New Approaches to Countering Global Extremism

New Approaches to Countering Global Extremism

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Radicalization and Extremism

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Farah Pandith, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses her newly-released book How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

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Farah Pandith

Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have Farah Pandith with us today for a discussion on her newly-released book How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat. And it just came out this week, so it’s hot off the presses.

Farah Pandith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a nonresident senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She’s a pioneer in the field of countering violent extremism—or CVE, as she coined when she was at the State Department. She’s been a political appointee in the administrations of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In the Obama administration she was the first-ever special representative to Muslim communities and served on the secretary of Homeland Security’s advisory council, while also playing a central role in the creation of the Women in Public Service Project. She’s also held positions at the State Department, on the National Security Council, and in the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Farah, thanks very much for being with us today. We really appreciate it. You’ve spent most of your career thinking about these issues, about the extremist threat and how we counter it, and you’ve really done a deep dive in this book with practical recommendations. So it would be great if you could talk about your findings and give us your recommendations and some practical advice of what we all can do in our communities.

PANDITH: Well, thank you so much. It’s always a pleasure to be able to talk to people who are interested in these kinds of issues, and it’s an honor for me to be connected with this series at CFR, as usual. So, Irina, thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this during my launch week. And I am really looking forward to the questions and answers.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about me and how I decided to write my first book because I think it will give you a framework for the kind of journey I take you on this book. I came back into government when 9/11 happened, and I had had my first experience with extremist ideology when I was in graduate school when I was doing my master’s thesis on the insurgency in Kashmir, the region that is being fought over by both India and Pakistan. And for those of you who have read my bio, I was born in Srinagar, actually, and came to the United States as a baby and grew up outside of Boston. I am an American. I am a Muslim. And when 9/11 happened, it made me want to serve my nation again. And I came back into government thinking that it didn’t really matter what I did; I just needed to be able to do something, knowing that I was going to work to push and pull out any kind of leverage that the group al-Qaeda was having.

So I didn’t have any plans to work on the ideological front, because we didn’t really have a strategy at that time and we weren’t really talking about it. But I came back to the agency that I knew, which was the U.S. Agency for International Development, and it was really important because it reminded me of how important what was happening at the grassroots was, how critical it was to be able to listen to what communities were saying about what they were experiencing, and how incorrect and how wrong it would be if the things that they were being told to do came from on high and had no bearing on what was really happening emotionally and what was happening culturally to the nuanced communities in which, you know, things were taking place.

So when I came back into government after 9/11, obviously, it was in the context of our country being attacked. But it was not just our country that was attacked, obviously; it was ninety different countries around the world who lost people on that day. But it also opened our eyes globally to what a powerful ideology of “us versus them” could do; that they could, in fact, lure young people into their armies, their ideological armies and their physical armies, that could destroy buildings in New York and in Washington, DC, and loss of life—and, obviously, in Pennsylvania too. But more than that, it could reshape the way in which we as humanity thought about these issues.

And so when I began to think through, you know, the context of writing this book, I wanted to bring the readers through the journey with me of what I experienced with the government right after 9/11, how the government was thinking about what we termed the war of ideas. All of you will remember that President Bush, obviously, right after 9/11, working really hard with our partners and within the interagency to be thinking about how to protect our country. And so we stood up brand-new entities, like the Department of Homeland Security. And we recalibrated and built the National Counterterrorism Center. And we looked and, you know, did all kinds of things to think about the physical security of our county, which was obviously the right thing we had to do.

But we—in 2016, when the president laid out the National Security Strategy and talked about a battle of ideas as well as a battle of arms, in 2006, we began to move and tilt in a direction that said: Now that we understand what we’re doing physically and how to protect our nation, we need to make sure that groups like al-Qaeda are not filling their ranks. And so what’s happening with the ideological war? The book begins with a reflection from me on what was really taking place. I conducted dozens and dozens of interviews with my former colleagues to get the real story, even before I came to government, of what and how they developed this idea, the ideological war, and what they really wanted to do. And I talk about from first-hand experience—in the beginning parts of this book—about the birth of a field called countering violent extremism which, to be clear, it is not the way people in 2019 conceive of it. It has had a lot of difficult interpretations. And so I bring us back to what is it we’re trying to do?

At its core, on the ideological side, it is to say that we are trying to make sure that we are protecting young kids from the armies not just of terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State, but also any terrorist organizations and movements that are moving towards—pushing you towards violence. And the kind of tools that we’re using, the soft-power tools, are non-kinetic. They aren’t law enforcement. They aren’t surveillance. They are about ideas. They are about how to make sure that we’re building the antibodies in the system so that young kids don’t find this appealing.

So that’s where I begin the journey in this book. And then I take readers on the travels with me to nearly a hundred countries around the world to show you the system that is underlying extremism, through my eyes. What did I see when I was special representative for Muslim communities in the Obama administration? And what did I see when I was working on CVE as the first person in the U.S. government who was actually building this off the ground? We first experimented with CVE in Europe. And I talk about the lessons that I learned and the strength of different kinds of communities and what they must do. And I make a very straightforward and hard case for the things that the American government has not done around thinking around this issue of the ideological threat of an “us versus them” ideology.

