Countering violent extremism, authoritarians and identity


In February 2015, the Obama administration hosted a summit on countering violent extremism, analysts Colum Lynch and John Hudson write for Foreign Policy. But the phrase remains an “elusive concept,” even within the borders of Europe, where the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have different definitions of what constitutes violent extremism, according to Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism:

In a Feb. 22 report, Emmerson said the lack of an internationally recognized definition for violent extremism or terrorism has created what he called a “well-founded concern” that authoritarian states could use the terms to justify targeting “members of religious minorities, civil society, human rights defenders, peaceful separatist and indigenous groups and members of political opposition parties.”

“You don’t want to make life easier for dictators,” said François Heisbourg, a former French diplomat who serves as a special advisor at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. The lack of a definition, he added, “does make life easier for dictators. It enables them to define those terms.”

The influential idea of a conveyor belt and telltale signatures of radicalization is deeply flawed, says analyst Kenan Malik. For many, the first steps toward terror are rarely taken for political or religious reasons, he writes for The New York Times:

As the French sociologist Olivier Roy, the pre-eminent scholar of European jihadism, puts it, few terrorists “had a previous story of militancy,” either political or religious. Rather, they’re searching for something less definable: identity, meaning, respect.

“The path to radicalization,” reported a British researcher, Tufyal Choudhury, in 2007, “often involves a search for identity at a moment of crisis.” This occurs, he suggested, “when previous explanations and belief systems are found to be inadequate in explaining an individual’s experience.”

Finding few answers in mainstream cultures or belief systems, some search elsewhere, on the fringes. In the past, this might have led them to join movements for political change — that was certainly the route I took in my youth. Now, however, such movements often seem as out of touch as mainstream institutions. So, shaped more by the politics of identity than by progressive politics, some find meaning in a highly tribal, stark and vicious vision of Islam. Ironically, some are as estranged from mainstream Muslim communities as they are from Western society.

“It is not through mosques but through the Internet that such jihadists discover their community,” Malik contends. “Dissociated from social norms, finding their identity within a small group, radicals come to see world events as an existential struggle between Islam and the West and feel empowered to commit acts of horror.” RTWT

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