Policy Report | July 22, 2009

Countering Violent Extremism: Lessons Learned

In a new EWI paper, Jonathan Mroz calls on governments, civil society, religious communities and young people to work towards sustainable human development as an antidote to violent extremism.

Introduction

In his inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama told the Muslim world they would be judged by what they build, not what they destroy. But even if those who build far outnumber those who destroy, many governments and societies will continue to be confronted by the specter of violent extremism. The challenge they face is how to devise effective strategies to counter the extremists and encourage long-term solutions that go beyond merely containing the problem to addressing its root causes. This is the challenge we posed to a wide variety of participants in the EastWest Institute’s Countering Violent Extremism Initiative.

In 2008, EWI’s Countering Violent Extremism initiative began a concerted effort to engage youth, advocacy groups, religious organizations, and local religious leadership to gauge their understanding of violent extremism and to learn what they believe should be done to counter it. Throughout the course of the year, we received a wealth of information, opinions and advice that extends far beyond this report. Further study is needed, but is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this EWI initiative.

As is all too well known, violent extremism is a longstanding and long-studied phenomenon in human history. There are few things that have not been said already. There is, however, a significant gap between what is being said and what is being done. This paper will show that violent extremism is a symptom of a much larger set of problems where solutions must come from concerted efforts by governments and societies worldwide. In order to set the stage, this report will first briefly review what policy experts have said and then review the feedback from people of faith and young people as to how, from their perspectives, solutions can be achieved.

Each specific case of violent extremism arises from a variety of unique factors. A review of cases would require voluminous study. Instead, we are focusing here on recommendations for governments and civil society that will help them work toward a better and safer world. Arguments from civil society and governments bear certain key similarities — both seek to enhance their own security and their own interests. This paper presents an overview of the “rationale” for violent extremism as presented by extremists and terrorists and civil societies’ reactions to such explanations. It also explores what can be done about violent extremism, given that it cannot be easily defined, cannot only be combated ideologically, and cannot be combated through the use of force alone in any sort of sustainable way.