Countering Violent Extremism Reconsidered

Commentary | March 30, 2016

Recently, a journalist told me that the term Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) has been overused. CVE has become a catchphrase for many programs that seek to understand what motivates young terrorists, focusing on the culture of Muslim youth, mainly in Europe. It seeks to address how groups like the Islamic State are funded, supplied with weapons, and present themselves to the world. Thus CVE, the journalist said, has become a catchword that runs from finance to urban sociology to theology. Because of this, she said, the term has become almost meaningless: she called it lazy thinking. Programs by Western experts and governments use the phrase to indicate that they are doing something about the Islamic State in order to be able to say it, but do little more than that.

This may be somewhat unfair-it's doubtless important to tackle the complex problems posed by the rise of the Islamic State and its ability to attract volunteers to its cause. Smart people from many nations are working on the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), seeking to implement the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy. Among other things, they seek to build awareness, counter extremist narratives, emphasize community-led intervention, and promote social work. The idea is to address the long-term causes of terrorism, and examine the communities most susceptible to messaging from IS and other such groups.

Where the journalist may have a point, however, is in the gap between how traditional authorities take on this new and complex challenge. Take the question of countering the extremist narrative. Experts, such as Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation or Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations, emphasize the need to look at the context of the extremist narrative rather than simply providing a Western perspective. In a sense, they argue that the way to counter the narrative is actually by being familiar with the inner workings of the narrative itself. It helps that both of these experts are not simply observers, looking at Islam from the outside, but who can, by experience and study, quote the Q'uran itself to contradict extremist arguments.

In a broader sense, CVE can't succeed in a vacuum. That is, for all the attraction of the CVE approach, there's another context that can't be ignored: the real-world situations in Syria and Libya, throughout the Levant and Maghreb. Inherent in the term CVE-that is, that we're countering something rather than steering it-is the notion that we're always behind, that the extremists make the first move and we respond to it. This is why it's so important that we articulate a strategic vision for the region.

Yes, of course it's not simply up to the West to decide what will happen in the Middle East-in its most vivid form, we tried that a century ago and ended up with states whose borders (even whose very existence) are now in question. Rather, we need to think about what we would like to see in a post-IS Middle East. By we I mean people of influence and power in the Middle East, Europe and indeed around the world. Too often the rhetoric of policy has been defensive. It's understandable that we want to defend ourselves against the attacks of extremists. But is that enough? If we are able to defeat the immediate threat, what do we want to see in its place?

The Sykes-Picot state system is collapsing, prompting the question of what do we want as a replacement? Is this something that political cultures as diverse as America, Russia, China, India, Japan and Europe can address together, inasmuch as they think of themselves as orderly and look with concern at the Middle East as a source of disorder?

This is high on the agenda of the EastWest Institute: not only looking at the challenge we face today, but assessing prospects for what comes tomorrow. EWI's Brussels office faces present day realities: its location is just steps away from the metro that was bombed by IS last week. That same office is addressing the key factors that contributed to that horrific act, by convening those who want to look beyond this one incident and look toward countering violent extremism in the long-term and to the development of key steps and strategies to stem similar acts across the region and the globe.

Our MENA program, based in Brussels, aims at addressing root causes of violent extremism, focusing particularly on understanding the geopolitical jockeying for political influence among the diverse actors. In this way, we can create the foundation for sustainable efforts to combat violent extremism. In addition, this approach allows for the development of anticipating post-ISIS and post Sykes-Picot challenges by building trust between the various actors, and therefore help develop a unified vision to address security concerns, and enhance economic and political cooperation.