The theme and focus of the fourth AHA! Townhall meeting is the prevention of hate speech and violent extremism during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the very early observations of academics and peacebuilding practitioners was the divisiveness of the pandemic itself and the ensuing governance measures. The prevalence of hate speech markedly increased across South Asia, in many instances exacerbating tensions within and between communities. Existing fault-lines along social, economic, religious and ethnic identities have widened and, in many cases, we are witnessing the erosion of social cohesion threatening the security of the most vulnerable.
The pervasiveness of conspiracy narrative and the spread of misinformation has created fertile grounds for recruitment and radicalization into violent extremist organizations. While the operations of violent extremist organizations have been limited by lockdown measures imposed by many governments, these groups are capitalizing on the crisis utilizing super-charged narratives to increase to recruit and energize supporters and to escalate social, economic and political tensions in countries around the globe.
Countering hate speech should be the shared responsibility of a multitude of diverse actors who are uniquely positioned to influence large constituencies within their societies (e.g. religious leaders, policy makers, journalists and others.) To this end, sensitivity trainings and skills for identifying, responding, and countering hate speech with positive narratives are necessary to alleviate tensions and social divisions. In particular, religious actors, as spiritual leaders and role models, should strive to instill a basis for intra- and inter-religious tolerance and eventual cooperation in ways that resonate with the deepest beliefs and values of their communities. More than ever, the pandemic context has illustrated the need for inclusive and coordinated efforts extending beyond the boundaries of religious, cultural, ethnic, and political affiliations.
The event was facilitated by a leading academic expert in the field and included sessions on the changing nature of hate speech and violent extremism during the pandemic, expert talks on the prevention of violent extremism as well as hate speech, and an interactive session bringing together voices from practitioners.
AHA! Awareness with Human Action seeks to contribute to the response efforts of the COVID-19 pandemic by preventing conflict and building social cohesion in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and broader South Asia. Through a collaborative approach, the project will increase outreach for initiatives that promote awareness of COVID-19 and constructive narratives that reduce discrimination, hate speech, and stigmatization against specific communities, primarily targeting religious leaders, and women and youth leaders as community influencers.
The conclusion of the project will result in enhanced capacities of religious and traditional leaders and women and youth leaders to increase awareness on COVID-19 prevention and response that emphasize collaboration by different faiths and communities as well as increased conflict prevention focused collaborative initiatives at national and regional levels to strengthen inclusive communities beyond COVID-19.