The Narrative Muses of Christina Nemr

Christina Nemr spent five years working on Countering Violent Extremism in the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. She holds a Master’s degree in Forensic Psychology with a focus on motivations to commit violence. She currently advises on Countering Violent Extremism for public and private entities. Her recent War on the Rocks article Strategies To Counter Terrorist Narratives Are More Confused Than Ever caught the eye of the Narrative Center and spawned this interview.

What has had the greatest influence on your narrative practice?

Earlier in my career, as I began studying forensic psychology, I met with law enforcement officials on the topic of gang recruitment and violence. I appreciated their insight that individuals who joined gangs usually did so not out of any strong convictions about the group’s ideology, but rather because of a myriad of mostly personal factors. That notion has been repeated by numerous terrorism researchers who have found that many individuals who join violent extremist groups do not necessarily believe in the ideology of that group. However, if asked about their motivations for joining, recruits will fall back on the ideology as the primary impetus for their actions. This discrepancy in facts consistently reinforces just how much humans can be unreliable narrators of the motivating factors behind their actions, or even the degree to which humans mold their own stories to fit overarching or more commonly accepted and easily accessible narratives.

What book best explains the intersection of narratives and conflict?

Rather than one book, I’ve learned much from the research of psychologists who study the intersection of narratives and self-identity, like Monisha Pasupathi and Jonathan Adler. Given that humans play a role in driving and perpetuating conflict, I believe that understanding the way humans shape their stories and broader narratives to explain the world around them can offer helpful insights into how misunderstandings arise, intolerance spreads, and violence is condoned.

What is the next step, next horizon for narratives and conflict resolution?

I’m not sure that government policies and programming fully appreciate the role of narratives in both fomenting and mitigating conflicts. Using my time working on counterterrorism in the State Department as an example, narratives are usually brought up in the context of countering terrorist messaging — a goal that’s more focused on discrediting singular messages than it is on understanding the stories people tell about themselves and their environment and why they’re so impactful. I’m encouraged by the work CNCR is doing to change that and look forward to seeing its research disseminated and integrated into policy decisions.

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