The Roots of a Failing War Against Extremism, At Home and Abroad
Governments across the world are aware of the need to win the war of ideas with Islamism. However, many governments in the West have chosen to prosecute this war very timidly.
Many of these efforts have revolved around “preventing” or “countering violent extremism,” a phrase which emerged in the United Kingdom after the London suicide bombings of July 2005 and the Labour government’s attempts to address homegrown radicalization. In 2010, a Home Office official told me that “violent extremism” was the preferred phrase of choice for the British government in its attempts to stop people turning to terrorism as it removed any religious connotations. Unfortunately, however, even “violent extremism” was too offensive for some. “We are thinking of changing the name again,” the official said. “Because now everyone knows that when we say ‘violent extremism,’ we are actually talking about Islamism.”
Still, the phrase stuck and eventually made its way over to the United States, which created its own Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program. Yet today, that program is failing, weighed down by being overly ambitious, expansive and not discerning enough in who its partners with. There are some steps the United States can make, however, to correct course.
CVE has domestic and foreign components. The Department of Homeland Security explains that, here in the United States, CVE aims to tackle the root causes of terrorism by the promotion of “counter-narratives” and providing resources to local Muslim communities so they can try and persuade others of the bankruptcy of the terrorists’ cause.
Abroad, the Obama administration’s State Department placed CVE as a “critical” part of its counterterrorism strategy that sought “to address the entire life cycle of radicalization to violent extremism.”
So, of all the accusations that can be made of CVE, insufficiently ambitious goals is clearly not one of them. Whether the Trump administration pursues a similar path is as of yet unknown, although it seems unlikely as confidence in the program seems to be waning. The Trump administration has not paid any of the $10 million in grants that the Obama administration had allocated for the program. The White House’s proposed budget for the Department of Homeland Security would see CVE funding erased entirely by fiscal year 2018. While CVE has become a bugbear for Republicans — from those in Congress to those on the airwaves — this would only be a cause for celebration if it leads to a better policy developing in CVE’s wake.
Some of the ideas behind CVE — engagement between local American Muslim communities, government, and the police — are laudable and have a national security benefit. It allows the authorities to get a clearer idea of how potentially hard-to-reach communities work and what their key issues are. It opens up crucial lines of communication and helps build mutual trust. In other counties, this has meant information and intelligence sharing has become easier. Similarly, the idea of trying to work with local communities to provide young, radicalized people with a pathway away from terrorism is a hard thing to disagree with.
Yet there are clear flaws in CVE, both in design and execution. The arrival of a new administration provides a perfect opportunity to rewrite the current policy.
The problems with CVE start in its title. As its name suggests, CVE focuses on the most violent symptoms of extremism. Consequently, it tends to downplay broader and deeper problems. Take the threat of Islamism: an expansionist, totalitarian politicization of religion that aims to unite the Muslim ummah (community or people) under a caliphate run by sharia law.
We should not only be interested in the violent methods that Islamists use to achieve their goals, but what those actual goals are and the various ways in which they can be achieved. Not all of these ways will revolve around violence. For example, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaeda, and ISIL are united in believing in the need to create a caliphate and the imposition of sharia law as a desirable thing. There is simply disagreement over when this caliphate should be declared and how bloody the process of establishing it should be.
Certainly, there are many other complex divisions between Islamist groups. Yet overlooking the vision that unites them means we are missing the broader ideological picture.
Therefore, the focus on violence should be altered and the phrase CVE subsequently dropped. This rebranding will cause some discomfort: “violent extremism” is the phrase most commonly used internationally by the United Nations, European Union, and many of America’s Arab allies. Dropping it may not be popular, but that is where much-needed American leadership comes in.
Second, the program needs to become more focused and less ambitious. The temptation has been for CVE to deal with all forms of extremism: white supremacists, black separatists, eco-terrorists, and every other form of fringe movement. This, the most politically correct approach, is taken by allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany. It is also certainly true that the threat posed by white supremacists, for example, is all too real. Law enforcement has to deal with this issue regularly.
Yet this program should be about the threat posed by Islamism. True, Islamism is a fringe movement in the United States. Yet it is not in the Middle East, Africa or — increasingly — Europe. And this is not an ideology which is only interested in reaching certain borders. It is expansionist.
Furthermore, Islamists scapegoat the West — especially the United States — as the source of the world’s ills. It can therefore be no surprise that its violent convulsions lead to planes being flown into buildings or suicide bombings in an arena full of children there. The threat from Islamism is unique.
If the government continues to deal with all forms of extremism equally, it should not fall into the trap of thinking Islamism and neo-Nazis are two sides of the same coin. This is trendy and convenient to argue, but the similarities are negligible. Applying a cookie-cutter strategy to both overlooks crucial differences.
