On Feb. 18, the White House plans to host a “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.” The Obama administration should use this summit to ask why, so many years after Sept. 11, 2001, policymakers have failed to effectively manage the growing global trend toward violent extremism. The existing strategies, overly focused on home-grown radicalization, fail to address its transnational roots. Given the clear and consistent correlation between failed governance, radicalization and violence, it is time to genuinely engage a sector that is often the glue, preventing struggling communities from spiraling out of control: Muslim NGOs.
Aid and development networks in the Muslim world sit at the nexus of a number of key elements related to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the short, medium and long term. Their efforts in social infrastructure and economic development have long been recognized and supported by a range of international governance bodies. However, because Muslim NGOs are also often first-responders in crisis zones, they double as gatekeepers for transnational Muslim networks seeking to act in these areas (whether for benevolent purposes or otherwise). Over the last two years, our research through the British Council and U.S. Institute of Peace has explored best practices of Muslim community engagement in the context of security and development work. Conversations with experts and practitioners and field research on the Turkish-Syrian border has led to the conclusion that Muslim NGOs should be engaged as key players in a comprehensive CVE strategy that coordinates across the security, development and communication sectors.
The overarching premise of Muslim CVE community engagement initiatives has been to empower the silent majority of mainstream Muslim societies. The most common practice in this regard has been a series of high profile conferences (Amman Message), appeals (Letter to al-Baghdadi) and even anti-extremist fatwas. Unfortunately, such efforts have become something of a tiresome, but necessary, ritual. Widespread denunciation of terrorist attacks has not worked at decreasing extremists’ proclivity to violence. Even more, it has not persuaded non-Muslims that extremists are truly on the fringe of Islam. Clearly, it is time for CVE campaigns to innovate.
Another strategy has been to enlist Muslim leaders and networks around the world in the actual policing of their own communities. The Global Counterterrorism Working Forum, for example, launched by the United States in 2011, is one of many consortiums aiming to coordinate and build on best practices of law enforcement and intelligence officials working to combat extremism. While there is certainly value in improving rule of law and other foundational institutions in transitioning states, these policing practices reinforce the good/bad Muslim binary, an iteration of the “with us or against us” mentality that has done much more to divide societies and cultures than to curtail violence. In 2011, research from Britain’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) campaign indicated that such heavy-handed attempts antagonize Muslim communities, isolating the vast majority of Muslims whom are both peaceful and necessary to quell the current tide toward extremism. Similar conclusions were reached by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in a review of community-policing CVE initiatives in 2014.
The existing approaches have focused attention on Muslim religious and political leaders, and the roles they can play in establishing norms of acceptable behavior, but many programs and institutions, such as the Radical Middle Way or the Quillium Foundation, have been self-selecting and largely unable to reach target audiences. Canvassing the last decade of global CVE strategy, it may be the case that counter-extremist communication and recruitment efforts have largely served to manufacture Muslim civil society rather than to engage existing actors and institutions with proven track records of transparency and reliability. Given the crucial role Muslim NGOs play in failing and weakened states of governance, this sector should be seen by policymakers and practitioners as an underutilized resource in the global fight against extremism.
In the face of overwhelming humanitarian and development needs, a key issue facing policymakers is the question of absorptive capacity, in effect the ability of an organization to assimilate new resources and expand its project execution. Indeed, many faith-based organizations around the world lack the professional infrastructure to deliver services to hundreds of thousands of people in an effective and consistent manner. We found, however, that Muslim faith-based NGOs operating in the Syrian refugee space worked with an enviable degree of transparency and professionalism. The warehouses of Turkish Muslim aid organization Deniz Feneri, for example, resembled a cross between the Salvation Army and Costco: Every item, from a pair of children’s shoes to crates of food supplies, was tracked with a unique barcode and meticulously recorded from donor to recipient. Our hosts boasted that if I donated the pen I was writing with and came back in five years to ask about its whereabouts, they could track it. Deniz Feneri’s operational culture represents the norm among Turkish Muslim NGOs. With the international community facing the “worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the cold war,” as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees describes, it must actively seek out the best and most capable partners on the ground.
