Identity and interests trump ideology in countering sectarian radicalization


Extremist groups are able to recruit marginalized, impoverished youths because they give them a sense of belonging and identity, not because of their ideological appeal, says a leading Lebanese civil society activist.

Ignored by government and deprived of sustainable job opportunities, alienated youths in cities like Tripoli experience a “loss of hope which leads to a void, while extremists give them a sense of belonging, plus perks like access to women and drugs,” said Lea Baroudi (right), the co-founder and general coordinator of MARCH, a Beirut-based civil society group.

The documentary “Love and War on the Rooftop” (above) recounts the story of how former combatants and sectarian rivals from two impoverished neighborhoods in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli – the Sunni Bab El Tebbneh and Alawite Jabal Mohsen districts – reconciled and transformed their relations through cultural collaboration.

Baroudi and her MARCH colleagues worked with the youths to create theater inspired by their own lives,  the first of these plays, “Love and War on the Rooftop – A Tripolitan Tale”, was an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The play subsequently toured Beirut and other Lebanese cities in summer 2015 and the documentary provides insight into a project that demonstrates how to counter radicalization and sectarianism.

“It took four months to win the trust of grass roots groups in the communities before we could even hold auditions,” Baroudi told a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group, where she is currently a Reagan-Fascell fellow.

She is “delighted” by the impact of the project because it showed how culture can breed reconciliation, but also “scared because it showed how rapidly attitudes can be changed” and how vulnerable the marginalized are to political manipulation.

Countering extremism is a matter of interests, not ideology, said Baroudi, stressing the need to provide jobs and rights to marginalized communities.

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