Violent Extremism and Terrorism as Hindrance to Community Development

by Edward Kingston Jombla
(Freetown, Sierra Leone )

Visitor Question: What are the impacts of violent extremism and terrorism from a community development perspective?

Editors' Reflection: Thank you for such an interesting question. Other visitors may want to add their comments here, as no one of us has a complete answer.

All four of us who work on this site had the same initial reaction, which is to point to the reduction of trust in society that results when terrorism based on extremist views occurs.

Where we might have been able to enter a museum or historic church simply by walking through the door 20 years ago, now we might have to have our bags searched and walk through a metal detector. In those circumstances, people begin to imagine the worst about someone near them who looks or acts a little differently from the norm.

A population full of nervous and suspicious people really does not lend itself to the kinds of community building efforts that we support on this website.

By "community building," we mean the social process of developing trust, common meanings, common values, and common goals among a group of people. Community building is essential to building a great geographic community, which in our dictionary relates to what we call "community development."

We are putting quotation marks around community building and community development because other understandings of these terms are certainly common and valid worldwide. We just thought explaining our usage of the terms was important to what we are about to say.

So when community building is diminished or nearly impossible due to terrorism and violent expressions of extreme views, community development is definitely hindered. The degree of that hindrance depends on (a) how frequently the terrorist incidents occur, (b) how unpredictable the violence becomes, (c) the proportion between number of people killed or injured versus the entire population, and (d) the attitudes become common throughout the population being targeted.

If you are in a country where terrorism and violent acts in the name of extreme positions become commonplace and impact a large percentage of the population, our observation is that community development in the geographic sense that we use on this website breaks down nearly entirely.

And truthfully, this may be appropriate. Planting flowers on public land, a tactic often recommended on our site, becomes pretty irrelevant when innocent civilians are being killed by random acts of violence.

Nonetheless, pervasive terrorism can really set back any viable community development project and vision, whether large or small. Community development usually takes a great deal of interaction among people, and when trust becomes limited, travel becomes risky, and basic human priorities of food, shelter, and safety are challenged, interaction patterns veer away from civic activity and toward survival.

Now let's turn to the last two variables that we listed, which were the proportion of the population impacted and the attitude of the population toward the extremist activity.

If the terrorist attacks are very frightening but injure or kill a very tiny fraction of the population, such as in the recent attacks in Paris and London, many community development activities may continue without being hindered at all. This would be especially true in relatively homogenous parts of those cities where any people who adhere to the extreme viewpoints are nearly invisible to the rest of the folks. While people may be a little less trusting of newcomers at first, strangers quickly become friends as they pursue common goals involving community development.

No doubt in some portions of cities where terrorist incidents have occurred, the heightened suspicion, fear, and mistrust limits community building--which in turn limits community development, as we argued above.

For example, in Western Europe and America, heavily Muslim or immigrant communities may be the recipients of more scrutiny and less trust than would have been the case a couple of decades ago. Although in the big sweep of history, these effects may be very short-term and transient, community development easily could be sidetracked by conflicts over how much to trust the minority population and how much interaction with strangers feels "safe" to people.

In short, community development relies on the ability to develop personal relationships that feel reliable and trustworthy. Anything that limits the likelihood that we will approach, engage with, and learn to work with the stranger, even if we discover that he or she is different from us, is a threat to community development.

And in countries or regions where terrorism and violent attacks become commonplace, community development certainly takes a back seat to survival. A few individuals and groups may figure out how to continue their path toward community development in the face of poor odds, but they will be the exception.

Our conclusion is that work that effectively finds ways to reduce distrust, reduce extreme ways of getting one's political point across, and reduce violence is work that indirectly supports community development.

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