Third, the theological roots of Islamism need addressing, having long been denied or downplayed by the Obama administration. Instead, there was the faintly ridiculous sight of Secretary of State John Kerry proclaiming that supporters of the Islamic State were “apostates.” Or President Obama stating after an American citizen was beheaded by ISIL that their “actions represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith” (it is yet to be established which faiths are more of an inspiration to the group than Islam).
Clearly, the theological aspect of this is complex and how government deals with this is not straightforward. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda use scripture to justify their actions, and it is silly to pretend otherwise. Yes, theirs is not the only interpretation and Islam is not a monolith. But pretending that terrorists are plucking these ideas from nowhere is delusional and dangerous. As Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam has stated, “Vague platitudes that this has nothing to do with Islam are as unhelpful as saying that this is what Islam is all about.”
A sensible conversation about this in broader society — something an honest approach by mainstream politicians can facilitate — would be a good thing. Not tackling this issue head on means that the only ones who end up doing so are on the extreme right. It is clearly an issue that resonates with the public: A recent Pew poll of 12 countries showed a median of 79 percent concerned by Islamist extremism (in the United States, the figure was 72 percent).
Fourth, do not work with extremists in trying to defeat extremism. At times, the Obama administration pursued a path of working with Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This showed that the administration lacked a clear understanding of what Islamism is, let alone how to defeat it.
In the United Kingdom, there are now clear lines of engagement. Its counter-extremism strategy defines extremists as those who have “active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” This has helped British authorities know who and who not to work with. The U.S. government should develop similar criteria for engagement with new partners and disengagement with existing ones in order to maintain consistency of policy across the country.
Fifth, government engagement should not always or even mostly revolve around religion. Engaging with Muslim communities solely by speaking to imams is as absurd and insulting as the government going to see the local priest and thinking they understand all problems facing Catholics. Religion is crucial to Islamism, but we must not allow it to dictate how the government interacts with just regular Americans who also happen to be Muslim.
Sixth, be wary of those claiming to represent mass swathes of “Muslim opinion.” In the United Kingdom, for example, there are groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) who say they “represent a very large portion of the population,” or Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) who claim they are backed by “major Islamic scholars” and “100% Muslim community run.” There is an ongoing temptation for government to rely on such groups as interlocutors to Muslim communities. Yet in reality they simply represent a hardline strain of Islamist thought. Government officials should also remember that their credibility won’t be damaged by refusing to work with such groups. Thinking otherwise is buying into a false narrative.
This leads on to the seventh idea: Worry less about “credible partners.” Credibility is overrated and it is a slippery term that means different things to different people. In the United Kingdom, backing the most “credible” voice may just mean giving government funding and patronage towards the best-organized political Islamists who do not share American values but are willing to criticize the Islamic State and therefore are portrayed as “moderates.” Not only is this a disturbingly low bar, working with one set of extremists in order to defeat another set of extremists is hardly laying the groundwork for a sustainable counter-terrorism or counter-radicalization policy.
Eighth, the government must worry less about how it is perceived. Government officials involved with CVE at times think that the most effective strategy is one where it can get its enemies to like it. The author has been in government meetings where those tasked with tackling extremism has suggested that if the government could only just prove that it was not “Islamophobic,” much of this problem would go away. This is a major mistake. Islamism has a never-ending list of grievances. Indeed, the entire ideology depends on them. If it is not Islamophobia, it is foreign policy. If it is not foreign policy, it is cartoons. And if it is not cartoons, it will most certainly be something else.
Ninth, do not be thrown off course by any backlash. Pursuing a harder line on Islamism will inevitably provoke a fierce response from that same constituency and sections of the media that they will aim to manipulate. It is to be expected. In the United Kingdom, an entire “Preventing Prevent” lobby has sprung up where hard-left activists, opportunistic politicians, Islamist groups, academics and students have worked closely together to try and scupper the government’s CVE agenda. That coalition’s agenda is then amplified in sections of the press. The United States government must be prepared for that and not waver when accusations of anti-Muslim bigotry and “Islamophobia” begin to air.
Tenth, do not only play defense. The U.S. government should prioritize working — both at home and abroad — with Muslim organizations and citizens that are supportive of core American values (democracy, equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.). It should back pluralists and reformists while promoting freedom of conscience in countries that currently do not have it. It shouldn’t be afraid to work with ex-Muslims (who are, unfortunately, often viewed more skeptically by government than hardline Salafists are). It is no secret that such voices are not always regarded as mainstream or “credible,” but they are the ones we want to hear more of. The U.S. government should do what it can to amplify them and not be worried about Islamist attempts to smear ideas and voices that they naturally do not want to hear.
Much of this breaks with current CVE orthodoxy. Yet the orthodoxy is not working. A more focused, honest, and values-driven approach to this problem might just do.
Specializing in terrorism and national security analysis, Robin Simcox is the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.