How Film School Can Address Violent Extremism

(Photo Credit: Till Krech, Flickr Commons)

(Photo Credit: Till Krech, Flickr Commons)

In his riveting film, The Unknown, a young Bangladeshi student filmmaker paints a searing picture of how a normal, middle class student can be recruited, moved towards extremist ideology, and brainwashed into murdering another student. Most shocking about the film is how mundane and ordinary the life of a future terrorist is portrayed and how typical is his personal crisis.

Abject with grief over the loss of his girlfriend, the young man is ready to commit suicide when his best friend, a recruiter for an extreme Islamist political party, pulls him back from the brink. His friend convinces him to join a madrassa, where an Imam named Bhai (“Brother”) can save him. We watch as the young man burns his worldly possessions before undergoing a process of religious indoctrination that ultimately leads him to commit murder.  In the film’s final dramatic scene, he calls the Imam to inform him “the deed is done,” as he watches the news coverage of the assassination of a prominent political activist and blogger. The film opens and closes in a prison cell, where the convicted young man reveals in a diary his heartfelt remorse and revulsion for his horrifying deeds.

The student’s film is based on the 2013 murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a Bangladeshi blogger brutally hacked to death outside of his home in Dhaka, Bangladesh for posting a series of Facebook posts criticizing Islamic fundamentalism and extremist political parties. Police arrested five students who confessed to killing Rajib per the orders of a cleric they called “senior brother.” They insisted the murder was their religious duty.

Another unsettling student film, “A Bad Sign,” documents the unprovoked attack on a Bangladeshi female TV reporter, Nadia Sharmin, by members of the extremist group, Hefajat-e-Islam. In the film, students interviewed two of the group’s radical clerics. Their work helped reveal a frighteningly serious threat to Bangladeshi journalists and the local security services’ ineffectiveness in addressing the danger. In Bangladesh, anyone opposing a cleric’s extremist message in local press, on TV, or online is targeted as an “atheist” subject to attack. A number of militant Islamist organizations in Bangladesh, including the one responsible for the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider, engage in this type of targeting.

This year, four bloggers and a publisher were attacked and killed by knife wielding assailants in Dhaka. More attacks are anticipated, causing growing alarm among those working in all forms of media and mass communication in Bangladesh.

In an age when serial beheadings by the Islamic State overwhelm our sense of horror, the previously mentioned student films reveal just how easily once-peaceful young men can be propelled into the arms of violent religious extremism. The student films reveal not only the mundane origins of a typical young terrorist in Bangladesh, but also provide insights into the process of recruitment and radicalization.

These films were produced in Bangladesh under a partnership between University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).  The cultural insights came from brilliant young Bangladeshi film students enrolled in UCSD’s Internet course, “Filmmaking and TV Journalism for Peace and Tolerance.” Throughout the course, teams of film faculty assisted the students by collaborating virtually between internet-linked classrooms at the two universities.

What makes this model so extraordinary is that prominent professional journalists, producers, and directors from Bangladeshi television channels joined the classroom in Dhaka to teach and supervise students in collaboration with the team in San Diego. This local collaboration and professional participation is largely responsible for the success of the program.

The joint UCSD-IUB curriculum seeks to inspire students to write, blog, broadcast news, and make films that employ Bangladesh’s culture and values in countering religious extremism and violence. The course emphasizes that peace and tolerance are ideals rooted within the history, literature, and traditions. The course underscores that these values come from within and are not imposed from the outside. We may never precisely know what inspires an individual or a group of young people to become violent extremists, but if we can engage and empower their classmates to speak to them directly in their own language and in a way that is consistent with their own values, we have a chance to defeat this toxic ideology on its own terms.

Our virtual filmmaking workshops provide an open forum for students to express opinions, air grievances, and comment on the events that they plan to film.  In the words of one student who stood up in class to condemn an act of terrorism as “uncool,” our goal for the course is to make violence and extremism – and their agents – morally unacceptable. This student came to this conclusion after investigating an act of “fatwa,” an Islamic religious decree, in a nearby village that led to the brutal torture and murder of an impoverished young woman. The investigative techniques taught in class empowered her to interview the victim’s family and neighbors and document the impact of the murder, the arrest, the release of the perpetrators, and the lack of justice for the grieving parents.

The model employed in this U.S.-Bangladeshi academic partnership offers an alternative to the counterterrorism initiatives developed by the U.S. government.  While the Islamic State dominates social media with violent imagery, countermeasures by the State Department, intelligence communities, and beltway contractors have proven ineffective, even embarrassing. Washington’s top-down approach to counter extremism and promote tolerance has not worked. Young, media-savvy people intuitively spot propaganda, though simplistic slogans superimposed over violent images do serve as recruiting tools for potential terrorists.

Effective counterterrorism must come from within the communities facing extremism. The young artists, writers, bloggers, and filmmakers who live and work among potential terrorists must drive the efforts to counter violent ideology. Capacity building in local institutions and among individuals capable of leading the fight against violent extremism will succeed in gaining traction where other measures have failed. The Islamic State is fighting and winning a war of images and ideas by using 21st century technologies to promote medieval messages. Arming talented young students with the same persuasive weapons – cameras, lights, microphones, laptops, and counter-narratives – can help these communities win the war against violent extremism, where over a decade of “boots on the ground” has failed.

From Syria and Iraq to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, talented young artists, emboldened by digital platforms and a passion to tell good stories, can be virtually “armed” from anywhere in the world. The violence that the Islamic State glorifies in staged beheadings and brutal massacres promotes jihad to thousands of potential recruits across scores of nations. But the response to such barbarity must come from the target audience – the young artists, writers, bloggers, and filmmakers living and working among the population at risk.

Only young, media-savvy artists, trusted by their peers, can help counter the domestic and transnational terrorists using social media to recruit vulnerable young people. Only these empowered youths can convince potential recruits that the call to violent extremism is unacceptable.  As the student films illustrate, universities can play a significant role in cultivating a new generation of local filmmakers and social media activists. By providing them with the education, resources, and mentoring to oppose terrorism, the film community can empower student filmmakers to harness their own voices in promoting tolerance and bringing peace to their countries.


Robert Hooper directs the "Filmmaking and TV Journalism for Peace and Tolerance in Bangladesh" program at the University of California, San Diego, where he teaches development communication and the role of media in peace building and conflict resolution.

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