Bjørk Ihler holds the unusual record of knowing the most extremists. He’s also survived a terrorist attack.
On July 22nd, 2011, eight people died in a bombing in Oslo and 69 people were killed on Utøya Island in Norway. The attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, and Ihler had things in common- they were educated in the same system and part of the same community. However, they saw the world from completely different viewpoints.
The attacker was a right-wing Christian extremist, with a hatred of Muslims and “railed against the Marxist Islamic takeover of Europe”. After numerous court hearings, in November 2011 the Police stated that Breivik was insane. After multiple psychological examinations, Breivik was deemed sane in April 2012.
Following the attack, survivor Ihler found himself lost and confused. First, he turned to his old high school philosophy teacher. Education has been at the center of Ihler’s work as he continues to advocate for improvement at that level.
In order to understand the ideology, Ihler sought out to educate himself on it. Since the attack occurred, Ihler has been a strong force in creating awareness and has gained prominence globally.
“They never felt they were valued as human beings, they said no one would listen to their ideas.” – BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-41899753
Through storytelling and open dialogue, he hopes to stop the growth of extremism – especially among young people. Instead of educating students on an ideology, Ihler maintains that open dialogue is the solution and allowing and encouraging students to hold their own views.
“I would like to see a class teaching critical thinking or philosophy in every school”
The word “terrorism” first surfaced during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. John Burke, a journalist who has focused on Islamic extremism and Al-Qaeda, says the lack of a definition leads to the term taking on politically motivated meanings. Meisels defines terrorism as “the intentional random murder of defenseless noncombatants, with the intent of instilling fear of mortal danger amidst a civilian population as a strategy designed to advance political ends.” The United Nations has spoken of the need to establish a global definition of terrorism to effectively combat it, however, there is not a universally agreed on a definition.
The United Nations established an office of counter-terrorism in June 2017. In a recent report, they establish five factors that are “conducive to violent terrorism” including a “lack of socioeconomic opportunities, marginalization, and discrimination, poor governance, violations of human rights and the rule of law, prolonged and unresolved conflicts, radicalization in prisons”. The report further emphasizes the need to focus on youth, as Ihler has done in his work.
Ihler partners with the Kofi Annan initiative on a project called “Extremely Together” which aims to provide resources and inspire young people to take initiative in their own communities against violent extremism and towards “shared values of cooperation and intolerance”.
Extremely Together partners and champions youth projects globally, such as Arizza Nocum in the Philippines. Nocum works with a non-profit called KRIS in her country that “promotes peace through education by building libraries, providing scholarships, and supplying educational materials”. Focusing on young people, the Extremely Together site establishes that extremist groups present themselves as the ultimate solution to all of the local grievances. In creating local networks of support, their hope is to deter extremism through creating more supportive communities.
Today, Ihler is completing his Masters in Conflict and Peace Resolution in Istanbul. He continues to work and partner with others on counter-terrorism initiatives through a crucial focus on young people, storytelling, and open dialogue.