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Western Lessons in Countering Extremism


By Imtiaz Gul

 Weekly Pulse, April 19, 2013


At a recent conference in Ottawa, exchange of views with officials and experts from Australia, United Kingdom and Germany provided interesting perspectives on violent extremism. It was quite relieving to observe that a decade of state response to Al-Qaeda-inspired violence has entailed a number of lessons not only for the predominantly Muslim countries, but also for culturally diverse nations such as the United Kingdom, United States of America, Germany, France, Canada and Australia. 

These nations represent the prime examples of multi-culturalism, and are home to people of all colors and creed, from all over the world. Once sworn in as citizens, immigrants cease to be seen as outsiders and thus become equal in the eyes of the law, hence the increasing emphasis on “integration, inclusion and reach out to all segments” of the society without prejudice to a particular group. 

Secondly, Western experts and officials have stopped projecting “violent extremism” (VE) as something associated with Muslims only. Instead, based on lessons learnt, they have expanded the scope to all acts of violence – regardless of which religious belief or social strata they come from. Essentially, VE is not used any more as a tag specific to Muslims only. 

But before dilating on whether and what Pakistan has done or is doing to counter the phenomenon of extremism or radicalization of minds, let us take a cursory look at what other countries have done in this regard. An Australian government White Paper prepared in 2010, for instance, clearly spells out that “At present, the greatest terrorist threat to Australia and Australian interests comes from people who follow a distorted and militant interpretation of Islam that calls for violence as the answer to perceived grievances. However, the government is working to deal with all forms of violent extremism that pose a threat to our community, whether politically, religiously or racially motivated.

Although dealing with human beings vulnerable to personal and social pressures is something always in the works, most of these countries appear to have done quite a bit in assuaging bruised egos and address grievances. 

In Australia, for instance, a 2010 official White Paper identified the risk that vulnerable individuals in Australia become radicalized to the point of using violence was as a major concern in the government’s Counter-Terrorism strategy. 

Guided by the White Paper, the government allocated $9.7 million over four years to tackling home-grown violent extremism. This adds to the $77 million allocated to the broader social inclusion and national security agendas as part of the “whole government approach” in coping with political and social extremism. A Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Unit in the Attorney-General’s Department coordinates a national approach to countering violent extremism. 

The CVE Unit works across Government and with state and territory governments, community organisations and peak bodies to develop evidence-based policies and projects to tackle these threats. Similarly, the UK government, too, recognizes this in its PREVENT strategy (UK Prevent Strategy, 2009: protect, prevent and prepare). “The most serious is from Al Qa’ida, its affiliates and like-minded organisations. All the terrorist groups who pose a threat to us seek to radicalise and recruit people to their cause. We judge that radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence; by propagandists for that ideology here and overseas; and by personal vulnerabilities and specific local factors which, for a range of reasons, make that ideology seem both attractive and compelling,” say the Prevent Strategy report. 

Another multi-ethnic and culturally diverse state, Canada, too has developed its own strategy for “countering violent extremism” (CVE). 

While acknowledging “Violent Islamist extremism” as the leading threat to Canada’s national security, the Canadian government has devised a CVE Strategy that operates through four mutually reinforcing elements: Prevent, Detect, Deny and Respond. All Government activity is directed towards one or more of these elements because, said the Canadian minister for Public Safety, several Islamist extremist groups have identified Canada as a legitimate target or have directly threatened our interests. The strategy also recoginzes violent “homegrown” Sunni Islamist extremists as one of the most serious threats to the social, political and commercial interests of Canada. 

The U.S. CVE initiative aims to reduce the number of sympathizers and demobilized supporters. The government’s primary approaches are “challenging justifications for violence,” “promoting the unifying and inclusive vision of…American ideals,” and providing support to vulnerable individuals in communities targeted for terrorist recruitment. For each type of activity, the United States encourages local communities targeted by terrorist organizations to play a leading role in carrying out these approaches. 

This suggests that all aforementioned countries are trying to learn lessons and recalibrate their policies accordingly. They are identifying issues, prescribing countering strategies, fixing responsibilities and executing plans. 

Pakistan, unfortunately, looks like a rudderless ship in the middle of many storms, topped by a ruthless militancy, and rocked by a wave of extremism that draws support from social and political strata. Though military and civilian officials untiringly describe this as “the existential threat,” they offer little in black and white on how to counter this threat. The countries mentioned above allow “zero tolerance” for any act or word that may threaten the social peace or compromise socio-political and economic interests of the state. No compromise on the rule of law either. Canada, for example, defines as terrorism any “act or omission undertaken, inside or outside Canada, for a political, religious or ideological purpose that is intended to intimidate the public with respect to its security, including its economic security, or to compel a person, government or organization 
(whether inside or outside Canada) from doing or refraining from doing any act, and that intentionally causes one of a number of specified forms of serious harm.” 

Similar definitions guide other countries too, but in Pakistan – battered and bruised by extremist religion-political forces – one can hardly discern clear vision on these issues. Even the PPP-led government with widespread support failed in crafting a counter-extremism strategy. Who will do it then?

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk