CVE – short for Countering Violent Extremism – gets a bad rap sometimes, and the criticism is not always unwarranted. The term has come to mean whatever people want it to mean as its remit expands into all kinds of areas of social engineering and capacity building. Many movements have received funding from governments by using the CVE umbrella, even where it is far from clear that their efforts have much to do with actually countering violent extremism (or terrorism as we used to call it).
Nevertheless, as I have written before, CVE is a good thing and worth supporting for two very simple reasons: it is relatively inexpensive and it represents a softer side to doing counter terrorism. As long as the programmes sold as CVE do no harm they should be considered for support.
But what if an entire nation’s CVE strategy goes off the rails? What then?
This seems to be exactly what is happening in the US under the new administration. Truth be told, the US’ CVE efforts have struggled mightily since 9/11 with many ill-considered initiatives and far too much state involvement and control. And yet, some good work has been done at the grassroots, local levels.
This may all come crashing down soon with serious implications for national security. The Trump government has decided to rebrand CVE as CIE – Countering Islamic Extremism (those running the show can’t even get the Islamic/Islamist difference right). To do so – and we should acknow ledge that one never really knows which of the President’s thoughts/Tweets (which may be the same) will translate into policy – would be a huge error and put the US at greater risk of terrorist attacks. There are several reasons for this:
a) anyone who has looked at terrorism in the US since 9/11 knows that the vast majority of attacks in that country have been perpetrated by the far right, sovereign citizens and their ilk, NOT by Islamist extremists. Focusing solely on the latter will mean that the greatest threat is ignored. Some experts think that ignoring these groups may actually embolden and strengthen them.
b) putting all the CVE eggs in the Muslim basket will further alienate US Muslims already staggering from the on-again, off-again ban on immigration from 7 Muslim-dominant nations. Alienated people do not particularly want to work with their government and they do not want to help the security and law enforcement services tasked with keeping the US safe. As a result, the US is subject to a higher level of threat in the few cases where homegrown Islamist extremists do plan attacks.
As I noted, these changes may never be carved in stone, but they are already having an effect. Some groups are refusing federal funds for their CVE programmes in protest. This will mean that valid, effective local efforts may stop and the progress made so far ebb away.
In a way I suppose no one should be surprised at this move. The rhetoric of the last presidential campaign clearly pointed in this direction so we cannot say we are getting something unexpected. Still, this is a bad idea and we should all hope that saner minds prevail. The US deserves better.
Friends and colleagues of mine in the US are worried about this move, especially those who already work in CVE. They know, better than anyone, the effects it will have on what they are trying to achieve. The new US administration would be wise to listen to them.