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Reporting from the Salzburg Seminar: Sharing Experiences Across Borders to Combat Extremism

June 28, 2018

By: Joshua Spector L’18

June 28, 2018

In the aftermath of World War II, as Europe lay in a state of ruin, three young Harvard students decided that physical reconstruction of the continent was insufficient to avert the recurrence of the calamities that plagued the first half of the twentieth century. They envisioned a “Marshall Plan for the Mind.” Established in 1947, Salzburg Global Seminar brought together individuals from different nations and sectors of society to engender dialogue and to rebuild trust and mutual understanding. While many parts of the world continue to grapple with the scourge of extremism, ethnic violence, and civil conflict, the mission of Salzburg Global remains as critical today as it was seventy years ago. As the first Penn Law Rapporteur to Salzburg, I was privileged to witness firsthand the incredible discussions and the tangible initiatives born from the collaborative network fostered by Salzburg Global.

I attended Session 589 entitled, “Learning from the Past: Sharing Experiences across Borders to Combat Extremism.” This session, the latest iteration of a series begun in partnership with U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2010, sought to help societies build greater capacity in combatting extremism and promoting pluralism through the study and memorialization of their own national tragedies. To that end, Salzburg Global hosted a workshop in 2016, convening representatives from six countries – Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Africa, and Cambodia – to meet with Holocaust educators and practitioners working to combat extremism in Europe and North America. The representatives were subsequently tasked with creating pilot programs in light of the series’ mission. This year’s session met to evaluate the results of those programs with an eye towards their improvement and expansion, as well as to critically engage in the issues that lay at the heart of the programs: combatting extremism and promoting pluralism.

Through group discussion, delegates discussed key questions underlying their work. How do we define extremism? Why do people become radicalized? What role do governments and media play in radicalization, and how can civil society respond? For many of the delegates, the majority of whom hailed from the developing world, these issues constituted fundamental dilemmas in their societies, affecting their personal lives and demanding concrete answers.

A poignant example of the personal nature of these questions arose during a discussion on how to record and memorialize national tragedies. As various delegates discussed best practices in areas such as preserving survivor testimony and museum presentations, Tom Ndahiro, Technical Advisor and Researcher at the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center in Rwanda and a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda himself, hammered home the difficulty of memorializing one’s personal experience. He described how, to this day, he has been unable to look at photos he took during the genocide, and the difficulty he faced in collecting survivor testimony due to his own emotional trauma and close attachment to the genocide he witnessed. He concluded that it is far easier for outsiders to deeply engage in the memory of such an immense tragedy than when it is your own life story. Thus, the conversations in Salzburg were not merely of a theoretical nature, but intended to provide a framework for producing real initiatives on the ground.

While the discussions were thought provoking, perhaps the most inspiring portion of the session came towards its conclusion when delegates from those countries represented in the 2016 workshop rose to describe the next steps their programs would take. Other delegates also stood to propose new initiatives to bring to their home countries. As each one pitched their concept, others would volunteer to serve as peer mentors and offer to collaborate, establishing cross-border and cross-institutional ties to help foster their growth. From a graduate program in the Arab world focusing on civic engagement and global citizenship, to a center for dialogue in Kashmir, and a genocide education program for teens in sub-Saharan Africa, the initiatives proposed offer tremendous potential to promote ideals and values key to combatting extremism.

I left Salzburg pondering what lessons I could bring back to Philadelphia. Throughout, the various discussions that took place during my week at the session, I was consistently struck and worried by the familiarity of many of the issues facing societies in the developing world. It is easy to assume that the issues facing far-away autocracies and unstable states in Africa or Asia bear no resemblance to our circumstances in the United States. Yet, as events like the Alt-Right marches in Charlottesville laid bare, America still deals with its own unresolved legacy of racial discrimination that can manifest in extremism and violence.

I think the number one takeaway is the importance of dialogue for the health of a pluralistic society. While on its face this lesson seems obvious, the sad reality of our increasingly polarized society here in the United States is that meaningful discussions between people of different backgrounds and political orientations are not as common as they should be. This trend was well documented during the 2016 presidential election with research showing that the majority of social media networks served as mere echo chambers for different elements of the political spectrum. Anecdotally, I have found that many of my friends and colleagues cannot name amongst their social circles a single person who voted for the current president or who supports his policies. In a world where political differences are increasingly presented as differences of morality rather than policy, these socio-political cleavages threaten to tear at the very fabric of our nation.

Margaret Mead, a faculty member of the first session of Salzburg Global Seminar, once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This quote epitomizes the guiding spirit of the week I spent in Salzburg. And I believe it is that very same ethos that we as Penn Law students can and must inject into our own communities here in the United States. While political disagreements abound, I still believe most of us aspire to a less divided and more united America. By virtue of our choice of profession and the tools we have received through our legal education at Penn Law, we are in a unique position to lead our society towards a brighter path and, in doing so, to change the world.

In Spring 2018, Joshua Specter was Penn Law’s inaugural rapporteur for the Salzburg Global Seminar. Penn Law students have the privileged opportunity to observe the convenings of Salzburg Seminars to record summaries, recommendations, and other key takeaways from plenary discussions and sessions. Visit our site to learn more about opportunities to participate in conferences abroad.

The Salzburg Global Seminar forms partnerships with leading institutions around the world with a mission to challenge present and future leaders to solve issues of global concern. This independent, non-governmental organization convenes imaginative thinkers from different cultures, organizes problem-focused initiatives, supports leadership development, and engages opinion-makers through active communication networks.

This piece originally appears in the 2018 Global Affairs Review