Last week news came out that two grassroots organisations in Minneapolis had received between them over $600,000 to do CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) work in the state of Minnesota, as part of a $10 million disbursement by the US Department of Homeland Security in what has been called an ongoing, but controversial, programme. Minneapolis is a good place to do CVE since the city has seen an alarming number of its Somali Americans head back to the Horn of Africa to join the terrorist group Al Shabaab, not to mention an attack by a knife-wielding assailant at a shopping mall a few months back.
Governments are relative latecomers to the world of CVE and it is still far from certain that they are the best ones to develop, promote and run these initiatives. After all, it is government policies themselves – the 2003 US invasion of Iraq would be a good example -which contribute at least partially to the radicalisation of some. Furthermore, the plummeting levels of trust that many in the West have of their elected representatives, as well as the unshakable conviction of some that CVE is just spying and intelligence collection wrapped up with a bow, have cast doubts on the sincerity of these efforts. That many of them are focussed on Muslim populations in the West – fully justified in my view since that is precisely whence the major threat emanates – only compounds the siege mentality prevalent in many communities.
Nevertheless, governments are where the money is so for the time being that is where CVE will be coordinated. The Canadian government is even planning an “Office of the Coordinator of Counter Radicalisation and Community Outreach” which pretty well confirms that the feds are all over this issue. So, all the downsides notwithstanding it is what it is. That does not mean that it is doomed to failure, although some US government-led attempts were awful, but it does mean that it has to be done carefully in order to set the stage for potential success.
The most critical choice governments need to make is to identify and select the right local partners. This task is complicated by the fact that whenever governments say there is money available, everyone puts his or her hand up and out, even if their qualifications are wanting. Officials have to choose judiciously since opting for the wrong people will not only lead to poor results but will make relations with the affected communities worse.
So actors on the ground have to be capable, credible, trusted and have had some experience in CVE writ large (even if they have never worked in terrorism per se). It is crucial to establish local bona fides as many self-styled “leaders” are anything but. If the government elects to work through even one poorly connected individual it does much more harm than good.
Another factor is accepting that some interlocutors will hold views the government doesn’t like very much. Some will be very critical of foreign policy (our deployment to Afghanistan or close ties with Israel for example), domestic policy (the whole niqab debate) or perhaps even the existence of certain agencies (CSIS comes to mind). Others will hold beliefs that some would see as intolerant and “unCanadian” (e.g. against gay marriage or abortion).
The bottom line is that potential partners have to hew to some basic principles:
a) the rule of law
b) our democratic system
c) a desire to help keeping Canada and Canadians safe.
Anything beyond that does not have to be a deal breaker. Sometimes you have to work with those whose views you disagree vehemently with. For if you insist on speaking with only those with whom you are 100% in agreement you had better go shopping for a cave because I see a life as a hermit in your near future.
In this vein I have just returned from a tour of the Persian Gulf with two acquaintances, Muhammad Robert Heft, who works with new Muslims at his Paradise Forever (P4E) centre in Scarborough, and Ibrahim Downey, who works with Muslims in prison and on drugs. Both men are engaged in amazing work in Canada and I support their efforts. At the same time, there are things we disagree on, ranging from some aspects of Islam to their views on certain aspects of life in Canada. Not seeing eye to eye on everything is not a justification to shun these two men. We can agree to disagree on some issues but still join forces to help Muslims on the wrong path – whether it is drugs, crime, or violent radicalisation leading to terrorism.
Whatever we do as a nation, if we seek success with CVE we have to work with individuals like Mr. Heft and Mr. Downey. They have years of insight, solid relations with local communities and they can open doors for more and better opportunities for the Canadian government to meet its goal of fostering environments where violent radicalisation has a harder time putting down roots or, where it has begun, of identifying those in the process early enough to intervene in the hopes of diverting people off the path to disaster.
I hope that the new office sees the necessity and benefits of setting aside surface differences with some community activists and embraces the opportunity to work together on CVE. In the end, there is no other way.