Vidhya Ramalingam and Bjørn Ihler strengthened their shared desire to prevent terrorist attacks during their time in the Obama Foundation Leaders Europe program. Together, they are committed to combating violent extremism in Europe and abroad through advocacy, prevention services, and online intervention. The two Leaders recently teamed up to work towards a more inclusive democracy for all at the Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
We connected with these leaders ahead of the first-ever Obama Foundation Democracy Forum to discuss the urgency of their work, their decision to focus on combating extremism, and their hopes for the future of democracy.
Q: To get started, how did you begin doing this work? What does it entail?
Vidhya: For me, it all started in 2009 when I embarked on a journey to meet with white nationalists. I wanted to know what it would take to actually change someone who is embedded deeply in this ideology. Then, there was a turning point after the 2011 Norway attacks Opens in a new tab . 77 people were killed, many children, by a right-wing terrorist. That was a real wake up point for Europeans and European governments; recognizing this was a national security threat that had been completely overlooked. I ended up running the EU’s first inter-governmental initiative to counter this form of terrorists. Years later, I founded Moonshot, a company that uses technology to disrupt and counter global violent extremism and other online harms.
We’ve built digital programs that look to find audiences who are engaging with hate content or extremist content online, and then we reach out to them with behavioral health services. We often connect a social worker with the individual to have a conversation, or we might signpost them to safer content that aims to de-escalate them from violence. Moonshot works to understand the person’s story and what drove them to this worldview before we break down each of those factors to help them turn their life around.
Bjørn: Vidhya and I share a unique connection on this subject. In 2011, I narrowly survived the Norway attacks. That experience, plus my lifelong interest in politics, led me to co-found the Khalifa Ihler Institute in 2016. The Institute works to counter and prevent radicalization and violent extremism, which we view as the violent denial of diversity by working with private and public sector, as well as international bodies and organizations to design healthier, diverse, thriving, and peaceful communities on and offline. The idea for the institute came about toward the end of President Obama’s time in office. I was getting a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies at the time, and this was the perfect way to combine my interests and look at violent extremism through a lens of peacebuilding and building community resilience against violence.
Over the last few years, we have been working on conventional policy development and advocacy, and working with other organizations in the sector on topics like global and foreign counterterrorism to learn their approaches to preventing extremism within the tech sector.
I recently founded a for-profit company called Glitterpill to provide actionable data, analysis, and consulting services to companies and communities grappling with the issue of violent extremism and terrorism. Across both organizations we are trying to make sure that the voices of the people who are affected by violent extremism are heard at the highest levels of decision making and policy.
Q: Last month, the two of you shared the stage during the Eradicate Hate Global Summit. How did you two join forces?
V: Bjørn and I have known each other for more than ten years. We immediately bonded over our mutual desire to ensure that these kinds of violent attacks don’t happen again. Over the last several years we’ve teamed up to focus on meaningful actions we can take as communities to prevent violent extremism.
We have been involved with the Eradicate Hate Global Summit Opens in a new tab since its start in 2021. The summit was built out of the trauma experienced during the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The event brings together survivors, those directly impacted by these kinds of hate incidents across the country, and practitioners to draft solutions on how to prevent these acts from happening to others.
B: Collaborating with Vidhya at the Eradicate Hate Global Summit was a great opportunity to bring our experience of countering hate and violent extremism from Europe to the United States, and beyond, to see how we can forge new partnerships and craft solutions. The summit brought together different voices, not just policy makers or academics, but survivors like myself, former extremists, and experts who are working every day to break down the silos that exist when fighting this issue.
To close, what is your hope for democracy?
V: Violent extremism is not our only problem today. We are at a point where fundamental rights are being denied and democracy is at risk of backsliding. We can’t just assume that our baseline is equality. We actually have to fight for it. Everyone has a role to play to preserve democracy. The last few years have shown me that we can’t be complacent.
I have dedicated my career to this problem. As a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, this is everything to me. I want a future whether it’s in Europe, in America, or anywhere in the world, where people can live free from threats of violence. I remain incredibly optimistic about the power of humanity because I’ve seen firsthand people change.
Bjørn and I have seen people who were once neo-Nazis transform into peace activists. Seeing those transformations gives me hope about what’s possible in the fight against violence. Our goal now is to scale up our intervention methods globally so that we can prevent more violent acts.
B: We’ve gotten really far advancing democracy, but now it seems like it is slipping backwards to a point where inequality again has become accepted as the norm. That’s really worrying and it poses a direct threat to democracy because it is interwoven in formal politics.The philosophical backbone for my work is the understanding that extremism and violence is a denial of diversity. So, the best way forward is to increase our collective capacity for diversity and to celebrate the value diversity adds to our societies. In order to do that we need to ensure that everyone can live in our societies with equality and equity.
We have agency. The power of human relationships online and in real life is what will help us get to the root of extremism. Uncomfortable yet meaningful conversations have to be had; that’s the only way we will get to where we need to be.
Vidhya gave an inspiring Lightning Talk on disinformation at the first-ever Obama Foundation Democracy Forum. Check out highlights..