Panelists discuss violent extremism

March 1, 2019

Three experts on violent extremism from various backgrounds participated in a panel discussion on countering and preventing violent extremism, moderated by Prof. Jytte Klausen (POL). The discussion was focused on understanding the relationship between Islamophobia and countering violent extremism and preventing violent extremism policies.

Violent extremism is a challenge the contemporary world faces every day. The number of foreign terrorist fighters joining the Islamic State have been drastically increasing, becoming a large concern for governments. In response to this, there has been a large number of policies created to prevent violent extremism, with a particular focus on Muslim youth.

Currently, there is a large emphasis put on partnership approaches as well as community engagement, to counter early signs of extremist radicalization and terrorist recruitment among young people. It is an issue that is impactful both internationally and domestically. Klausen started off the discussion with the main question of whether current efforts in countering and preventing violent extremism have been counterproductive.

Farah Pandith, an expert and pioneer on countering violent extremism and political appointee under three presidential administrations, at the National Security Council, U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Department of State, responded first. She started by telling the audience what countering violent extremism is in her eyes.

Pandith believes that countering violent extremism is not what people may think: The genesis of it today is stopping youth from joining these extremist groups. The cause of that, she believes, is the us vs. them phenomenon, which causes the othering of young Muslims. Pandith emphasized that understanding why youth are attracted to these groups is the first step in solving this issue.

This war of ideology is something that causes an emotional response in the youth, as they are faced with the question: Who am I? They are unsure whether they should identify with the culture with which they are surrounded or the religion they grew up in. The struggle with solving these issues is trying to figure out how to stop this flow of ideas and influences. Pandith believes that paying attention to the environment of those who are most vulnerable to such influences is crucial to understanding the issue.

In response to how well countering violent extremism has worked thus far, Pandith simply said, “We have not done well.” She explained that there are too many short-term solutions to issues that are not solvable overnight and not enough long-term efforts. She noted that extremists groups are recruiting from a demographic of a billion people and that “they are working 24/7: Why are we not?”

Pandith highlighted that countering violent extremism is not an issue that just the government should be working on. It must be a united effort of the government, civil society and the private sector, if the issue is to be solved.

Paul Turner, a leader in conflict prevention, mitigation and response, with a focus on violent extremism who promotes new approaches to local, national and international conflicts, emphasized how easy it is to fall into otherization without even realizing that you have done so. Throughout his work, he has been exposed to a lot of examples of this, which showed him that “killing the bad guys is not enough.” The key to solving the problem is prevention and integration.

Turner believes that the problem with the current approach is that it is not holistic. This was one of the factors that fueled violent extremism, both from outside and within. As an example, he highlighted Hollywood, where, since the late 90s, most of the villains have been Muslim terrorists.

Saida Abdi, the Associated Director for Community Relations at the Boston Children’s Hospital Refugee Trauma and Resilience Center (BCHRTRC), added that there has been a lot of “bad which came from good intentions” when it comes to violent extremism. A lot of the programs created have been the biggest recruitment for these extremist groups because they send the message to Muslim youth that the West does not like them.

A large mistake made, according to Abdi, is that those trying to prevent violent extremism go to the Muslim communities and try to impose their views and ideas on the youth. Instead of mitigating the issues, this creates a larger sense of otherness. She found that in her own work, which focuses on supporting children and families impacted by violence and migration, they only received a positive response when the parents were told that they are not working for the government.

There has been a 10 to 20 fold increase in commited Jihadists globally, however, which seems to imply that countering violent extremism cannot do anything. In response to this, Pandith pointed out the flaws in the current data: It cannot be just about the youth who goes abroad to fight for these groups; this does not show the entire picture. Youth that have been radicalized but have not yet acted should also be accounted for, which would create a completely different picture. Turner agreed that the amount of hate globally has skyrocketed. A large cause of this, according to him, is that not many actually ask the members of the community how they believe the issue should be solved, and they would be the ones that know best. Abdi agreed with that, saying that it is a “unique issue” that requires solutions that are “uniquely tailored to the community.”

Another question addressed to the panelists was that, since preventing violent extremism has not worked, would it not be better to dedicate the resources to other programs that are known to work? Pandith responded by saying that it is a very small issue in comparison to other violence, but a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to it. “We can work on many things at the same time; we do not spend a lot of money on this,” contrary to popular belief. Just because the world will stop paying attention to these groups does not mean these groups will stop working or recruiting youth.

To conclude, Turner said that if we, as a society, are to embrace globalization, we must also accept responsibility for one another. Pandith added that this is not just about Muslim youth; this is about all of us. If we want to solve this problem, everyone has to contribute.

The event was sponsored by a donation from Brandeis alumnus Ammad Bahalim ’04, The Bahalim Fund, International and Global Studies, the Politics Department, the Heller School and the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

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