"Should we talk to terrorists?" is The Big Question at forthcoming debate

University news / Opinion

Wednesday 25 March 2015

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Coventry University, in association with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, is hosting a public debate next month at which a diverse panel of experts will discuss a controversial approach for countering terrorism.

The event, entitled ‘Should we talk to terrorists?’, which is taking place at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry from 5pm on Wednesday 8 April is the latest in The Big Question seminar series run by Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. The debate is open to the public and is free to attend. 

Intended to provide a vibrant public forum for discussing the economic, political and social challenges facing contemporary British society, The Big Question seminars kicked off in February with a thought-provoking discussion about building communities of trust and peace led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. 

With recent highly publicised atrocities from the Paris attacks and the release of graphic images of hostage murders by Islamic State intensifying fear and outrage across the world, the forthcoming debate in April brings into sharp focus the controversial idea of engaging in dialogue with those who threaten or use violence to secure advances for their political and ideological ends. 

Among the panellists are a former member of the German far-left militant group The Red Army Faction (commonly known in its early stages as the Baader-Meinhof Gang) and the founder of the not-for-profit Building Bridges for Peace group Jo Berry, whose father Sir Anthony Berry was amongst those killed in the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton in 1984. The event will be chaired by Professor Kurt Barling, Professor of journalism at Middlesex University and previously a leading broadcaster for the BBC.

Commenting on what promises to be a stimulating discussion Professor Mike Hardy, director of Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, said:

When people are killed and lives threatened there is often a demand for forceful reprisals and military intervention against the perpetrators. This is commonly associated with a refusal to talk to those responsible, as it is assumed that engaging in dialogue will only legitimise these groups and their tactics. 

Yet history has taught us that talking with those labelled as 'terrorists' can help to facilitate peace. It is not a concept that sits easily with many people but it is undoubtedly worthy of further exploration. 

We are pleased to be working with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue on this event and are looking forward to what we believe will be a very interesting  debate around the highly contentious issue of negotiating with those engaged in terrorist activity.



Math Noortman, professor in transnational law and non-state actors at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations said:

Talking to terrorists is not about negotiations or moral righteousness, nor is it about empathy or denying criminal accountability. It is about taking another approach to understanding terrorism. It is perhaps more about talking with terrorists than talking to terrorists. If there is virtue in dialogue, that virtue cannot be qualified.



Ross Frenett who manages the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue said:

Over the years the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has worked with hundreds of former terrorists from around the world. One of the most striking aspects of this engagement is just how normal these people are. Terrorists and extremists of all kinds don’t shed their humanity when they take up arms. Recognising that and facilitating dialogue between former terrorists and others gives us the best chance of better understanding why people get involved in these activities and in turn prevent others from doing so.



The Big Question debate entitled ‘Should we talk to terrorists?’ takes place from 5pm at The Studio, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry CV1 5QP on Wednesday 8 April 2015. The debate is free to attend but places must be booked in advance. The event will be followed by a drinks reception where there will be an opportunity to speak informally with the panellists and others attending the event. 

Further information about the event and others in The Big Question seminar series, including how to register, by contacting Julia Baron, Events Co-ordinator on 024 7765 8236 or via email julia.baron@coventry.ac.uk

For further press information please contact Mark Farnan, marketing and communications, Coventry University, on 024 7765 8245 or email mark.farnan@coventry.ac.uk.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) is an independent ‘think and do’ tank working to tackle some of the major geo-strategic, social and security challenges of our time. Combining research and policy advisory work, with innovative delivery programmes, specialised task forces, cross-sector partnerships and networks, ISD works to counter global extremism, bridge inter-communal divides and enhance Europe’s capacity to act effectively in the global arena. More information at www.isdglobal.org.

Professor Kurt Barling (Chair) is a Professor of journalism at Middlesex University and was previously a leading broadcaster for the BBC for 25 years. He has won numerous industry awards and is the co-author of Abu Hamza: Guilty, a book based upon undercover operations at Finsbury Park Mosque in London that reports on the story of Abu Hamza and his attempts to radicalise young Muslim men.

Ross Frenett is the Director of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue‘s Against Violent Extremism network - a global association of former extremists and survivors of extremist violence. Throughout his career, Ross has interviewed current and former members of extremist groups. He is a regular media commentator around issues of extremism and his analysis has been featured on the BBC.

Christof Wackernagel is a German actor and writer and former member of the Rote Armee Faktion (Red Army Faction). In 1980 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for membership of a terrorist organisation following a shoot-out with the police, but in 1983 he distanced himself from the RAF and was released early in 1987. Christof has since spent a decade living in Mali and has written about his experiences with the RAF.

Jo Berry is the Founder of Building Bridges for Peace. On 12 October 1984 her father, Sir Anthony Berry and four others were killed in the bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton. In the wake of this trauma, Jo set up Building Bridges for Peace (www.buildingbridgesforpeace.org) with the intention of learning from the past. In November 2000, she met with Patrick Magee, the man who planted the bomb, and the two now work together, facilitating workshops which enable dialogue between opposing groups and giving talks on conflict resolution and alternatives to violence.