Building Resilient Communities Abroad: A Reflection on the White House Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism

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By Andrew McDonnell

This afternoon, the White House will convene key religious leaders, law enforcement officials, NGO leaders, social service providers, and representatives from countries around the world in a summit on countering violent extremism (CVE). This meeting is an opportunity to celebrate the great strides that have been made in this field since the White House’s 2011 strategy shifted attention away from reactive military solutions and toward proactively building resilient communities. Despite these steps forward, there is still a long way to go. The attacks in Paris, the atrocious violence in Nigeria, and the unprecedented level of foreign recruitment to ISIS make it painfully clear that violent extremist ideology remains influential.

Hopefully, the February summit will inspire further reevaluation of domestic and international CVE policies. Are the existing strategies for community-based programs having the intended impact on vulnerable youth? Do global efforts to contain this ideology have the same vigorous support that ISIS devotes to its recruitment tactics? Do we know enough to distinguish between ideological violence and violence driven by rational grievances? There remains an urgent need for research and sober introspection to answer these difficult questions.

One particular challenge lays in designing a religiously-grounded message of peace that will actually reach the youth who might be sympathetic to violence rationalized by religion. Gaining access to these youth and articulating a compelling counter-narrative is no easy task. It will require collaboration between government officials, credible religious leaders, communications experts, law enforcement, NGOs, and Muslim community leaders.

Fortunately, a model for such collaboration is already being tested domestically in Boston, Los Angeles, and St. Paul. These programs are intended to build trusting relationships between local law enforcement and Muslim communities in order to strengthen the communities’ resilience to extremism. Although the oldest of these programs—St. Paul—has successfully established positive relationships between police and the Somali community, these nascent programs have come under fire for collecting intelligence on law-abiding Muslims. These early suspicions prove that it is inherently difficult to overcome generations of disconnect and mistrust in order to build partnerships rooted in collaboration. However, despite the need to reform the tactics of community engagement, there is at least a willingness to pursue innovative, trust-building strategies domestically.

Internationally, the story is different. Very little effort has been dedicated to building trust in communities that are unfriendly to America and sympathetic to extremist narratives. Transforming attitudes in these communities will only be possible if we take steps to engage them. One way to begin this process is to listen to their stories. There is no better example of this approach than ICRD’s Back from the Brink movie, which profiles stories of conflict from Pakistan, Lebanon and the United States. Only after listening and empathizing with grievances—even if we disagree—can we begin to promote peaceful reform from within.

Unfortunately, our national policies are often the biggest roadblock to engaging international communities in this kind of transformation. According to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, an NGO which provides any service—including offering advice and or training on the subject of non-violence—to a designated terrorist group could be subject to prosecution. Laws like this constrain the possibilities for promoting internal reform within the very communities that are most committed to violence and make NGOs wary of engaging with anyone who might be connected to terrorist activities. Closing ourselves off from communities that sympathize with extremist ideologies only allows those ideologies to spread with greater ease.

It is imperative that CVE programs reach out to conservative, illiberal, even hostile Muslim populations around the world and identify those among them who are committed to peace or might respond positively to moral suasion by their co-religionists. Only by empowering the religious arguments in favor of peace that can resonate with these groups will there be any hope for reducing their inclination toward violence. That idea motivated ICRD’s ongoing work in Pakistan’s madrasas, in which conservative madrasa leaders have been empowered to drive internal education reforms and to teach peaceful approaches to change to a new generation. The success of this effort has laid the foundation for ICRD’s upcoming research project, which will examine how CVE in frontline states can be enhanced by engaging non-violent conservative Muslims.

The Obama administration’s strategy of building resilient communities has much to offer, but successful implementation will require a renewed commitment to respectful engagement. While our domestic programs are far from perfect, the kinds of innovative reforms that have been undertaken on this front must be translated to the global stage for there to be any hope of transforming communities deeply entrenched in extremist ideology. A new global strategy to counter extremism is long overdue, let’s hope it will emerge from the forthcoming White House summit.

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