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Google Ideas's new 'think-do' tank takes on violent extremism

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Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Newscom

(Read caption) This photo shows the Google logo at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California

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A ripple of laughter spreads across the floor. The joke? A personal anecdote from Frank Meeink, a former fascist skinhead and founder of the antiviolence group Harmony Through Hockey, who says his first thought when he sees a handbag is to steal it.

Meeink doesn’t steal handbags these days, but he is adamant that people need to work to be better.

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The rest of the panel agrees with him, an unlikely bunch consisting of retired Pakistani Maj. Tahir Wadood Malik, Rudi Corpuz, a former gang member in Los Angeles, Nigerian Imam Muhammad Sani Isa, who turned his back on Islamism, and Abu Muntasir, founder of a British-based Islamic charity that “seeks to promote an organic, homegrown, indigenous following of Islam.”

It’s an unlikely-sounding event: the Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), held in Dublin, Ireland, from June 26 to 29 and organized by Google Ideas, a new “think-do tank” founded by the Californian tech giant.

The plan? To provide three days of dialogue and debate about “violent extremism,” from street gangs to right-wing militants to violent nationalists to religious extremists.

The audience of around 220 invited delegates, including NGO workers, victims of attacks, and “formers” – the term used to describe one-time extremists who have turned their back on violence – appears enraptured, breaking into spontaneous applause when Rudi Corpuz says young men need to be taught to respect women, and when it is suggested that NGOs and antiviolence workers need more money.

Speaking to noted former Islamist Ed Hussain in the corridor outside the conference room, I ask what was conference’s objective.

“The objective was to give people permission to speak about violent extremism,” he says.

In the session the term “radicalism” kept cropping up. Wasn’t there once a positive meaning to radicalism? Has it come to mean just violent extremism? Hussain says we’re talking at cross-purposes: “Radicalism that leads to, or provides the mood music for, violent extremism is the problem. The radicalism that operates within a political framework isn’t a problem.”

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SAVE is the first project organized by Google Ideas, this time in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations. The questions are obvious: Will Google save the world? Who asked it to?

Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, who formerly worked for the State Department, says the idea is to not beat around the bush, instead tackling big issues head on.

“Google’s business operation and strategic goal is to look at the world’s most complex and intractable problems. Technology is a part of every solution,” he said.

The summit certainly can’t be accused of having low horizons. On Tuesday, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe took to the stage with former FARC guerrillas.

But questions remain: can conflicts such as Colombia’s be solved even by talking in good faith? Are conflicts really the result of misunderstandings or are actual political disputes the issue?

At a time when the battle for control of the Internet is heating up, an intervention by Google is likely to rouse some suspicion, especially in light of the Internet being used by extremists to disseminate information.

According to Cohen, the real issue is the need to do something.

“Every challenge we pick will not necessarily be obvious – social justice, or ‘judicial inclusion’ as we call it, fragile states. I want Google Ideas to be defined by what it does, focused on doing stuff,” he said.

Cohen recognizes that he has set himself an enormous task, but says he intends to keep trying: “There is no silver-bullet answer ... a solution for one conflict may not work for another [but] we have to try. It’s going to take a lot of approaches.”


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