Discussion Paper | June 08, 2008

Countering Violent Extremism: Beyond Words

The last seven years have seen leading Americans falter in their communications about violent extremists and the communities believed to be fostering them.

Policymakers, journalists, and community leaders have reached an impasse in crafting a common understanding of how to describe the link between religion and violent extremism, both from a factual point of view and in terms of what might be effective in undermining the appeal of extremist movements.

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Executive Summary

The last seven years have seen leading Americans falter in their communications about violent extremists and the communities believed to be fostering them. Policymakers, journalists, and community leaders have reached an impasse in crafting a common understanding of how to describe the link between religion and violent extremism, both from a factual point of view and in terms of what might be effective in undermining the appeal of extremist movements. This paper begins at this impasse. It reviews the choices to be made about language and rhetoric in U.S. public discourse as elements of a necessarily broader communications strategy to counter violent extremism. It takes account of how these choices flow through the global media, especially Arabic outlets. It concludes with a call to go beyond debates about the words themselves and to implement a holistic approach to communication that comprehends both the contemporary media environment and the cultural and political landscape of conflict. Communication cannot be composed merely of canny use of media, nor only of a well-crafted message. In the 21st century media environment, words shape actions, actions beget words, and both are in perpetual, dynamic relationship.