We are talking today about groups like ISIS. I also bring it back to what was happening to this post-9/11 generation, so that they were ready and able to accept this vile ideology from al-Qaeda. What was actually taking place and why were they able to lure people in? And then that connects with, obviously, to why it was possible for groups like ISIS to lure tens of thousands of young Muslim Millennials from all over the world into their ranks. And my starting point here is what I witnessed, shockingly. Whether or not Muslims were growing up as minorities in the world or they were growing up in Muslim-majority countries, there was one commonality that was connecting them across the globe that I witnessed.

And that was that when they—growing up post 9/11 would see things like the word “Islam” or “Muslim” on the front pages of papers online and offline, they were experiencing fierce attention in a new way, and in a negative way, and in a way that made them ask questions about their identity that their parents and their grandparents hadn’t asked. And let us absolutely be clear here. And I know that the people listening today are well-read and I don’t need to necessarily say this, but obviously we get that every kid growing up in this world, including us—I mean, as we navigate becoming adults, you know, you’re asking questions about who you are, and what—you know, what you want to do with your life, and where—you know, what the purpose of life is, and what—you know, you ask questions about identity. It’s a normal thing that you navigate through. This is something peculiar to one type of person.

But you lay upon that at the same time that you’re going through those kinds of questions, you’re experiencing 9/11, and you’re experiencing how the world responds to you because of signals around how you look, or how you practice your faith, or now you live your life. And you get that heightened attention. And with all of those things, this particular demographic of Muslim Millennials growing up post-9/11 were experiencing a crisis of identity in a really different kind of way. And so when they were asking questions about what it meant to be Muslim, the answers that they were getting that were ready and available to them came in ways that made sense to them, because they were coming from peers. Peers that were telling them, in ways that were functionally connected to them, and telling them that in order to be a “real Muslim” that they needed to do something these terrorist organizations were telling them to do.

So they were setting up an “us versus them” ideology. They were telling them that there was one way to be a Muslim, and Islam meant one thing. They were building these ideas of sort of a monolithic experience of being Muslim. And they were giving them an easy way to be able to live their religion out loud. And all of these things manifest in a very particular way in different countries around the world. But the common experience is that there was a vulnerability there that the bad guys saw that we, as governments, had not seen. People on the ground were beginning to see changes that were taking place for young people. NGOs that were working in communities began to see different questions being asked and different responses. Parents were beginning to see questions being asked of their kids and were eager to find ways to make sure that their kids weren’t listening to the loudest voices that were available.

The field of countering violent extremism is the ideological soft power approach to all of these things that I’ve just described. And I make a case that in order for us to disrupt the “us versus them” ideology, we need to be able to fortify communities at a local level. We need to be able to give agency to the NGOs that are doing the kind of work that governments—there’s no way government could do, because they don’t have legitimacy. They don’t have credibility. They don’t have the capacity to be able to persuade emotionally what’s taking place with this crisis of identity with Muslim youths. And even though they do have a role to play—and we can talk about that during the Q&A—but what my attention is: Is how do we in 2019, nearly twenty years after 9/11, looking at nearly a billion Muslims under the age of thirty on planet Earth right now, what is it that we are prepared to do to debunk the “us versus them”, to make sure that we’re building resilience? And that means that all of us—all of us—government, the private sector, and citizens themselves—have roles to play in making sure that we decrease the appeal of this ideology.

And I’ll leave it with this, because I know we’ll get into the details during the Q&A. This is bigger than the questions that we ask ourselves here in the United States about these terrorist organizations. We are dealing with a rise in hate along the lines of religion, and ethnicity, and race, and sexuality, and gender, and I could go on, that is unprecedented. And these different types of “us versus them” add onto an ecosystem that make it very easy for organizations like ISIS to be able to navigate through and build their armies ideologically. They are using peers that are younger and sexier and savvier. Peer to peer connections that make it possible to lure kids in, because they’ve been culturally listening. What we need to be doing is to listen carefully, to be working at the grassroots, to have that kind of cultural listening acumen that the bad guys have and use it to our advantage.

One of the most important things I want to leave you with this book is it is not a story of doom and gloom. This is a story of what is possible. This is a journey that I asked you to take with me, so that you are introduced to some remarkable young people around who, in a lot of different ways, have tremendous ideas on how to build those antibodies, and are activating them. The issue that we have right now is that there is no scale globally. And we haven’t seen the kind of comprehensive 24/7 approach by any government or any entity in the world that’s saying we are committed to making sure that this kind of ideology of hate does not get, you know, even more power than it already has. Instead, I tell you, you know, I leave you with this—I hope you will find it hopeful—conclusion, which is, obviously things start at the local level. And we can’t be lazy on hate. We can’t expect somebody else to be doing this for us. Government can’t keep thinking this is something too hard and too difficult to deal with. Companies cannot stand by and say: We can’t get engaged in this issue of fighting hate because it’s too politically connected, and it could be bad for our brands.

