Countering the “Countering Violent Extremism” Program

Image from a video: "P2P: Challenging Extremism" via U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs

“P2P: Challenging Extremism” is a new State Department-sponsored program that enlists American college students to combat online extremism. Avi Asher-Schapiro described the scene at a recent P2P event in Washington for VICE News:

CJ Drew is a senior at West Point, and like most college students he checks Facebook incessantly—”every couple hours,” he says. But unlike his peers, he’s not counting likes, or scouring for cleavage. CJ is trying to lure would-be-jihadists into conversations about radical Islam on the internet.

CJ is not on the verge of becoming the first ever West Point-educated member of the Islamic State. Quite the opposite: his Facebook activity is sanctioned by the State Department and the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point.

Last week, for the third semester in a row, the State Department hosted the P2P: Challenging Extremism finals in Washington. It’s the culmination of an international “peer to peer” marketing contest that enlists youngsters like CJ to combat extremism using the latest advertising techniques.

CJ and his team of West Point cadets just took second place. Their Facebook page—which West Point has asked VICE News not to name—and a corresponding Twitter account and website are all part of what Bryan Price, the director of the Combating Terrorism Center, calls an “inbound marketing” strategy.

Countering violent extremism programming, or CVE, is on the rise at home and abroad. The domestic side of the story is receiving solid coverage by outlets like AlterNet and substantial pushback from an active coalition of civil society and civil libertarian groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“…the CVE agenda adopts a particular approach to religion in which the latter is understood to “cause” political outcomes, both good and bad.”

There has been less debate on the foreign policy side. According to the State Department’s Sarah B. Sewall, the increased US emphasis on CVE in foreign policy is motivated by “learning” from “more than a decade since the searing experience of 9/11.” As Sewall explains, “[o]ver the last two years, the Obama administration has dramatically elevated CVE in the international agenda” in developing a “preventative, civilian-led framework.” USAID and others have taken steps to incorporate CVE into their programming. There is talk of women’s CVE initiatives. According to Sewall, “women’s empowerment is not only essential for defeating violent extremism; defeating violent extremism is essential for women’s empowerment. CVE is a feminist agenda, because it is about inclusion and rights.”

It is not only the US. In January 2016, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon presented a UN “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.” Canada has announced the creation of an Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-radicalization Coordinator, which “will provide leadership on Canada’s response to radicalization to violence.”

CVE is being presented as a kinder, gentler way to “get at the roots” of the problem by moving beyond security-focused counterterrorism toward a more broad-spectrum approach. New partnerships are taking shape between experts and government officials.

What to make of these developments? First, these programs are the latest installment in a long history of US interventions in religious and political fields abroad. Second, the CVE agenda assumes that religion is the “cause” of various political outcomes, both good and bad. It is the job of the state, and other international authorities, to cultivate religious moderation and to sideline extremism. Third, this good/bad religion narrative distils complex socio-political conditions into a black and white morality tale that makes it impossible to respond effectively to the situations in which actions marked as “violent extremism” emerge.

The “Right Kind” of Religion

The history of American foreign relations is replete with attempts to cultivate forms of religiosity in other countries that align with US strategic interests and conform to specific conceptions of what it means to be religiously and politically free. As I have described elsewhere, Americans pursued something called “global spiritual reform” during the Cold War. And Anna Su’s recent book, Exporting Freedom, examines the US-occupied Philippines, Japan and Iraq.

“[N]o doctrinal position or school can be identified as causing the actions of jihadi groups.”

Since 2009, US military chaplains have engaged with local religious leaders overseas to advance American strategic objectives: gathering cultural intelligence, promoting religious tolerance, and patching up relations with local citizens whose lives have been damaged or destroyed by American military actions. In Afghanistan, the US required Navy Chaplains to give Koran lessons to citizens in an effort to cultivate particular understandings of Islam. A program called Voices of Religious Tolerance had US Marines taking Afghan elders and politicians from Helmand Province on a “collaborative influence program” tour to Amman, Jordan to learn about “life in a religiously tolerant country.”

In short, the US has never disestablished religion in our foreign policy. Instead, American authorities coopt and cooperate with religious institutions and leaders overseas, perceiving these efforts as essential to securing US interests.

Since 9/11 and the rise of counterterrorism, US-sponsored religious interventionism has intensified and it has assumed new forms. Government-led programs and projects intended to support moderate religion and to suppress violent religion are flourishing. These efforts encompass advocacy for religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, and legal protections for religious rights. Increasingly, they also include CVE. In all cases the right kind of (moderate) religion, recognized and cultivated by states and other public authorities, is seen to have emancipatory potential. Religion “done right” contributes to international peace and security and diminishes the potential for violence.

Religion Made Them Do It

“CVE initiatives are strategies for shaping and controlling the political and religious lives of foreign subjects.”

