‘Countering violent extremism’ – challenges and responses


Violent extremism is caused primarily by religious ideology more than racism, poverty, military interventions by foreign governments and human rights abuses, according to a new global poll published this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In all countries except Turkey and Egypt, the root cause of violent extremism is primarily felt to be religious fundamentalism, says the survey on Global Perceptions of Violent Extremism, which asked 8000 participants in eight countries – China, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States – some 65 questions about the extent of violent extremism, motivations and drivers, appropriate responses, and effective strategies to combat the threat.

Lack of moderate religious guidance is seen as major secondary factor –much more so in Indonesia, Egypt and India, the survey found:

  • Western countries, along with India and China, believe that radical Islamic fundamentalists are the primary driver of violent extremism, but in Muslim-majority countries, more consider violent extremism to be the work of those who want to make Islam look bad.
  • The most effective course of action is considered to be military action –10 percentage points ahead of other options in France, the United States, United Kingdom, and China. Muslim-majority countries offer a more nuanced approach –Egyptians reference a mix of economic actions and mass media and social networks to push back against the ideology, Turkey a mix of economic and military actions, and Indonesians suggest diplomacy and economic actions but don’t discount military options.
  • When considering programs addressing poverty, joblessness, and social conditions OR programs addressing the ideology and extremist narratives, people in the United Kingdom, France and the United States tend to feel these aren’t making a difference (although in the latter case large minorities say they don’t know). Countries like Indonesia, India and Egypt have a more positive view, as between 60 and 72 percent feel they’re working.
  • Most people are in favor of a range of suggested measures for combatting violent extremism…., including community-led efforts in each country that counter extremists’ messaging and ideology, and cutting off aid and relations to countries that allow the teaching of extremist ideologies on their schools.
  • Majorities in all countries except the United Kingdom think the threat of violent extremism is solvable. Majorities also agree their generation has a role to play in stopping the appeal of extremist ideologies –68 percent overall and prevalent across age brackets.

The survey confirms that “the battlefield isn’t just in the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa,” said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The long-range war is for hearts and minds: a sustained battle of ideas. Security measures are vital. But you can’t arrest an idea.”

“The movement’s leaders and ideologues are often highly educated. They have the ability to radicalize and recruit with alarming speed on and offline,” he added. “If we can understand, discredit and disrupt their ideology, then we can undermine the very foundations on which this global movement is built.”

The U.S. State Department this week launched an initiative – Creative Minds or Social Good – to encourage Middle East and North African moderates to employ online propaganda to counter Islamic extremism and motivate positive alternatives.

Now, both domestically and internationally, the U.S. is reaching out to credible community organizations and voices, offering funding and networking, The Toronto Star’s Michelle Shephard reports:

Last month, Jigsaw, Google’s think tank devoted to tackling thorny geopolitical issues, announced a new tool called “Redirect,” which essentially uses patterns of online activity or keywords for those searching for Daesh material, to place advertisements that present countervailing content. The ads, developed by the U.K.’s Moonshot CVE, a data-based tech start-up, and Beirut-based Quantum Communications, attempt to demystify and contradict Daesh’s messaging and are as subtle as the State Department’s “ISIS Land” was loud.

And yet there is still skepticism that any government partnership can work, Shephard adds.

“The U.S. government has already tried everyone’s Great Frick’n Idea over and over, and no one knows when the shiny new Great Frick’n Idea was last tried and how well it did,” said Will McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse. “Staff turnover and the gigantic size of the U.S. government ensure this will always be the case. Repeated calls for co-ordination, strategy, etc. will never herd these cats.”

The pledge to now partner with “credible” voices in the community is code for “non-government people who’ll mouth my talking points but probably don’t have sway with anyone who matters.”

But Charlie Winter, an associate at The Hague’s International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, doesn’t believe that is a reason to abandon any efforts, Shephard adds.

“The Islamic State considers the media and information sphere as one of its key battlegrounds,” says Winter. “They have spoken about it often and I’ve come across it in official documents where they say it is as much as 50 per cent of its war.”

“We have to try it. But we need to be as innovative as possible.”

There is “a common misconception about Islamic State propaganda that it starts and finishes with brutality,” As Winter writes in a report (right) on the Virtual Caliphate for the London-based Quilliam Foundation. But Daesh’s less publicized videos embrace themes of victimhood, belonging, mercy and “apocalyptic utopianism,” he adds.

But millions of people across the region are already pursuing creative, peaceful ways to effect political change and counter extremist narratives, says Dr. Nadia Oweidat, a Middle East fellow at New America.

Take the example of Aramram, a Jordanian WebTV platform. Its videos provide unprecedented civic education for young Jordanians, in easy-to-follow language, she told the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Competitive Soft Power and Engagement Seminar on “Arts, Culture, and the Media in the Contemporary Middle East: Competitive Soft Power and Engagement in the Arab World”:

In one of their programs called, “209 King Hussein Street,” named after the address of the Parliament building, they discuss every bill proposed or passed by the members of the parliament, acting as a Jordanian C-SPAN. While this doesn’t raise an eyebrow in America, for a country where most votes are cast to support one’s tribe or religious affiliation, this kind of civic education aims at fundamentally changing voting patterns and creating, for the first time, a state-based citizen, rather than a tribal citizen, with expectations of an accountable government.

