International conflict mediator shares strategy for countering extremism in Syria

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Violence will not stop terrorist extremism in Syria, according to international conflict mediator and international law attorney Samar Ali.

Ali presented a lecture titled “Countering Violent Extremism in Syria and Beyond” on Monday, Feb. 29 in the Howard Baker Center.  Her lecture discussed the Syrian conflict over the past decade and strategies for countering violent extremism in the Middle East.

Ali stated that there are now 13.5 million refugees as a result of the Syrian Crisis.  As a result, 40 percent of youths in the Middle East are unemployed, which makes them targets for terrorist recruitment.

“[Terrorist groups] prey upon grievances, and they understand what those are,” she said.  “The smart thing for us to do is to provide alternatives to those grievances.”

Ali stated that these “grievances” that make individuals or communities vulnerable to violent extremism recruitment are predominately conditions like physical insecurity or the inability to provide for oneself or one’s family.  But sometimes there are mental factors as well, such as feeling valued or having a “higher purpose.”

Ali’s solution is to implement strategies that improves living situations for at-risk populations.  Some strategies included promoting human rights, expanding economic and political opportunities and avoiding harmful generalizations about entire groups of people.  She concluded by suggesting that there is a global responsibility surrounding these strategies that cannot be left to just the Middle East.

“The majority of Muslims want to live the same lifestyle that everyone in this room is living right now,” she said. “These people are people, just like anybody else, and they have had historical realities that have pushed them into a very unfortunate time period.  This is a global security matter where we all hold a certain level of responsibility, and if we rise up to the opportunity, we will conquer violent extremism.”

Grace Rotz, a senior studying technical communications attended the lecture. She appreciated the reminder that it is crucial to be well-informed before forming opinions about groups of people, especially during a time when the United States is seeing large numbers of Syrian immigrants enter the country.

“Public policy and international policy deals a lot more talking with the people and not just assuming political rhetoric is always correct,” Rotz said.  “We can’t assume that Americans know everything about Syria or that Syrians know everything about America.  We need to know both sides of the story.”

Ali’s lecture was held by the Howard Baker Center’s Global Security Program, which offers many related events year-round that are free and open to the public.

For more information about events at the Howard Baker center, click here.

Featured Image by The Tennessee Journalist

Edited by Jessica Carr

Paleontologist, author discusses link between humans and fish

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Humans and fish have a lot more in common than most people know, according to fish paleontologist and author Neil Shubin. On Thursday, the lecture “Your Inner Fish” explained how Shubin began his search for the fossil link between fish and land creatures and why this discovery matters today.

Shubin’s search began as a second year Ph.D. student, after his professor showed him a diagram of a fish changing to a land creature.

“It captured my imagination,” he said, “that is, to find evidence how fish, and the descendants of fish, evolved to walk on land. That became my quest in 1987 and it hasn’t changed since.”

These similarities arise from what Shubin calls “a common history with the rest of life on earth.” Scientists find these similarities when they study fossils, embryos and DNA.

“Often some of the best road maps to our own bodies lie in other creatures,” Shubin stated. “Some of the best road maps to the bones of our arms lie in fish (…) some of the basic road maps to understanding the complex tangle of nerves inside our heads lie in sharks.”

Previous scientific research conducted by Ashton Embry in the 1960s led Shubin and an expedition team to the Arctic Islands. In 2004, they uncovered what they called the Tiktaalik, a large, freshwater fish that has both land and water creature characteristics.

This discovery was monumental because the creature had the first neck in fossil records, as well as similar wrist and neck structures to those of humans. These similarities have led biologists to discover other similarities between fish and humans including embryos, muscles and nervous systems.

Such connections have greatly increased medical research to help prevent and cure diseases.

“The breakthroughs that will ultimately enrich and extend our lives will be based in some way on worms, flies and in some cases even fish,” Shubin predicted.

Shubin believes that these advances make today “a very exciting time to be a biologist.” Robert Jacobsen, sixth year Ph.D. graduate student in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department, agrees with Shubin.

“It’s exciting to have people that have made great discoveries come and share those experiences,” he said. “I feel that it’s important to expose myself to those people that are seeking truth.”

After his lecture, Shubin signed copies of his book “Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body,” which was published in 2008.

This lecture was held as part of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department’s annual Darwin Day celebration, which ran from Feb. 9 to Feb. 11.

Featured image by Elizabeth Garrett

Edited by Hannah Hunnicutt

Black Lives Matter group protests city council meeting

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Even with vast developments in Knoxville, Amelia Parker has known for over 30 years where she could go when she wanted to surround herself in what she considers enriched, African-American culture.

“(Magnolia Ave. is) where I went to get my hair done. That’s where I found the Kumba festival, where I found different types of entertainment, where I could find after school programs. Where I could learn, you know, some African history that certainly wasn’t taught in public high schools of Knox County.”

Parker, along with a protest group associated with the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, attended the Knoxville City Council meeting on Tuesday to protest the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission’s Magnolia Avenue Corridor Plan.

The public forum generally only allows a half hour of speaking time for people who sign up. However, Councilman Finbarr Saunders suspended this rule since eight people signed up to speak. This gave everyone five minutes to speak on the subject.