There is a contrast between official ways of approaching religion in bureaucracies in Brussels and Washington, and the approach taken by most scholars who study religion. The purveyors of CVE programming tend to depict religion as a force for good (and for evil) that stands apart from the world and acts upon it. “Religion made them do it,” says the State Department.

To the extent that religion is understood as a cause of political behavior, public interventions to shape it come to be seen as legitimate, even necessary. Most scholars of religion tell a different story—in which religion cannot be distilled or distinguished cleanly from the socio-political and legal surroundings in which it is embedded. Put simply, religion cannot “cause” particular forms of politics. As Daryl Li has observed in a provocative article on jihad talk as a form of demonology, “no doctrinal position or school can be identified as causing the actions of jihadi groups.”

CVE initiatives are strategies for shaping and controlling the political and religious lives of foreign subjects. Their objective is to generate particular forms of religious and political subjectivity that conform to US interests. If successful, “moderate” forms of belief and belonging cultivated through these efforts will engender temperate, reasonable (in other words, pro-American) political inclinations and actions.

Like other forms of state-sponsored political and religious interventionism, CVE is never neutral but rather privileges what the authorities define as “tolerant” beliefs and practices that carry the promise of accommodative or quiescent forms of politics. This creates a divide between these “most-favored” beliefs and practices and those associated with a host of political and religious nonconformists and dissidents.

Seen this way, CVE may actually exacerbate social tensions by policing and politicizing the divide between the religion/politics of those who hold positions of power and those who do not. Naz Modirzadeh makes a related point in a discussion of the UN’s Preventing Violent Extremism Plan:

If the Plan is implemented as the SG hopes, then every state in the world will have a national plan of action on CVE. States will dedicate resources and energy towards this effort. They will draft new laws. They will change where development and aid money is invested. Their officials will refer to communities that are “vulnerable” to terrorism, or ethnic or religious groups that must be “protected” from their own tendency to be drawn to “violent extremism.” These communities will be scrutinized and surveilled under the banner of CVE; states will engage in efforts to make religious people more “moderate,” or to teach them that their religious texts say something other than what they believe…. by CVE’s own internal logic it might produce as many “violent extremists” as it prevents.

CVE as Morality Tale

Writing in the London Review of Books in 2007, Mahmood Mamdani critiqued Nicolas Kristof’s writings on the politics of genocide in Darfur. Mamdani suggested that Kristof’s accounts reduced “a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart.”

Like Kristof’s rendering of the Darfur conflict, the current wave of CVE programming reduces a series of complex political contexts to a morality tale that unfolds in a world populated by (“bad,” usually Muslim) villains and (“good” Muslim or non-Muslim) victims who never trade places and can easily be told apart. The myriad and cross-cutting factors that contribute to episodes of discrimination and violence fade into the background, washed away in a wave of excitement at the prospect of religio-political reform.

Some who have refused this morality tale have instead pointed to the politics of imperial blowback as explanations of the violence. As Frank Barat observed on the day of the March attacks in Brussels,

Why did they do it? What did they say while doing it? If you read these—not something you’ll find easily with a Google search—you will realise that all the attackers are talking the same language. They were politically educated out of the destruction of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the drones bombing in Pakistan, Yemen, the torture of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and the colonisation and occupation of Palestine. While most identified themselves as Muslims, they also said they were horrified by the ideological war the West has carried out against what it wrongfully calls “the Muslim world.”

Patrick Eddington made a similar point in his critique of the politics of CVE:

CVE-related actions . . . shift the blame away from the federal government for its role in helping create and sustain ISIS—first by invading and destabilizing Iraq and Libya, and second by doubling-down on a failed security-centric approach to counterterrorism in the Arab and Muslim world. That disastrously overly-militarized approach to militant salafism, combined with federal support for de facto anti-Arab and anti-Muslim CVE programs at home, only help groups like ISIS make the case that America is, contrary to all public statements to the contrary, at war with Islam.

These points are worth considering. But as Li points out it would be a mistake to banalize the violence by writing it off as the product of imperial blowback. The greater challenge, as he sees it, is to take “radicalism seriously as a political orientation, whether its idiom is Islamic, communist or anarchist. The challenge is how to understand the distinctiveness of jihadi groups without lapsing into an all-too-often racialized exceptionalism.” Li concludes, “the fundamental problem is not only how Islam is discussed; it is how politics is understood in general.”

How is politics understood—or elided—in State’s P2P counter-messaging program? We can catch a glimpse by listening to Amanda Rogers, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative. Asked for her opinion of State’s P2P counter-messaging initiative, Rogers suggests that, “the gap between US foreign policy in the Muslim world and its message of peace undermines any anti-violent extremism propaganda campaign.” She concludes:

Anyone who goes online and says: “I don’t like beheading innocent civilians”—of course a lot of people are going to agree with you . . . I’m not 100 percent against these sorts of efforts, but I do think they are 99.9 percent worthless . . . I think rhetoric will need to match policy for it to be effective . . . We’re arming groups in Syria, we’re flying drones. It’s hard to take a message of peace seriously.