April 30, 2015
Kadir Has University
Manal Omar, Acting Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace and Shafqat Mehmood, Co-founder and Chairman of Paiman Alumni Trust gave a talk at Kadir Has University entitled Key Strategies in Countering Extremism: Experiences from the MENA Region and Pakistan. The event was co-organized by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, EastWest Institute, and the Center for International and European Studies.
To open the discussion, Ambassador Martin Fleischer (Vice President, Director of the Regional Security Program and Head of the Brussels Office, EastWest Institute) stated that organizations that use violent methods under the rubric of Islam such as the Taliban and Daesh (the Arabic term for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) are not just a threat to regional security, but a threat to Islam. He then asked “What can we do politically and what message can we give socially to counter the appeal of such organizations?”
Manal Omar began her response by analyzing the root causes of violent extremism. Violent extremists tend to be driven by narrow interpretations of political, social, and economic grievances. These grievances are political systems not being inclusive, lack of opportunities and access, and lack of an economic structure and jobs that can support the livelihood of the people. The Arab Spring made people realize that their own leaders were responsible and accountable for these grievances, hence those leaders were ousted. The Arab Spring revolutions were a call for better lives, stability, and better access. But a number of factors reversed these hopeful developments and the people of the region are back to square one where the sense of social justice is hurt once again. The illusion that certain groups are now the providers of justice and order, or that the youth can take up arms and protect their own neighborhoods, create breeding ground for violent extremists. The best policy option for the international community now is to give the people of the region, especially the youth, the “low-hanging fruit”; that is to improve of their living conditions, first and foremost by helping resolve the conflict or conflicts in their immediate areas, then to support the countries in transition through promotion of rule of law and democracy.
Omar’s second message was that it is essential that the international community understand violent extremism has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. No religion or religious text is safe if a group is manipulating it for their political motives. Two striking examples are how some Burmese monks have been using script to justify their oppression of Muslims and the Ku Klux Klan referencing the Holy Bible in their actions. We should also beware of the “ISIS trap” as Omar calls it: the fact that Muslims around the world have taken to responding to violent extremists using Islam as a pretense for their brutal actions implies that these groups are speaking on behalf of Islam. The threat of extremism is not confined to one religion or region; it is global and requires global and cross-cultural alliances.
Thirdly, we should understand the importance of dignity in people’s lives. Omar reported that recent brain mapping studies show that verbal assault is mapped in the brain in the same area as physical attack is. So the brain records insults to dignity just like it would record physical violations. In many of the countries where extremists are on the rise, there is a crisis of masculinity; that is, males being stripped of the capability to provide and protect, which hurts their understanding of dignity. This leads to frustration as well as a void that can be filled by an ideology that is promising to restore that sense of importance. The other side of being stripped of dignity is Islamophobia in Western societies. Though the existence of Islamophobia should not be an excuse for Muslims to not take responsibility, the international community needs to recognize that this is racism. Omar has been witnessing this discrimination first hand: despite being a federal employee who has been through three levels of security clearance, she still has to go through an extra layer of screening at airports, and she is only one of thousands of people who deal with and suffer this form of discrimination.
There are three ways to engage according to Omar. First, the international community should not be putting the Muslims around the world and especially in Western societies in a defensive position. Although religion is a powerful instrument that can be badly manipulated at the wrong hands, this problem is not a Muslim or Islam problem. Secondly, there is a need to create an alternative language of peace and equip people with literacy, especially on religion, so they do not fall prey to violent extremists. Third, it is important to find local actors that deal with injustice. It is a misconception that there are no civil society actors in the war-torn or conflict-stricken communities in the Middle East. These local actors may not belong to the formal structures that we are used to in Western societies, but they are there and the there is much to be gained from engaging them. Finally, there needs to be an understanding of citizenship that is not just confined to voting. What is a social contract? What are the roles and responsibilities of the state and the people? There needs to be more thought and literacy on this.
Shefqat Mehmood approached the issue through the lens of civil society initiatives, specifically through his personal experience with Paiman Alumni Trust. This organization conducts deradicalization programs as well as capacity-building programs for women and youth in several areas in Pakistan. Mehmood’s emphatic starting point was that countries such as his have prioritized regional security concerns and macro-level politics at the expense of social development. The government has been turning a blind eye towards the threat of the Taliban to the communities for the past nine years. However there is an awakening nowadays, and the government has made a strategic plan to counter violent extremism.
Explaining his case-based observations on how an individual chooses to join extremist groups and become an extremist himself or herself, Mehmood echoed the points about dignity and the quest for a better, meaningful life. If someone’s dignity is violated or if they are denied the right to a better life, they become frustrated. Mehmood added that in most of the cases, this picture was accompanied by a lack of parental attention. Especially the lack of attentive fathers that can be role models causes youngsters to be vulnerable to anyone that gives them attention and affection. Most importantly, to recruit these youngsters, the organization’s approach is to treat them with respect and make them feel like their identities mean something. The interesting detail Mehmood gave about his work was that among the 945 people he has worked with in deradicalization programs, only two were from madrasas. This negates the preconception that madrasas are a breeding ground for extremist groups and urges us to look elsewhere inside the community.
Through their work with mothers, Paiman has been successful in reaching out to communities where the youth have been victims of extremist recruitments, or at risk. “Mothers are the most effective agents of change,” Mehmood stated. Their target groups consist of 300 mothers, 24 mentors, 400 at risk / extremist youth, 400 trained youth, 150 NGOs, and 150 government officials. It is not just the numbers they have been able to reach, it is also the strategy that makes Paiman a true peacebuilding NGO. They aspire that the people they reach through their deradicalization training not only give up arms, but also become counter extremist peace activists themselves.
The audience focused mainly on counter extremism policies in the US and EU in the question and answer session. An interesting question was whether western governments deliberately fail to recognize that the threat is not solely about Islam. Another question was whether the EU is engaged in self-reflection and criticism about coming off as a “Christian club”. In response, the panelists said that the failure to recognize how widespread religious extremism is cannot be deliberate. And in Europe, that self-critique, or action plan about how to better make Muslims feel welcome, is missing. Omar stated that delinking citizenship from identity is key in Europe if it is to come to terms, voluntarily or involuntarily, with its diversity. She stated that the US is an exceptional case because it is a country of immigrants, but in Europe, the issue of original inhabitants versus immigrants is yet unresolved.