Are We ‘Community Organizing’ Against Islamic Jihad?

Dec 16th, 2015 | By | Category: Featured

islamA recent “Countering Violent Extremism” conference featured a State Department official who linked violent extremism with political, social, and economic grievances.

Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall went through her entire November 20 Washington Institute for Near East Policy presentation on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) before about 50 listeners while hardly explicitly mentioning Islam.  Although subsequent discussion broached Islamic ideology issues, her address manifested the intellectual inadequacy of a vague, deprivation-focused CVE paradigm in countering jihad/sharia Islamic supremacist threats.

Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff introduced Sewall’s address by describing CVE’s “profound ideological issue,” yet she emphasized “political, social, and economic grievances” as “push factors” for violence.  Military measures cannot “eliminate the complex motives and hateful ideologies that fuel terrorism” among groups like the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL), she stated while never actually spelling out this group’s acronym.  Therefore CVE encompasses a “broader approach to address the underlying causes that make people vulnerable to the allure of violent extremism,” such as Iraqi Sunnis favoring ISIL over discriminatory central government rule.

Sewall explained that “grievances alone cannot alone fully explain…violent extremism” and that CVE also countered “extremist ideology,” yet never specified any “twisted beliefs and recruitment tactics that extremists wield.”  How then could CVE’s “more proactive, affirmative, and preventive approach” find “individuals when they began their path to radicalization” and “their thought patterns begin to change before those thoughts are translated into action”?  How also to find Islamic community allies under CVE’s “whole of society approach”?  “Mainstream religious leaders are critical CVE actors,” she stated without ever defining these “messengers of tolerance” who “can teach the tenets of faith to vulnerable youth who are seeking spiritual guidance.”

Individual statements betrayed Sewall’s Islamic ideological ignorance, such as her praise of “CVE action plans” developed by Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), among others.  The OIC’s 57 states (including “Palestine”) “continue contributing to this shared struggle,” an assessment overlooking how the OIC and its members like Saudi Arabia are part of the global jihad/sharia problem, not its solution.  Making her lone mention of Islam, she also stated that “individual ‘lone wolves’ who have no prior affiliation with ISIL’s nominal aims, let alone with Islam, are a growing concern.”  This surprising statement did not specify which jihadist attacks around the world since September 11, 2001, have come from individuals with “no prior affiliation” with Islam.

Contrary to Sewall’s presentation, subsequent questioning focused on Islamic ideological issues, as Satloff wondered about using the anodyne term “violent extremism.”  He noted that presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton had recently respectively used the terms “radical Islamic terrorist” and “jihadist,” while Sewall did not even spell out ISIL.  Former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith in the audience observed that all of her examples of violent extremism involved Islam, even though she made no mention of recent violence in Israel, a “remarkable omission.”

The Washington Institute’s Matthew Levitt also correctly noted on the panel that varied grievances can “provide a cognitive opening, but something has to seep into that cognitive opening…some type of mobilizing ideology.”  The “mobilizing ideology that we are talking about is being framed in religious terms,” he stated, a “radical interpretation of religion.”  Despite this recognition, he questionably claimed that the “Islamic State is not particularly Islamic at all.”

With an assertion that would surprise many, Sewall responded that President Barack Obama “has been very clear about the enemies,” but “violent extremism can come in many forms, necessitating “inclusive language.”  Buddhist nationalism as well as Islam can support extremism, she stated, and the “touchstone in the Norwegian context for violent extremism” is the 2011 terrorist attack by Anders Breivik, a white supremacist.  She also asserted that rightwing violence in America kills more people than Islamic terrorism, although such statistics ignore the gross disproportion between America’s small Muslim community and its rate of terrorist incidents.

Agreeing with Levitt, Sewall stated that the “ideology is the spark, if you will” and CVE recognized ideology as part of the “pull factors” in violent extremism, demanding an ideological “counter-narrative.”  She correctly stated that “secular states are not in the best position to have authority” in Islamic matters and “need to empower other voices that have greater authority.”  Yet “this can be tricky to do.  By virtue of providing resources or support to those voices, one could be perceived as discrediting the authenticity of those voices.”

Aside from these brief ideological references, the panel emphasized Muslims not as possible active adherents of aggressive agendas but as passive victims of non-Muslim injustices who could thereby radicalize.  Sewall’s address invoked Obama’s warning against “xenophobic rejection of Syrian refugees, which is a rejection of our fundamental values, and feeds directly into terrorist narratives.”  Levitt likewise worried that ISIL desired Western overreactions against Muslims in order to gain support.

Satloff also condemned the “terrible demagoguery” in recent American politics concerning terrorism and Islam.  In the audience, the Washington Institute’s Mohammad Dajani worried about Ben Carson and Donald Trump “inciting against Muslims” because “in Germany, the Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum.”  Obama, Sewall stated, has said that “this kind of rejectionist and demeaning and dehumanizing language plays into the Daesh [ISIL] narrative.”

Despite Levitt’s praise for Sewall’s “fantastic tour de force,” her presentation gave all the more reason for abandoning the CVE concept in favor of expressly naming both violent and nonviolent Islamic supremacist threats.  Precisely these threats form what she and the event title respectively described as a “really horrific generational challenge” and the “Preeminent Challenge of the Twenty-First Century,” not some generic violent extremism.  Aspects of these threats like the genocide of Christians, the killing of French cartoonists, or sharia no-go zones have no relation to political or economic grievances.

Accordingly, like Cold War Communism, Islamic supremacism deserves specific treatment distinct from other issues like white supremacism.  Any failure to address forthrightly this ideology is not only dangerous, but will promote the “Islamophobia” hyperbolically condemned by Dajani as Western populaces increasingly reject politically correct falsehoods.  For the sake of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, CVE must give way to the specific identification of faith-based foes.

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.


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