Religion as an Asset: Assets-based CVE and the Role of Religious Leaders
By Cara Burgan
October 29, 2018

While some current programs to combat the spread of violent extremism attempt to organize flexible, community-driven projects, they are rarely articulated or implemented with an “assets-based approach.” Assets-based approaches to countering violent extremism (CVE) recognize the already-present capacities and values within a community, and then engage those as “assets” to build sustainable community and institutional strength. By designing programs which focus on the existing strengths within individual actors or communities that are vulnerable to violent extremism, CVE practitioners have the potential to capitalize on those strengths and build long-term resilience to the threat of violent extremism.

Many of the gaps in current global CVE strategy or implementation can be tied to an over-reliance on “deficits-based” methodologies. In contrast to an assets-based approach, a deficits-based approach concentrates on what a community lacks and what problems they may be facing. For example, certain programs or policies may focus on ideology as a deficit, giving attention to it only as a driver of radicalization. As such, these efforts may spend significant energy or resources in silencing certain religious voices that are seen as complicit in spreading extremist ideology, rather than empowering constructive sources of ideological beliefs. Many experts, policymakers, and practitioners within the field fundamentally base their approach to this issue on selected “deficiencies”– namely, a “toxic” ideology of conservative Islam, a lack of opportunity for disenfranchised youth, or the idea that people from countries demonstrating high levels of extremism are inherently violent or angry. Focusing on these attributes as drivers of violence, and then focusing programming on how to undermine or challenge that influence, ultimately leads CVE programming to miss opportunities to engage with the strengths of communities at risk of radicalization.

Efforts to fix critical deficits would be greatly enhanced by empowering capable community leaders to invest in and grow their strengths in efforts to counter violent extremism. Beyond identifying what is lacking or problematic, CVE practitioners need to identify local assets within these same spaces – such as ideological frameworks – for emphasis in programming, and then support the further empowerment of those local assets. For example, if the value of Islam both as a belief system and as a core element of community-building could be more emphasized as a benefit to community resilience to radicalization, rather than a source of risk, this would allow for improved collaboration between Muslim and non-Muslim groups in halting the possible spread of violent extremism at home and abroad. If this access and ideological legitimacy can be seen as assets in efforts to engage with Muslim communities, then CVE programming can better establish long-term, resilient relationships between influential and at-risk community members.

Policymakers and CVE implementers should prioritize an assets-based approach as the fundamental framework on which their programs are based, which will allow them to foster constructive partnerships with beneficiaries rather than negative relationships with at-risk communities.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).