Can theatre help with radicalisation?

Bill Murray is one of my favourite actors.  And one of my favourite Bill Murray films is “The Man who Knew too Little”, a spoof on a Hitchcock film where mistaken identity and the world of spycraft head off in a dangerous direction, except of course that when Bill Murray is involved comedy replaces danger.

I won’t go through the whole plot here, since I really think you should watch it, but limit my remarks to the movie’s very beginning.  Murray plays an American visiting his brother in the UK to surprise him on his birthday, but the brother is busy with a business meeting and has to find something for Murray to do.  He settles on getting him involved in something called the “Theatre of Life”, an avant-guard art form where ordinary people become actors for an evening.  Needless to say something goes off the rails, but you’ll have to see the film to know what.

I thought of that movie yesterday as I sat through a classroom in Rotterdam watching some actors run through the programme Formaat, a form of participatory theatre.  This particular approach is based on a Brazilian idea called “theatre of the oppressed”, an initiative to get ordinary people involved on stage to talk about serious social issues: economic disparity, the challenges of dealing with government bureaucracy, mental health, drug use, sexual abuse…the list goes on and on.  The theory behind this method is that the vehicle of theatre can help some act out their concerns, especially when there are linguistic and cultural barriers.

What I saw yesterday was really amazing.  Students enrolled in the programme jumped up to take part in skits that demonstrated some of the issues cited above and actively became part of the scenario.  Their roles were not scripted: they were spontaneous and passionate. In one scene the emotional issue of immigration, discrimination and fear of change was openly discussed and there was no shortage of visceral sentiment.

This approach could be used to talk about radicalisation for that too is an emotional issue that is dividing us in the West.  In fact, I am pretty sure the people behind Formaat are planning on doing just that in Rotterdam.  In light of what I have seen and heard here in the Netherlands this week there is little doubt that the issue of radicalisation (and immigration and refugees and “Dutch values” and…) are at the boiling point.

Look, I am not suggesting that play acting will solve the radicalisation/terrorism conundrum: I am not that naive.  We will still have to use hard measures to deal with those who intend to do us harm.  And yet a lot of what we are doing on the “soft” side is clearly not working because we continue to see more and more Westerners radicalising to violence. Maybe it is time for a new direction.   What intrigues me about the Rotterdam approach is the fact that what we think might work in this regard is being reflected in how that approach is being developed:

  • it is NOT a government-run programme: governments do have a role but it cannot be at the forefront but rather in the background
  • it involves youth talking to youth and we know that the vast majority of those radicalising are youth.  Youth have an energy and a passion that is infectious: I certainly saw that at a community gathering of Muslim youth in Calgary a few years ago
  • it is a safe space to talk about difficult issues. We know that talking about jihad and foreign policy and grievance is often seen as taboo and hence young people have nowhere else to turn but their friends and the Internet

I’d like to see where this idea goes in the coming months.  If we can use it to divert even a small number of young people off the path to violent radicalisation then the whole thing will have been worth it.  It is not as if we have come up with any magical formula elsewhere to deal with this.  I certainly think it is worth a try.  No, it will not likely work with those who have already traveled a long way on the road to violence but it might make some difference with those who have taken but a few steps.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

One reply on “Can theatre help with radicalisation?”

I absolutely agree that drama and cultural manifestations of art can absolutely be used to dissuade young people from going down the path of radicalization.

Putting a veneer in front of the issue allows for perhaps a more candid discussion. I think we have seen a small representation of that candor in the deepening the dialogue series that we’ve been a part of.

We need the right stories and the right settings, like you mentioned regarding safe spaces. Art is a great approach to get the discussion going.

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