President Obama has a certain cool about him. He's made a Buzzfeed video, he knows his pop-culture, and plays basketball. So, it should come as no surprise that at last week's White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Obama, alongside other less cool U.S. administration types, were impressed by the creative new approaches at the heart of tackling violent extremism in Europe. Animations were just one of these. US government representatives were all staring up as bold characters took to the screens.
No, they didn't all take a break and decide to watch the Simpsons. There were a few new characters introduced at the Summit in a showcase of the finest and most innovative approaches to CVE in the world - the use of animation. They're set to make it to the top, and whilst they might not be able to compete with the banter of the Griffins for a spot on Adult Swim, they can certainly compete with extremist groups like ISIS. They are cartoon characters that are making steps to counter the online recruitment propaganda of extremist groups like ISIS, famed for their relentless use of social media to draw in vulnerable youth.
Abdullah-X is but one of these fictional characters that has taken a life of his own. When he's not time travelling or hosting the Abdullah-X show, he's a normal teenager exploring what it means to be a young British Muslim. As with many of his (non-fictional) contemporaries, he challenges Islamophobia, western foreign policy, and asks questions about groups such as ISIS such as "Five Considerations for a Muslim on Syria". Like many internet stars, Abdullah-X is making it big on his YouTube channel and social media.
Abdullah-X is at the centre of a campaign that aims to challenge the narratives of jihadists through audio-visual content. Engaging videos, music, and spoken word are at the core of what makes him appealing to youth at risk of radicalisation. Why? Because at risk youth are just that - youth - and kids like multi-sensory explosions, especially when they find it themselves trawling the internet.
However, counter-narratives can't just appeal to the eyes and ears. There needs to be a message - an alternative script to read from that provides youth with a storyline that is different to that of extremist groups. Credible messengers - former extremists, survivors of violent extremism, and community and religious leaders - can provide that. Obama said it himself. Due to their personal circumstances these individuals are prime agents to deliver messages that challenge dangerous narratives. Abdullah-X is the brainchild of a former extremist that once followed the teachings of notorious clerics Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri - both of which are definitely not role-model characters.
We need to fight back with campaigns that encourage critical thinking, and answer the questions that youth want answers to in a positive way. This 'been there, done that' reality of former extremists gives legitimacy to the message that there is 'something better' than the 'false promises' of extremist movements.
Average Mohamed is Abdullah-X's more matured counterpart. He can't quite time travel, but that's his thing - he's average, and he's confident there's nothing wrong with that. He's around to "talk plainly to humanity" and give average parents who deal with average kids a way of approaching every day topics that can empower them to discredit extremist ideologies. The creator of the project, NAME, said "the day you put the word Jihad in YouTube and 100 messages for peace created averagemohamed.com pops up" is how he measures success.
Our male friends aren't the only ones spreading positive and alternative messages. The Burka Avenger is a female force to be reckoned with. Created by famous Pakistani social activist and rock star Haroon, the award-winning animated series features Jiya, a teacher by day, a burka-wearing superheroine by night. Instead of fighting with fists, swords, and a scowl she uses books and pens to fight crime.
With so much attention on the young girls flocking to join ISIS from the UK and elsewhere, surely a message like Jiya's that empowers girls and stands up to extremism should be spread.
On the big screen we often see a good guy and a bad guy. In this animated feature that follows a battle for hearts and minds campaigns like Abdullah-X, Average Mohammed, and the Burka Avenger are the good guys that rival violent extremist groups. But, they need sidekicks. They need more appealing campaigns to come forward that challenge the narratives of all extremist groups and ideologies. They need the facilitative support of governments and more direct help from the private and tech sectors to help reach their target audiences on social media and disseminate their messages.
Extremist groups like ISIS have taken leaps to disseminate their harmful messages on the internet where we have taken steps. The White House Summit concluded that "we need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion, and we especially need to do it online." Online animations like these have taken proactive steps to reclaim that online space, and in so doing embed themselves in the offline realities. With stories and script-writing like this, these animations-come-heroes are true contenders to win the online battle against extremist groups like ISIS.