Having just spent two and a half days with religious leaders, civil society activists, policy makers and bureaucrats from around the world at Wilton Park in Sussex, there were so many topics and perspectives presented that I will likely have to write several blogs to cover the richness of the material and the subsequent thoughts that have come to me.
Traveling back yesterday to London in a minivan meandering through small towns and villages (to avoid the gridlock on the M25 on a typical English “bank holiday”), I found myself speaking with a woman who works for a US thinktank about the whole CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) issue. We looked at what was good and what was not so good – unfortunately the latter outweigh the former. Something is amiss, based on the criticisms I heard over the last two days. Upon further reflection, I’d like to pose the following challenge: why do we do CVE? Or perhaps more accurately, why do we do CVE the way we currently do?
We have assumed that CVE is a necessity in 21st century society. Terrorism is real, and terrorists are born, not made, so addressing the precursors and conditions to terrorism should be uncontroversial, no? After all, who doesn’t want to stop terrorism and prevent people from becoming terrorists? Well, aside from terrorist groups themselves but I doubt those people are among my readership.
When we look at CVE programmes, we tend to see language about resilience and integration and belonging and identity. It is true that while these aspects are seldom causal on their own – i.e. lack of integration or identity uncertainty do not lead inexorably to terrorism (radicalisation is much more complicated than that) – they are nevertheless of interest if we accept that inclusiveness and healthy relationships lead to better societies and – perhaps – fewer terrorists (I am not convinced of much of this but will go with it for now). We should therefore develop strategies, approaches and interventions that aim at addressing these issues, irrespective of what the target audience is.
Alas, CVE has a stigma attached to it. It is tied to counter terrorism and security issues, regardless of how we frame our efforts. CVE is not aimed at alienation , etc. writ large but rather at the small number of individuals who are disenfranchised and suffer from identity doubts and who are believed to be vulnerable to violent extremism (the “VE” part of CVE – in other words terrorism). Countries and governments try to dress CVE programmes up as “neutral” programmes that contribute to greater societal cohesion, and I think that most practitioners are sincere in their minds and their efforts. It is really hard though to sell something portrayed as innocent and objective when it has “violent extremism” in its title. We do not subsume other efforts aimed at other communities, yet designed to address the same shortcomings, as CVE, so why do we when it comes to Muslim communities (NB yes, yes, CVE is in theory NOT aimed solely at Muslims but as the Wilton Park participants all noted, who are we trying to kid here?)?
What then can we do as an alternative? We cannot ignore the issue of radicalisation to violence because the threat, however small, is real, our populations are demanding action, and we need to stop terrorists from emerging from within our midst. But we can shift the focus in ways that demonstrate more inclusiveness and concentrate on what we are really aiming at: helping all our citizens to become productive, contributing members of our societies, and, for a tiny subset, not join terrorist groups abroad or cells here.
So perhaps we need to eject the CVE label and rebrand what we are doing as “citizenship dialogue”. This revamped approach would centre on what really matters. What does it mean to be a citizen? What are your responsibilities as well as your rights in our country? How do we get better at accepting difference, whether that be religious, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexual orientation, etc.? How do we air grievances, what is reasonable dissent and protest and what clearly crosses an agreed-upon line (i.e. the use of violence)? How do we encourage everyone, not just the youth, to be active participants in society? Some of these questions do relate to what has traditionally been sold as CVE: the majority do not and yet are critical steps to creating better societies.
If we were to repackage our efforts we would probably remove some of the negative associations of CVE (it’s all about Muslims, it’s all about terrorism, it’s all about security) and perhaps achieve better results. The same actors would be present and the same issues would be discussed, just from a different angle albeit with a similar end-goal.
When there are true threats to national security the agencies tasked with keeping us safe will, and should, be involved. Intervention programmes can still go ahead as can more tailored approaches where necessary. But we should think about presenting ourselves differently. After all, what we have been doing has had mixed results so far. It couldn’t hurt to shift our framework.