Social Workers Respond to Jihadism – Part I – Rationale and Resources

by Pat Shelly

The School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo has a Global Interest Group (GiG), which organizes events exploring social issues in a global context and bringing it into a local discussion. This encourages our MSW students to think outside the box of U.S. culture and look beyond its particular strategies for social change. At our monthly lunches, students, faculty, staff and community members listen an invited speaker, and join in the discussion that follows.

Topics for 2014-15 included working with survivors of torture, international field placement and its challenges, experiences of women in the Arab Gulf, social work issues in Tanzania, and immigration and human rights.

For the final Global to Local event of the academic year,”Social Work Responses to Jihadism: Promoting Peace and Human Rights” was held as an informal dinner discussion.

purple flower is growing up from cracked earth

We were very aware that the term “jihadism” is controversial.  The most literal English translation of “jihad” is “struggle,” yet the term is often only understood as acts of terrorism and extreme violence by some who are Muslim.

We placed the discussion in the context of other forms of extremist violence, such as the devastation of the Christian Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Spanish Inquisition, the genocide of indigenous people upon the conquering of the Americas, and the millions of Africans enslaved and shipped the New World.

There was also the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City by domestic terrorists. The two bombers were white men and U.S. citizens. They sought revenge for the 1993 deaths of members of a white Christian supremacist group in Waco, Texas; both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had engaged in the raid that resulted in those deaths.) Other Christian Right extremists in the U.S. have used their extremist ideology to justify the murder of doctors who provide abortions.

The invitation to the event:

“Social Work Responses to Jihadism: Promoting Peace and Human Rights

May 12, 2015
Please join us for this community conversation…We will discuss ways that social workers can respond to jihadism with cultural humility, consciousness of human rights and trauma, and creativity.

Let’s ask ourselves:
-What are social workers doing that we can learn from?
-What can we do on the macro level?
-How does this apply to our roles on campus and beyond?”

Male social worker kneeling next to fahter and son in a tent in a refugee camp in Lebanon

Social worker with Syrian refugee family in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Image:
© G.Dubourthoumieul
Handicap International

The organizers (of which I was one) wanted to learn about how our profession can respond or has responded to this form of extremist violence that harms, displaces, or kills so many people.

We also were sensitive to the fact that the United States, has long been viewed – most recently by referencing its wars on Afghanistan and Iraq – as an “imperialist aggressor.”

A few days before the session, the organizers received some thoughtful comments on the title from one of our incoming Ph.D. students. He expressed concern that the term “jihadism” can be used by non-Muslims to perpetrate anti-Muslim feelings. Within Muslim communities, the actions of ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shamand – are most often referred to as radical extremism.

None of the organizers were Muslim nor did we feel at all well-informed on Islam, or extremist or radical Muslim movements. We hoped to begin a conversation on how we can ethically and sensitively address the aftermath of extremism as most recently seen in Syria and Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced, refugees unable to find safe space or to meet their most basic needs, and areas with ISIS rule instituting punitive measures such as floggings and executions. We earnestly prepared a list of resources to inform ourselves and the attendees about the basics of Islam and a rudimentary understanding of the current conflicts in the Arab Peninsula.

Here is where you can download our list of resources

In Part II, you will read about the art work and some of the statements by participants.

Comments? Please let us know what you think of Part I of this post. We also welcome additions to the list of resources around the topic of social work practice with people affected by radical or extremist movements.

Links in this post:

Gates Jr. H.L. (2012, January 6). How many slaves landed in the US? The Root. Retrieved from: Staff. (2009). Oklahoma City bombing: Retrieved from Staff. (2009). Federal agents raid the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. This Day in History: February 28, 1993. Retrieved from:

Roos, J. (2014, August 17). The Islamic state: A monster empire created.  Telesur. Retrieved from:

Szczepanski, K. (n.d.) Crusades effect on the Middle East. About Education. Retrieved from:

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