Youth Activism against Extremism and Intolerance
On a flight to Surigao City in southern Philippines last year, I met a group of young Caucasian girls. They were giggling and chattering in a language I couldn’t understand. They seemed very excited about their trip and could barely sit still. One of them was seated beside me so I ventured to make conversation and ask where they were from.
“We’re from Norway,” she answered, smiling.
“Wow, you’re a long way from home. What brings you here?” I said.
She then turned to her friends and they started talking in Norwegian. One of them got up, fished a travel magazine from her backpack and excitedly showed me a full-page article. It was written in Norwegian so I couldn’t understand a thing except for the name Siargao on the title. Siargao is an island off the coast of Surigao City and is famous as a surfing spot.
I asked if they were surfers. They don’t even know how to surf, they said. It’s their first trip to Asia and they don’t know much about the Philippines. They just saw the magazine article about Siargao and thought it might be a fun place to visit on their break from school. I had to laugh at their adorably whimsical decision, a combination of youthful naiveté and reckless daring that only the young can so easily summon.
Siargao is located in Mindanao, which has gotten a lot of bad press for armed rebellion, bombings and kidnapping. The high-risk areas actually make up only a small part of the region and most areas are generally peaceful but a lot of foreign tourists still steer clear of the place. They gave me a blank stare when I mentioned this to them; they apparently haven’t heard of all that bad press.
This group of 16- and 17-year-olds saw the world as a place full of opportunities for discovery and adventure. Unbridled by the paranoia that often comes with age, they plunged head-on into the unknown. They implicitly trusted in the goodness of humanity and believed in a world that is just and fair, that innocent people are not harmed and that we have the freedom to live our lives without fear. They may be accused of being naïve but it is well within the rights of young people, and all human beings, to believe this and aspire to this.
This kind of trust and sincere belief in humanity was betrayed when young people in Norway were indiscriminately shot and killed on Friday while on a youth camp. The summer camp, organized by the youth wing of the ruling Labor Party, was a setting for the youth to be more involved with the political system and be immersed in a multicultural environment. According to the New York Times, among the attendees were children of immigrants from Africa and Asia. “It was for me the safest place in the world,” a camper said.
The massacre suspect was reported to be a right wing extremist who hates Islam and immigrants. Initial reports stated that he took responsibility for the killings but believed that they were “necessary.”
As the United Nations High Level Meeting on Youth commences today, let us foster a youth activism that stands up against the bigotry and extremism that leads to these kinds of heinous acts. Let us demand an inclusive civil discourse that honors human rights and values diversity. Let us work towards a more open society that doesn’t ostracize people just because they come from a different ethnic background, or they worship a different God, or they happen to wear a headscarf that we don’t wear.
If there is one other thing we can learn from the tragedy in Norway, it’s also that we should not judge a belief system by its abuses. When it was reported that the suspect claimed to be a Christian conservative, the world didn’t accuse Christianity of advocating terrorism. There was no racial profiling of people who looked like him. We should also afford that same respect and courtesy to Muslims. Just because there are extremists who use Islam as a justification for their crimes doesn’t mean the entire community of faith advocate the same perverted beliefs. Just because the terrorists we see on TV look “Middle Eastern” doesn’t mean we should be suspicious of everyone who has brown skin and a beard.
The theme for the youth meeting is dialogue and mutual understanding. These are indeed crucial components in achieving openness and tolerance that will make for a safer society. Young people deserve to have a society that is just and fair. They deserve to live their lives without fear and see the world as a place for adventure and discovery, not just because they are inherently naïve but because this is truly the kind of society we strive to have.
Photo credit: Rippie: Contra Censura! http://www.flickr.com/photos/ripnread/5966066810/