By Imtiaz Gul
The Friday Times,Dec 07, 2012
A recent consultative workshop on Effective Programming for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) at Brussels drew experts, academics and analysts from all over the world to provide practical ideas on how to programme, identify, formulate, implement, and evaluate the European Union's assistance on CVE to violence-stricken countries such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Most of the debate was premised on the recognition in the last decade or so that security measures hardly provide medium to long term answers to the threat of terrorism, posed by "self-radicalized" or "homegrown" individuals and groups. This is often branded as "violent extremism" that, according to most western analysts, requires greater focus on prevention, or on countering the creeping extremism of minds.
Experts also agreed that both structural and trigger factors ie the reasons behind extremist attitudes - the push and the pull factors - need more attention. Push factors - drivers of extremism - such as weak governance, political repression, unemployment, poverty and injustices serve as a magnet for the pull factors ie political or religious ideologies such as the one espoused and propagated by Al Qaeda and its regional auxiliaries.
Socio-political exclusion, identity crisis and careless branding of disenfranchised segments of the society - sandwiched between oppressive political systems and religious militants - also facilitate the pull factors. Iconic or cult figures, perceived or obvious benefits of association with radical groups or networks, personal tragedies, experienced directly or otherwise by individuals, family or friends, or indirectly by a community with which they share an emotive bond, can also create powerful cognitive openings to prompt participation in violent activities.
Essentially, most of what we heard at the Brussels workshop resonated the American narrative, heavily focused on phrases such as Radicalisation, Recruitment De-radicalisation, Disengagement, and Violent Extremism.
The gathering provided a good insight into the divide that exists between the West and the countries directly or indirectly affected by religious extremism, born out of Al Qaeda's fundamental anti-US narrative since the war on terror began in October 2001. Representatives from the Muslims countries, for instance, reacted with a word of caution as far as the major theme Countering Violent Extremism was concerned. They thought that much of the terminology on militant Islam such as counter-terrorism or violent extremism takes birth in Washington and the rest of the world borrows and propagates it. Some wondered as to whether it was fair to equate anti-American sentiment with violent extremism. The dominant majority in Pakistan, for instance, remains wedded to right and left of the centre mainstream political parties, and are not avid followers of the mullahs. What however drives them to be violent or angry is the paradox of international politics, such as the American and European Middle Eastern policies that, according to representatives from the Muslim world, centre on condoning and appeasing Israel.
One must, however, also admit that Muslim scholars and intellectuals have little say or influence in shaping the narratives on militant Islam. They have failed in provide enough intellectual input into the raging debate as to how to brand the creeping radicalization of minds and how to counter it. Most of them usually lean on what is coined in Western capitals, and end up perpetuating these ideas. Some scholars and experts suggested that the UN needed to take the lead in creating a more consensual counter-extremism or counter-terror narrative. Instead of Washington, the world should be able to look at these issues through the UN prism which can also lend it greater legitimacy.
Also, local context - knowledge, traditions, socio-cultural sensitivities, ethnic and linguistic background - must constitute the core of any counter-extremism intervention, experts said. Forget about what you follow in Washington, London or Berlin and try to adapt your strategies, implementation and monitoring mechanisms to the local context. Most of the Muslim world remains beset with capacity issues such as inefficient and exclusionary governance, deficient justice systems and poor monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, some experts pointed out. They underscored the need for organic responses to political conflicts which, they say, are often exploited by vested interests such as Al Qaeda or its local affiliates.
Some also pointed out how the Saudi Arabian factor - funds and Wahabi ideology - continues to impact the spiraling radicalization across the Muslim world. Many wondered at the usual absence of Saudi representatives from international fora, particularly those focused on how to counter religious extremism. In this context internal and external drivers of radicalization and violent reactions by religio-political groups also came under discussion. Some participants also advised against overlooking the role of geo-politics in fanning violence (Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan).
The EU, we learnt, has drafted new strategies for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, and for Pakistan. These include considerable focus on preventing recruitment and violent extremism, and call for the EU to undertake programming that engages local government and non-government stakeholders.
To appear as an honest broker, many experts from the Muslim countries at the Brussels meeting suggested, the EU needs to craft its own narrative, rather than the one stitched in Washington which is laced with terminology that, however controversial, also shapes the EU view on the Muslim world as well as on the Islamist political movements there.
Analysts and experts also argued that rather than using existing sectarian and ethnic divisions - the Shia-Sunni and the Arab-Persian divide - to resolve conflicts that are essentially political in nature, all future interventions for neutralizing and stopping the radicalization of minds must be embedded in universally acknowledged democratic values.
Rather than dovetailing its responses to what the US thinks and advocates, the EU would do better to avoid applying the CVE prism to political and religious conflicts because such terminology evokes negative connotation. Besides organic solutions and credible local interlocutors, we certainly need to balance security with development. Obsession with military solutions has been counter-productive. What we need is an equally vociferous focus on intellectual interventions as well as improvement and development of social infrastructures in conflict-ridden societies.
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