved to learn of the words shared. And, it seemed that many of the Orlando vigils around North America reflected this pattern: heart-felt messages of grief for those beautiful lives lost with expressions of solidarity with the Muslim community—who would receive the brunt of the inevitable backlash.
The acts of generosity, inclusion and care embodied in these vigils are exactly the antidote to extremism, according to psychologists Stephen D. Reicher and Alexander Haslam.
But let me back up to first describe the complex but straightforward dance between two opposing sets of extremists these researchers describe as co-radicalization. On one hand, there are groups like ISIS that promote their specific brand of terrorism, breaking up the world in two neat categories: believers in their delusionary and violent cause, and those who are not. Part of their strategy, according to Reicher and Haslam, is to provoke retaliation on Muslims, especially those Muslims already living marginalized lives within Western nations.
Enter politicians like Donald Trump from the US or Marie Le Pen in France, the perfect ISIS dance partners. These leaders promote their own messages of extremism, inflaming fear and hatred within non-Muslim communities by scapegoating Muslims as a whole—both those who are born and raised within Western nations, and those outside.
According to Reicher and Haslam, many people eventually reach a point where they feel they have no choice and conclude, “that extreme leadership appears to offer the most sensible way of engaging with an extreme world.” This, of course, serves unscrupulous leaders like Trump . Because we are hard-wired to be anxious of outsiders—something I’ve written about previously—many people within the North American mainstream begin to fear the wrong people and vocalize their support for retrograde policies that target innocent Muslim and Arab people (e.g. the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act proposed by the Harper government in Canada).
Such polarizing leadership isolates and stigmatizes Muslims further, who, like minority groups the world over, are forced to bear the oppression from the mainstream majority. The impact, however, on a handful of individuals who may already be isolated and unstable, like Omar Mateen—his ex-wife described him as abusive and bi-polar—can be tragic. Lone wolves like Mateen—there is still no evidence of any actual affiliation to terrorist groups—and others who already feel on the fringes of their family and society, unwittingly help complete the cycle of retaliation and polarization that ISIS and Trump desperately need to maintain their power and influence.
In this situation, of course, we all lose.
That is, unless we learn en masse from the Orlando vigils—an outpouring to love, compassion, expressions of grief and a steadfast belief in unity— and magnify these acts and words into policies, legislation and activation of resources, both before, during and after such tragedies—as a way to contain, minimize and hopefully eliminate future tragedies.
The leaders from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities deserve great gratitude and respect for working to make all groups feel they matter and belong in the face of incredible loss of life as in Orlando. It is not just the most heroic thing we could—and should—do. It also is our best strategy to short-fuse the cycle of violence and retaliation— the true “terror” we all want to avoid.
Author, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them
Stephen D. Reicher and Alexander Haslam, “Fueling Extremes,” Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016.
Jonathan Goldsbie, “Homophobia Cannot Be Fought with Islamaphobia: Speeches from Toronto’s Smart and Beautiful Vigil for Orlando,” NOW Magazine, June 13, 2016.