Friday, April 1st 2016
“In the face of extremist violence, how can societies like ours – diverse, vibrant, and founded in freedom – overcome this threat?” This was the question put to students and faculty in a speech, “Our Common Struggle Against Violent Extremism,” at Dhaka University in Bangladesh by Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, on March 30, 2016. She framed the challenge of violent extremism with “push” and “pull” factors, and she highlighted the roles of social inclusion, women, youth, peers, and fundamental freedoms. Here are some key quotes:
- Violent extremists are a not new threat – they have sought to tear down civilization for as long as others have worked to build it. But in the global age – where peoples connect through travel, trade, and technology like never before – the terror threat has evolved in profound ways. As Prime Minister Hasina noted at the United Nations last year, terrorism knows no religion and no boundaries.
- As we have seen in the rise of the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, violent extremists now use hash tags, chat rooms, and instant messaging to disseminate their hateful ideologies around the world and twist vulnerable neighbors, friends, and even family members into killers. They also exploit weak governance and local resentments to infect new communities and sow instability and violence across the globe.
- In the face of extremist violence, how can societies like ours – diverse, vibrant, and founded in freedom – overcome this threat? Strengthening our intelligence, law enforcement, and militaries remains vital. But the truth is this: confronting terrorist fighters with force alone cannot protect our communities from their poisonous ideologies and the violence they inspire.
- If we want to meaningfully reduce this danger, we have to not only take on existing threats of extremism, but also prevent the next generation of threat from emerging. And that calls for a much broader and bolder approach.
- That approach began to crystallize in February 2015, when President Obama convened the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, or what we call CVE for short. There, leaders from around the world, including Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, endorsed a new way of addressing this threat – one that not only took the fight to violent extremists around the world, but also helped prevent people from turning to violent extremism in the first place.
- Forcefully discrediting the “pull factors” – the hateful messages, recruitment tactics, and propaganda of violent extremists – is a critical element. But it’s also critical to address the specific, underlying “push factors,” such as alienation, injustice, and intolerance, that can make people vulnerable to these messages in the first place. Both are needed to effectively prevent extremist groups from drawing new recruits and spreading to new communities. Around the world, nations are grappling with this challenge.
- One lesson we have learned is that governments have a role that goes beyond deploying armies and police to protect people from extremist threats. They also need to govern effectively, transparently, and inclusively to limit the grievances that allow violent extremists to infect new communities.
- The local functionary who demands a bribe just to do their job, the police officer who fails to protect a certain neighborhood or group, the government agency that perpetuates marginalization by never responding to a community’s request for more schools or better roads – all of these can make people vulnerable to the false promises of violent extremists. Put simply, when governments do their jobs well, violent extremists struggle to take root.
- Government leaders also have a responsibility to speak out in the face of intolerance and bigotry, which left unanswered, enables extremist recruitment.
- . . . a government’s counterterrorism policies shouldn’t make the problem worse. As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said at the White House Summit, “time and again we have seen that the most effective recruiting agents for extremists are the very actions taken against them.” By that, he meant that when governments use the fight against terrorism to undermine democracy and the rule of law – for example by allowing arbitrary detentions, excessive force, or restrictions on political space – it can actually drive people toward extremism and violence.
- While governments have key roles in preventing extremist threats, they cannot do it alone. The “push factors” I mentioned earlier are complex and often local, and tackling them requires a much broader set of actors. Essentially, CVE requires empowering the people in this common struggle – religious leaders, women, businesses, researchers, local mayors, and young people like you all – to help do things like reach out to vulnerable youth, rebuild trust and cooperation with local police, or refute hateful ideologies.
- But to empower people in this fight, you have to first include all of them. Women, for example, have vital but underappreciated roles in countering violent extremism. As mothers and sisters and daughters, women are often the first to detect signs of radicalization in their families. But their contribution goes well beyond that. Women police officers can better detect female suicide bombers; women prison guards can help reach female inmates with counseling to prevent them from radicalizing behind bars; and female legislators and community leaders can ensure that new counterterrorism policies are sensitive to the unique ways that violent extremists recruit and exploit women.
- Young people also have important parts to play, for you are often the most credible messengers to challenge the terrorist propaganda targeting your peers and help pull vulnerable youth back from isolation and anger.
- Truly unleashing the people’s talent, however, means protecting their fundamental freedoms to peacefully speak out, practice their faith or not practice one, and to organize on behalf of their beliefs. These are universal human rights; but they are also sources of resilience against violent extremism.
- When people are free to speak without reprisal, they are more likely to raise concerns about the drivers of radicalization in their communities. If they feel they can speak openly – about corruption, or abuse by local police forces, or feelings of marginalization – without fear of backlash, they can alert governments to address potential dangers before they grow.
- Also, when people can freely raise their voices, they can confront extremist ideology and propaganda with greater independence and authenticity – whether it’s in the newspaper, at a local café, or on Facebook.
- Local groups are often best positioned to identify what, or who, is causing radicalization in their communities. They know, for example, if someone has returned from overseas and is pushing radical views that run counter to Bangladesh’s tradition of a peaceful and tolerant Islam. They’ll recognize whether kids are becoming more tolerant or less so at the local madrassa. Citizens also know what to do to fix these problems, whether it’s providing counseling to alienated youth or partnering with police to improve security. Citizens know and care about their communities; and governments everywhere should support their CVE efforts.
- Tackling violent extremism isn’t a question of government on the one hand, and people on the other. We need both hands – people and government – working in partnership to meet this challenge.
- Violent extremists want to sow fear, to divide, and to provoke overreactions that feed the cycle of bloodshed on which they thrive. They see only the lines that separate us and not the profound ties that bind us together. For Bangladeshis, that includes a shared legacy of freedom in the face of repression, a culture enriched by its diversity, and a story of amazing progress in the face of great obstacles.