Or take the example of Sami al-Hourani, a brilliant Jordanian medical doctor who decided to leave a fellowship at Stanford University to dedicate his time to a platform he created – Fursa, Arabic for opportunity – to help his fellow young men and women find training and fellowships. …

Another not-for-profit, Soliya, uses special video conferencing software to give youth the space and time to engage in deep cross-cultural learning and dialogue around identity, values, world views so that they don’t develop hate and intolerance, Waidehi Gokhale tells The Financial Times.

Social media: Challenging the jihadi narrative

Humza Arshad is one of a growing group of digital media stars who use YouTube videos, Facebook posts, tweets, photos and standup comedy to counter the barrage of extremist propaganda online, The FT notes in a Special Report on Social media: Challenging the jihadi narrative:

His YouTube series, which tackles issues facing Muslim youth in London, has been watched more than 73m times. One video, “I’m a Muslim, not a terrorist” has been screened in more than 100 schools around the UK by the police. …One of YouTube’s earliest offerings, an animated series starring a fictional working-class Londoner called Abdullah-X (above), was put together by a former Islamist extremist and animator….. Abdullah-X is not targeted at a general audience, like Mr Arshad’s satirical comedy, but aimed squarely at people sympathetic to extremism.

But while social media companies are keen to promote their efforts in this area, its effectiveness in preventing terrorism is unproven, The FT adds.

“But such counter narrative efforts are in “a primitive stage,” says Professor Peter Neumann, founder and director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London.

“It’s fantastic that Facebook or Google are sponsoring one or two projects, but that doesn’t give you enough data to make viable statements about whether counter-speech works or not,” he adds. “If someone has made up his or her mind and you then try to counter their view, it could produce a response known as reactance — actually causing them to become even more resolute in their opinions because you are challenging their beliefs.”.

Counter-narratives must take into account that the Islamic State’s messaging strategy is fundamentally different from al-Qaeda’s messaging strategy, McCants adds:

As I document in my book, al-Qaeda cared a lot about Muslim public opinion during its war with the United States over the past decade so it made sense for the United States to try and tarnish its image by advertising its brutality against Muslims. The Islamic State doesn’t give a damn about building broad support among the Muslim masses, so using the same messaging strategy against it that the U.S. government used against al-Qaeda has led to some misfires.

Some analysts have argued that promoting political reform in the Middle East undermines efforts to combat radical Islamists.

“But we learned a long time ago that promoting human rights and preventing terrorism are not competing interests,” said Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Arguably the worst counterterrorism strategy ever invented is Egypt’s mass incarceration of thousands of peaceful activists and opposition supporters right alongside the most hardcore terrorists, he told a recent forum on the future of Arab reform at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

A recently released Egyptian activist told us that “there are arguments that go on all day [in those prisons] between the ISIL model and the Muslim Brotherhood model — and the ISIL guys are winning the argument.” Let’s remember: The terrorists’ core argument to frustrated young men in the Middle East is: “If you think you can get change through elections or protests, you’re a fool; you will be jailed, tortured, and crushed; we who use violence, on the other hand, are strong and will be victorious.”

Don’t confuse good counterterrorism cooperation with good counterterrorism, Malinowski added. “The former is necessary, but a finger in the dike. The latter — effective counterterrorism — is what prevents the flood. It requires political reform that gives all legitimate stakeholders in the Middle East a voice in their governance, including peaceful Islamist parties.”

The latest report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism Subcommittee recommended combating terrorist recruitment by using “formers” — that is, former terrorists — to speak out against joining extremist groups, notes Christopher Graves, a recent Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Resident honoree for behavioral science. But experts caution that the “former” must have arrived at their conversion through their own deliberation, not through torture, he writes for the Harvard Business Review:

The convert’s decision must be a result of a clash between their unwavering personal values and their former group that has lost its way. This gives permission to others to follow them without feeling like they are betraying their values or their real group.

Civil society groups and religious leaders have an important role to play in preventing extremist groups like Boko Haram, argues Maryam Dada-Ibrahim of Nigeria’s Women of Faith Peace-building Network.

Religious leaders have a particular role to play through formal and informal religious curricula and preaching, corrective interpretations of dogma and in providing psycho-social support to those vulnerable to recruitment.

“Government should offer skills and knowledge training to religious leaders, helping them to understand work on countering violent extremism and to put it in culturally and religiously relevant frames,” she said.

Liberal arts are also a potential antidote to political extremism, according to Ted Purinton and Allison Hodgkins of the American University in Cairo, who note that a recent book by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog – “Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education” – found that engineering graduates are more likely than graduates from other disciplines to channel frustrations into violent extremism.

“Engineering education both inspires and attracts individuals with an affinity for cognitive closure — the dependency on formulaic procedures and top-down approaches to solving problems,” they note. By contrast, “the central tenet of a liberal arts education is the consideration of multiple viewpoints, alternative explanations and competing beliefs….It is through the deliberate exposure to differing paths to knowledge that students learn to contextualize conflicting opinions.”

“In other words, a liberal arts education requires an embrace of cognitive dissonance and disallows the sort of cognitive closure in which extremism thrives,” they contend.


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