There is no question that some of these Muslim social service organizations’ ideological orientations do not align with Western liberal values. Moreover, in ongoing conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq, the delivery of humanitarian assistance often becomes another front line in which military, political and development actors operate in an opaque, nebulous web of shifting loyalties and intentions. Fears that transnational Muslim NGOs may provide transport for foreign fighters, arms and funding have been justified in certain situations. Similar networks likely played malicious roles in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These groups, unfortunately, have grossly misrepresented the entire Muslim NGO sector. For example, despite increasing scrutiny of these organizations, there have been few convictions of wrongdoing or connections to violent extremism. Reticence and anxiety on the part of policymakers is to be expected, but in no way should this fear justify the current policy climate that spurns strategic and robust engagement with Muslim NGOs.
The United States has many strategic allies with incompatible ideological goals that are willing to turn their back on the United States on a moment’s notice. This is precisely why the policy community needs a more thorough understanding of the whole transnational Muslim NGO sector. As Muslim NGOs are given more opportunities to engage in mainstream development work and are thereby subjected to greater scrutiny, a corresponding increase in transparency can be expected. Islamic Relief, which has long been suspected of having ties to violent extremists, for example, just conducted a thorough audit clearing it of such allegations, which has been accepted by the British Charity Commission.
The exclusive focus on Muslim NGOs as security risks overshadows the crucial and substantive role that Muslim NGOs play, especially in the conflict and post-conflict zones to which many of the emerging extremists have connections. Groups like Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), Deniz Feneri and Islamic Relief are at the front lines of the Syrian conflict, providing aid to Syrians crossing into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as those displaced inside Syria. In the summer of 2014, after the U.N. Security Council authorized cross-border assistance to civilians in Syria without government approval, IHH became the central conduit for delivering the international community’s aid packages into Syria through its northern border. And before that, IHH ran operations at a half-dozen refugee camps on both sides of the Turkish and Syrian border, helping to secure the safety of nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees.
As physical gatekeepers, faith-based organizations like IHH should be leveraged for more than just routine aid work. Indeed, with the right communications infrastructure training, they could quickly become ideological gatekeepers as well. Online images of violence, suffering and catastrophe are key elements in the process of radicalization, which drive many volunteer fighters to participate in violent extremism. Radical groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and al-Nusra Front systematically use tormenting images of human misery in their online messaging and recruitment efforts. These images are then followed by battleground victories and acts of martyrdom creating situations in which the videos function cathartically for disaffected audiences around the world. Current CVE communications interventions have failed to curb the efficacy of this messaging. Muslim NGOs with aligned interests, if given effective media training, could just as easily showcase their successes to the same vulnerable audience. Developing this strategic alternative narrative would take some time, but would be based upon an organic, mainstream and substantive reality on the ground. Given the stakes, it is worth trying to see if this is more effective than the current efforts to manufacture a sanitized, palatable vision of “moderate” Islam.
Fortunately, there is no need to start from scratch. The U.S. government has a long history of supporting and engaging Muslim NGOs to assist in transitioning from authoritarian to democratic societies. In 1997, USAID launched the Islam and Civil Society (ICS) program in Indonesia, aiming to leverage Muslim NGOs “as intermediaries to effectively transmit and explain crucial civil society concepts to ordinary Indonesians.” ICS empowers The Asia Foundation (TAF), a respected, nonprofit development organization, to partner with more than 30 groups, including ones that specifically focused on countering a resurgence of violent extremism and “hardline Islamism,” as well as developed the shared understanding of and appreciation for democratic values, like tolerance, gender equality and transparency. Importantly, these partnerships included micro-level training regarding the day-to-day elements that make democracies tick, like focusing on accountability at the local and district levels of governance and the value of pluralism in decision making. Training Muslim NGOs allowed these lessons to be spread organically, with the authority of already established and respected opinion leaders, to the Indonesian masses.
