from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Violent Extremism that Dare Not Speak Its Name

May 27, 2016

Blog Post

The Department of State and USAID have just issued a report entitled the "Joint Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism."

There are some ideas in this "strategy" for what is now called CVE, but at bottom it is hopeless. If this is really the United States’s strategy, we are in even bigger trouble than we thought.

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Here’s just one fact that will show you why: The word ’Islam’ does not once appear in the US government’s CVE document. Neither does ’Islamism’, ’Islamist’, ’radical-Islam’, ’radical-Islamist’ or any other such formulation.

That phrase comes from the assessment of the Henry Jackson Society in London, an NGO named after the late Senator Henry M. Jackson (for whom I had the honor to work in the 1970s). Here is their full text:

 

The US government has released a new CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) strategy consisting of a 12-page document, with a foreword by Secretary of State John Kerry. Although the release has been little commented upon either in the US or the UK, both countries should take an urgent interest in the document.

 

Firstly because the whole framing of the strategy is an import from the UK. It was the UK government that first came up with the presentation of its counter-extremism strategy as ’countering violent extremism’. Many UK government experts extolled the virtues of the British strategy to the US. In fact through this process Britain has exported some of our worst habits to America.

For the glaring problem with the strategy is that it lacks any apparent desire to deal with the problem, or even to identify it. The new strategy is a follow-on document from last year’s White House convened conference on the same subject. The resulting document, like the conference, is notable for its attempt to avoid pin-pointing the problem. For although there are multiple domestic and foreign security threats to the US as there are to the UK, there is no point in setting up strategies to counter them unless you are willing to say which ones you are talking about.

The language of CVE has become, in the US far more than the UK, a way to avoid talking about Islamist extremism. The word ’Islam’ does not once appear in the US government’s CVE document. Neither does ’Islamism’, ’Islamist’, ’radical-Islam’, ’radical-Islamist’ or any other such formulation. Doubtless as Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson has claimed in the past, all this is a very clever attempt to ensure that people do not think you are talking about anything connected to the religion of Islam. But we are. Radical Islamist movements are our primary domestic and foreign security threat, whether we name it or not. The British government, to give it credit, moved away from a reluctance to remotely identify this in the early years of CVE, to an awareness that such denial was not just futile but counter-productive.

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There is every reason to be careful in the use and choice of language, to ensure that the general public (who are in case unlikely to read any CVE document) do not get the idea that all Muslims are to be blamed, or anything like it. But what the Obama administration seems unaware of is just how counter-productive this piece of wordplay is. Because unless they follow the UK government in being willing to identify the specific ideological nature of this problem a terrible backlash awaits us all. It is only [due to] the perception that government is deliberately trying to avoid identifying the facts that everyone else can see with their own eyes, that people risk turning to other extremes. The general public in America would not be wrong in feeling that obvious truths are being kept from them. Although one can blame them, one should not be surprised, when they resist such trends by forming harder views of their own.

 

Think about three of those sentences yet again: "The language of CVE has become, in the US far more than the UK, a way to avoid talking about Islamist extremism....It is only [due to] the perception that government is deliberately trying to avoid identifying the facts that everyone else can see with their own eyes, that people risk turning to other extremes. The general public in America would not be wrong in feeling that obvious truths are being kept from them."

When we seek to understand why voters in Europe and the United States listen to demagogues and even "form harder views of their own," we should remember this. When governments put out documents like this one, they are helping feed demagogy and they are harming the effort to formulate effective and sensible efforts against extremism.

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