David Hayes, a young man who lives on the south side of Knoxville, made an impassioned plea to the council to rethink their decision.

“What systems do you have in place to keep people from being priced out of their homes,” Hayes said. “Because right now, I don’t see any.”

The protest group referred to the plan as gentrification, saying that beautification of Magnolia Ave. would cause people who live in that area to be priced out of their homes. In addition, the group criticized Knoxville’s funding of additional criminal task forces, which the group says is used primarily to criminalize black youth in south Knoxville.

The development plan includes building condominiums in an overgrown lot in the Magnolia area. The community is concerned that this will lead to more discrimination and will leave certain localities including after school care to suffer.

“South Knoxville has needed services for a long time, but what kind of investors do they attract to the area? Those that will serve UT,” said Parker. “It’s not investment in any kind of infrastructure or people that want to work in the community to make it better.”

The community fears that the new demographic expected to be drawn in will drive out the current community.

“This should be considered the inner city, but we don’t call it the inner city, right? Because it’s predominantly white,” said Parker. “We want investment that doesn’t push us out. We want to be able to carve out a space in this city that represents us. That tells the history.”

The next city council meeting will be on Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building, 400 Main Street.

Jarrod Hall and Hannah Hunnicutt also contributed to this story

Featured image courtesy of

Edited by Hannah Hunnicutt

Psychologist calls on African Americans to ‘take pride in race’

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UT’s McClung Museum was packed with students ready to hear Dr. Umar Johnson’s lecture Pan-Afrikenism, about the rise, fall and redemption of Africa for the Africans Movement, on Wednesday. The clinical psychologist, educator and political scientist called on all African Americans to take pride in their race as part of the Pan-Africanism movement.

Johnson’s lecture challenged African American’s to ban together and appreciate their culture rather than deny it. He stated that in today’s times, many African’s are trying to run away from who they are.

“Before anything else, you are African,” he said. “Until you become proud of what you are, you’ll never fight to protect it.”

During his lecture, he addressed issues including multiculturalism, racism and the war on the African American image. In particular, he spoke to the problems with the thought that we live in a post-racial society.

Johnson partially blames African Americans for their stagnant place on the social ladder because of their promotion of “gangster rap” and the illegal actions inferred in the music. However, he described the post-racial society belief as a lie with continued apathy towards acts of racism in both personal and business relations.

“The new racism is to act like there is no racism,” he said. “When you see (racism) but don’t act, you are guilty.”

Further, he believes that the reason some African Americans attempt to disown their cultural heritage is to try to be accepted in white culture.

“There is something slavery did to you,” he said. “(Slavery) made you comfortable seeing yourself disrespected.”

“Dr. Umar was dynamic throughout his lecture and invoked a lot of agreement, especially by seemingly giving a voice to the African Americans who silence their struggles with racism,” said Hoor Temuri, a freshman business major.

Johnson urged African American’s to value their unique contributions to world history and American history. He cited the courage of African American icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; Marcus Garvey; Harriet Tubman; and his own blood relative, Frederick Douglass.

“Blackness is not based on your color, it is based on the blood in your veins: the DNA,” he said. “In order to be African, it’s not just having the DNA or the ancestry. To be an African you have to psychologically identify as such.”

Austin Pirkle also contributed to this story

Featured image by Austin Pirkle

Edited by Hannah Hunnicutt

Board of Education rejects cultural competency resolution

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The Knox County Board of Education met on Wednesday to discuss several issues still plaguing the school system. The most notable topic was the failure of the Cultural Competency Training (CCT), a cultural competency resolution.

The resolution includes forcing school employees to go through a training system in order to “have a better understanding of how students act around school,” said school board student representative Sydney Gabrielson.

Betsy Hobkirk, an elementary art teacher at West Hills Elementary School, expressed her passion for teaching and brought up some changes that could possibly lay the foundation for CCT, such as smaller classroom sizes and more adults in the school.

Other teachers voiced their opinions on their displeasure with the lack of disciplinary options for students. Many teachers do not want to send their students to the PAC room, similar to an in school suspension, because they would rather work through problems with a hands on approach.

Hobkirk believes that students are now becoming discouraged to show emotion.

“Students struggle in all aspects of life,” she said. “Instead of punishing children for not doing work, find out what’s going on in their life.”

Knoxville resident and resolution supporter Steve Rodgers announced that they have requested training for all surrounding schools, not just certain districts.

Board of Education members were split on opinions towards this resolution. One of the board members’ biggest concerns is the lack of acknowledgment behind the program. Gloria Deathridge, a spectator of the meeting, said that the resolution has “been watered down to basically nothing.”

Board chair member Doug Harris said that the resolution is a “good faith effort (…) but we’re jumping ahead on this.”

Some board members believed that this was too pre-mature and there was not enough detail for a contract of this magnitude to be signed, while others were adamant about bringing this to fruition and working out the kinks when they came along. In the end, the resolution plan failed, with only two “yes” votes; six “no” votes; and one extension vote.

Kyle Furman also contributed to this story

Edited by Hannah Hunnicutt