Beyond words

Published February 24, 2015
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC. He is editor of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peacebuilding Lens.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC. He is editor of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peacebuilding Lens.

LAST week, President Barack Obama hosted a global summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). The goal: to galvanise a global campaign that seeks to tackle the growing threat extremists pose to modern societies. That the CVE world needed such an impetus is undebatable. But do we have the wherewithal to take this campaign to its logical conclusion?

One way to answer this is to see what works in other global campaigns. For instance, one can learn from campaigns in the health, education, poverty alleviation sectors that have years of experience and some remarkable results to boast of.

Here are some of the prerequisites believed necessary for success: a clear understanding of what is being addressed; indicators to measure progress; abundant resources; absence of obvious selection prejudices in choosing campaign targets; and contextualised approaches that resonate with local communities where the interventions are being made.

So where do we stand with CVE? The easy one first: we are okay in terms of resources. The world is threatened enough to keep throwing money at the problem for now. But that is as far as the good news goes. Otherwise, even the basics are not in place. We still haven’t agreed on a definition of the problem. Examine all the states directly tackling violent extremism and you’ll find that their number one, two, and three strategy is use of force. All the talk about broader non-violent policy options is just that — talk.


Will the White House summit goals translate into action?


This amounts to a basic conflation. In using force, the challenge being addressed is terrorism, not extremism. Extremism speaks to mindsets (as opposed to actions) of those who are convinced of their ideology and in the merit of using violence to further it. CVE must be about preventing violence by reversing mindsets. While curbing extremism will curb terrorism, excessive use of force by states against terrorists can create more extremists.

You can’t come up with indicators to measure progress if you can’t agree on definitions — especially so for a concept as amorphous and intangible as extremism.

As for prejudices and selection biases, the problem here is obvious: the focus of global CVE is the Muslim world. Worse, Muslim societies know this and feel threatened.

Equating violent extremism with Muslim societies is the single best way to antagonise even the moderate Muslim voices. Equally, for Muslim societies to believe that this is an agenda-driven campaign targeting their values is self-defeating. In reality, no one is undermining the value systems of Muslims writ large more than the violent extremists who misuse Islam to justify sub-human behaviour.

Regardless, champions of CVE must recognise that mere statements claiming absence of any prejudice are not going to be enough. Right-wing opinion in the West does see violent extremism and Islamic fundamentalism as near-synonymous and extremists cash in on this to appeal to mainstream Muslims. Leaders of Muslim countries and societies must dispel this perception among Muslims or they will end up playing into the hands of the extremists.

Two observations flow from experiences of other campaigns.

First, ‘militant’ (figuratively speaking) app­ro­aches that seek to force an issue in a heavy-handed manner work far fewer times than ones where local communities are involved and convinced of the campaign’s merit. Second, campaigns using symbols, justifications and incentives that locals are comfortable with are preferable to those that require them to go through fresh adaptations.

This throws up challenges. For one, use of force won’t work. The approach to violent extremism has to be broader; it has to entail mediation, persuasion, edu­­­­­cation, and potent counter-narratives. Specifically on counter-narratives, they must challenge the framing of the extremists. For Muslim societies, this implies using moderate religious voices to expose extremist efforts to distort religion.

Next, the bankrollers of the campaign are likely to be the rich, Western countries. But their presence is what gives the feeling of this being an alien campaign. Therefore, they will have to stay out — at least as far as having their fingerprints on things is concerned.

And on incentives, economic ones are the most commonly talked about. But there is also evidence that susceptibility to violent extremism increases if individuals feel disempowerment. States would thus have to address political and social barriers to empowerment.

All these issues were raised at or around the White House summit. And yet, the machinery in place to operationalise this agenda is so top-down, so dependent on donor funding, so prone to seeking quick fixes that we will require a complete overhaul of the problem’s conceptualisation, of our bureaucratic systems, and benchmarks for success for this to work. That will be a bridge too for all those who gathered in Washington this past week.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC. He is editor of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peacebuilding Lens.

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2015

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