Countering Violent Extremism Summit: Points and Reactions


Countering Violent Extremism Summit: Points and Reactions

23 Feb 2015

Following a White House summit on Countering Violent Extremism from 18 to 20 February 2015, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics pulls out the main points and reactions to President Barack Obama's speeches at the summit.

President Obama delivered two speeches at the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, the texts of which can be found here and here. He also published an op-ed in the LA Times. A White House Fact Sheet on the summit can also be found here. The main points of Obama's strategy as laid out during the summit are below.

Main Points of Obama’s Strategy as Laid Out During the Summit
  • The need to continue the fight against extremists remains strong, as does the need to stop fighting amongst allies and communities. In line with this, diverse societies (such as the US) must accept and integrate their diverse communities and individuals, across and between communities. Global, national and regional leaders must set the tone for this respect and integration in order to close off the impression that there is space for discrimination.
  • Intelligence sharing between countries and agencies is crucial to stemming the flow of foreign fighters and fundraising for extremist organisations as well as for countering extremist groups. Fighting between allies and the escalation of sectarian tensions that can be coopted by violent extremist organisations (VEOs) is counterproductive. It is therefore important to break the cycle of sectarian violence. So societies must instead be more united, not less.

"No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for terrorism".

  • There is a need to directly confront the ideologies that radicalise and motivate VEOs. VEOs are "desperate for legitimacy", by taking that away, VEOs will be unable to justify the violence they commit or recruit new fighters. President Obama stated "No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for terrorism". But degrading VEOs' legitimacy is a task specifically for religious leaders and scholars because they have the knowledge, skills and connections to speak to those who have been and are at risk of being radicalised. Former extremists are particularly useful in speaking out against VEOs as they are a source of legitimate counter messaging to violent ideologies. Communities, therefore are the best partners to counter radicalisation, and they must have a government that they can trust and with whom to partner. Their counter narratives must also be as exciting, relevant, interesting and practical as extremist narratives.
  • Religious leaders also need to counter the idea that the West is at war with Islam and is responsible for all the woes in the Middle East. The narrative is prevalent, even outside VEOs, and is used as a foundation for radicalisation. 
  • There is an emphasis among VEOs to radicalise and recruit using cyber communications and social media. Parents, teachers and religious leaders are best placed to notice and counter this among their children and in their communities if given the tools and skills to do so by government and partners.

Leaders must set the tone for respect and integration to close the space for discrimination.

  • The world must address the grievances that drive radicalisation, principally economic and political grievances. Economic grievances include, but are not limited to poverty. Radicalisation often emerges from being trapped in poverty within a context of injustice, corruption and a lack of education with seemingly no way to advance. This 'entrapment' breeds instability and disorder that can lead to radicalisation. To counter this education, especially of women, is crucial. He also argued that VEOs easily step into societal voids left by poor governance. They give salaries and provide services – including healthcare, educate, and food – when governments fail to do so. Political grievances must also be addressed. Radicalisation can breed when people are oppressed, denied their human rights, and denied a safe place to protest or oppose policies; it leads to the opinion that violence is the only way to bring about change. The world therefore needs more democracy, honesty and justice. 
Reactions to President Obama’s Speeches and the Summit

The Guardian newspaper summarised the first speech President Obama gave at the summit where he reiterated his call for Muslims not to let extremists hijack their religion and stated again that the West is not at war with Islam, while calling on religious leaders to counter such allegations as well. The Guardian notes that the language used in Obama's speech is the strongest challenge the president has delivered for religious leaders to counter extremist ideologies within their own religion.

Deepa Iyer, an activist and writer, and Linda Sarsour, a community activist, who were also writing in the Guardian, expressed frustration that the summit limited its understanding of 'violent extremism' to Islamist violent extremism. They referenced an open letter to the White House in December (available here) from interfaith leaders who stated that countering violent extremism programmes can be counterproductive, and that effective countering of violent extremism must look beyond Muslims.

Tara Mcklvey, a White House reporter for BBC News, thought the summit was timely, even if it appears to have been organised hastily and in reaction to recent events and criticisms for Obama not being present at the march in Paris. The mayor of the Belgian town Vilvoorde, Hans Bonte, said, "We are facing a global problem. But we have to act locally".

Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, expressed concern before the start of the summit that an emphasis by President Obama on security-centric counter extremism could provide space and a shield for governments and organisations to carry out human rights abuses and repress dissenters in the name of national security. Two of the five points in President Obama's countering extremism strategy were dedicated to countering the causes of radicalisation, including repressing free expression, violating human rights, and denying people access for advancement.

Susan Hayward, the interim director of religion and peace building at the US Institute for Peace, was encouraged by the leading role religious leaders played in the summit, but offered three lessons learned from her own work with USIP on the religious sector, war zones and fragile environments. She cautioned that the US strategy to counter violent extremism must look beyond Islam (which fuels jihadi recruitment rhetoric that the West is 'at war with Islam'), men (which is counterproductive for equality issues and ignores the very real and deep influence women have on countering extremism and building peace) and counter-messaging (which focuses narrowly on religious leaders' role in the pulpit, ignoring their role in building resilience and sustainable peace by addressing the underlying grievances that cause radicalisation).

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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