Media training was central to the success of the ICS program. Funding supported a full range of content emphasizing the roles of tolerance and pluralism in the Islamic faith and value of intercultural dialogue, including radio programs, stories placed in local newspapers, inserts in popular magazines and tabloids, books and other educational materials, Web sites, public service advertisements, bus advertisements, leaflets (for distribution at mosques, targeting lower-income groups), and a scholarly journal.
The ICS program is seen as a harrowing success, helping to stabilize Indonesia’s democratic transition in the face of a viral spread of religious extremism. Crucially, the program also strengthened the institutional capacities of the Indonesian Muslim NGO sector, facilitating “formal and informal networks among over 30 Muslim partner organizations that have begun to see themselves as an emerging force committed to building a pluralistic, democratic country,” capable of launching multifaceted and well-organized responses to conservative attempts at rolling back Indonesia’s democratic progress. For example, when conservative Islamist groups launched a pro-polygamy campaign, the ICS network mobilized a multipronged media operation, publishing columns in Indonesia’s largest daily newspapers, and speaking out on popular television and radio programs against polygamy. This same group mobilized in 2005 to defeat legislation that would have severely restricted interfaith relations.
While revved up intelligence and law enforcement collaborations may be able to prevent further aftershocks to recent attacks in Europe, this heightened level of surveillance, and the resources it requires, is not an ideal or long-term solution to extremism. A common strategy has been to strengthen mainstream Muslims and bolster their ongoing struggle against extremists and radical ideologues. Despite nearly universal condemnation from every major Muslim organization and religious leader in the world, popular skepticism of Muslim groups is growing, especially in Europe. Admittedly, most state led CVE collaborations with Muslim communities have fatal design flaws.
The Cold War is instructive regarding how to effectively transform ideological divides. Decades of research on persuasion and media effects show that the way to move the needle, so to speak, is through building messaging into trusted communication networks that draw on, rather than combat, existing cultural predispositions. This is precisely how Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, two U.S.-funded broadcasters often credited with sustaining opposition to Soviet rule, were able to build and sustain audiences behind the Iron Curtain. Rather than broadcasting a predictable, government-imposed message, the broadcasters built upon and elevated existing dissident voices. Decades of systematic audience research, conducted by the broadcasters, and archived at the Open Society Foundation in Budapest, Hungary, show investing in local groups also opposed to communism, rather than repeating U.S. propaganda about the virtues of neoliberal democratic systems, was crucial to their success. Can CVE strategists develop a similar campaign?
Ideologies are embedded into social systems, and research shows that the introduction of information contrary to foundational ideological tenants will trigger a hardening of thinking rather than transformation. Yet current CVE strategies follow exactly this path: confronting violent extremism head-on, challenging in the most direct of ways. Muslim NGOs provide another way to realign the balance of power in the competition. They provide the glue that is Muslim civil society, especially in war-torn countries and transitioning states. They are substantial, have assets on the ground, and most importantly, they are trusted by locals because of years or decades of relationship building. These ties run deep. If the United States allies with, and offers legitimacy to Muslim NGOs, it will not only give them status, well deserved in many cases, but also greater scrutiny. And that is a good thing.
Engaging and amplifying Muslim NGOs – groups that understand the ideological terrain and already operate at its Gordian edges – offers a path forward that doesn’t require ubiquitous surveillance or invasive intelligence operations. Shifting from a focus on countering violent extremism to the potential for Muslim civil society to restore communities not only paints an alternative path for the millions of mainstream Muslims yearning to contribute to social change, but it also may enlighten Western publics regarding the diverse contributions of Islamic societies. We agree with those calling for innovative and comprehensive solutions to the problem. The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism is an excellent moment for stakeholders to rise to the challenge and develop a sustainable, long-term solution to violent extremism by engaging and empowering Muslim NGOs as strategic partners in a shared fight.
Abbas Barzegar is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies Georgia State University. Shawn Powers is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University.