Local heroes use fresh approach against extremist barbarity

Local heroes use fresh approach against extremist barbarity
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On the heels of the 16th anniversary of 9/11 — after two costly wars, countless sacrifices by our men and women in uniform, and a whopping $4 trillion-plus price tag — it’s time to ask: What’s missing in our grand strategy?

We have learned many lessons since that bright September morning in 2001 that turned so dark and changed our lives forever. We all agree that it’s not just the armed forces or the security agencies that will ultimately lead us to victory in this very different kind of war. But few convincing answers have been provided to the central question in the long-running strategy debate: How do we undermine support for the ideology of those bent on killing innocents? How can we tip the balance in the fight for the hearts and minds of the potential recruits and supporters of the extremists?

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A decade ago, Philip H. Gordon, former advisor to President Obama, wrote on the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that if “Americans accept that victory in the war on terror will come only when the ideology they are fighting loses support and when potential adherents see viable alternatives to it, then the United States would have to adopt a very different course.”

Some refreshingly out-of-the-box answers to these pressing questions of our time may come next week, on Sept. 18, at the unlikely venue of the New York Public Library, as world leaders gather in Manhattan for the 72nd United Nations General Assembly. A dozen presidents and prime ministers and leaders from around the globe are expected to join a group of engaged citizens to launch the Global Hope Coalition, with the avowed objective of taking the fight against violent extremism to “a whole new level”.

The theory is appealingly simple: Create for the future of the Muslim world a global network of support. Call it the Amnesty International of the campaign against extremism, hate and intolerance.

With a network of three foundations based in New York, Zurich and Hong Kong, the Global Hope Coalition has assembled an impressive group of diverse political, cultural, academic and business leaders to spearhead the global civil society effort to amplify significantly the impact of courageous individuals who stand up to terror and violence. These heroes, who take great risks to oppose extremists, deserve our support to defeat the fiery radicals in their midst; to preserve cultural heritage from wanton destruction, and to build bridges across the widening cultural and religious divides.

Consider, for example, Latifa Ibn Ziaten. In March 2012, a homegrown terrorist, Mohammed Merah, shot and killed Ibn Ziaten’s 30-year-old son, Imad, a French Muslim soldier. Imad was one of Merah’s six victims, who included three children. Following these senseless murders, Ibn Ziaten established the Imad Association for Youth and Peace, and has been roaming dilapidated housing projects, overcrowded prisons and immigrant-dominated schools which form fertile grounds for violent extremism in France, to stop hate speech and promote greater cross-cultural understanding.

And there’s Kochar Saleh, a 27-year-old Kurdish woman from northern Iraq who has been organizing local resistance to ISIS, helping the tormented Yazidi and Christian communities, and providing assistance to refugees. Kochar has witnessed first-hand the terrorists’ atrocities and their savage treatment of Yazidi girls. She led a group of women fighters in the protracted battle to liberate Mosul.

On Sept. 18, as part of the Global Hope Coalition, Ibn Ziaten and Saleh will receive the newly established Heroes Awards, share their experiences and lessons learned, and address best practices and solutions to violent extremism. Surely, others can learn from them, particularly as the world faces increased hate speech and violent extremism.

When faced with images of attacks in Barcelona, Manchester and Paris, it’s sometimes difficult to maintain hope. But the message of the Global Hope Coalition is that in this generational battle for our future and for the future of our children, there is a role and a place for each and every one of us. We must support the Everyday Heroes like ibn Ziaten and Saleh in their everyday fight against extremism and terror.

The war on extremist barbarity will not be won quickly. But the need for a fresh approach is urgent. Join me, Ibn Ziaten, Saleh, and the other heroes and leaders in the fight for hearts and minds.

Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Middle East Institute, previously served as U.S. ambassador to Laos and Pakistan, and as deputy high commissioner in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She also sits on the leadership council of the Global Hope Coalition.