And we cannot have citizens that think even though they don’t want hate in their communities, claim that they don’t know enough about what to do. We all know how to—how to treat people with dignity and mutual respect. We all know what that feels like. We all know what we can do to change behavior. My argument here is why don’t we do more? I will leave you with that, so we can get into the questions.

FASKIANOS: That was fantastic. Thank you so much for taking us through your journey. Let’s open up to the group now for both questions and comments too. We want to hear from you all.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will come from James Gilchrist with Carnegie Mellon University.

GILCHRIST: Yes, thank you so much for your presentation. I’m wondering what people from non-Muslim backgrounds can do to contribute. More specifically, Muslims in America are a relatively small minority. It’s going to rely on majority groups to make a difference. So how can Christians, for example, contribute more significantly to what you’re describing?

PANDITH: Thank you so much. And I love that question. I talk very precisely about this in How We Win because I think of the problems that we all have—and I can understand this completely—is that one thinks, I don’t even know where to begin, you know? How do I even deal with this? It’s such a difficult and very emotional issue. And I go back to this issue of what I can nano-interventions. It’s even one-on-one. I tell this story in the book. You very particularly talked about what Christians can do. And I want to tell you that I think that one of the largest and most—well, how do I want to put this? Let me back up for a second. I had a colleague at the Department of State named Hannah Rosenthal. She was the envoy to combat and monitor anti-Semitism. And together, we built a program that was called Hours Against Hate.

And it came about because when we were going to Kazakhstan for a conference on tolerance that was being held there with people from all over the world, Hannah was supposed to give a presentation on behalf of the United States government as the envoy to combat and monitor anti-Semitism. I was asked to speak and give official commentary from the United States government on what they called Islamophobia. And there were different people doing different kinds of things, including what they called Christophobia and other things. And the day before the conference, Hannah and I decided that, you know, these conferences—you know, people issue out papers, they do all these kinds of things, and you make a statement. It’s a one-off and then you go on with your merry way.

And we decided to disrupt. We didn’t ask any permission from anybody at the State Department to do this, so it was quite a risk. (Laughs.) But we showed up the next day for this conference. And when they called on the United States of America to speak about anti-Semitism, I stood up. And I read the statement as the special representative to Muslim communities. I read the statement on anti-Semitism. And when they asked for the American response on Islamophobia, Hannah stood up and she read the statement. And both of the statements had the same paragraph at the end, which ended in, you know, hate is hate. It doesn’t matter who the victim is.

And when we finished that, you know, people—our colleagues, diplomats from around the world, were freaked out. They couldn’t believe America did that. And because it wasn’t typically part of what anybody would have expected from America, and any other nation would never have done it.

But more than that, and this is the point I’m trying to make here, is that civil society groups came to us and they said: It’s all fine that America did this. And it’s quite a stunt that you guys pulled. But you guys have to do more. You have to use your platforms to do more. And while American obviously would want to fight hate around the world, that wasn’t specifically my job. That wasn’t specifically Hannah’s job. She had a mandate from Congress. And were, like, but the civil society groups were right. There is more we have to do. What can we ask one person to do? And so we thought about it. And we started talking to young people. And we decided: OK, everybody has the capacity to volunteer their time—I mean, an hour of their time. They may not have money to devote to this issue, but they have an hour of their time that they can give. What if we asked somebody to walk in somebody else’s shoes for a time?

So we devised a campaign called Hours Against Hate, where we asked people to donate an hour of their time for someone who doesn’t look like them, love like them, pray like them, or look like them. And we thought, you know, maybe we’ll get—it was launched in the year 2011. And we thought maybe we’ll get 2,011 hours. And that will be great. And it will be really important. And that’s, whatever. That’s not what happened. It went crazy around the world. And people were donating time for people who were different than they were in all kinds of ways. People were making peanut butter sandwiches for, you know, a group across the city that they would never have seen. So it was across class, it was across race, it was across religion, all those kinds of things.

We had people who said, you know, I’m a Jew. I’ve never ever read anything, I’ve never learned anything about Islam. I’m going to take, you know, an online—I’m going to spend an hour online listening to a class, you know, at a university that teaches Islam 101, OK? And you think that that’s all very simple, and big deal, what can that do? It was so—people found it so engaging, and so—it gave them so much agency. I mean, the London Olympics and Paralympics, which never partner with NGOs like that—I mean, efforts like this that come out of government; they usually partner with an NGO—decided that they were going to take this on. And it became an official partner with the London Olympics and Paralympics.

Why am I telling you all this? Because what we know is that in fact even—it’s not about—this isn’t about how to only protect Muslim youth. This is about how we as communities want to treat each other. And so if somebody isn’t—you know, if you were a Christian, and you want to be able to help build that kind of respect, or kind of build that partnership, or build the coalition, there are so many ways you can do that in even the most simple way by, you know, going to a mosque and saying, you know, is there something I could do so that I can learn about Islam? Is there a—could we do a potluck dinner? I mean, is there something—these things sound so quaint, but it is about scale. It is about how people think about the ethos and the city.

And I’ll leave—one last thing I just want to say on this. Across the religious side, there are dozens upon dozens of examples that I saw globally where even these small kinds of actions make people think differently. And it gave me inspiration. It’s not just about volunteering your time or going to a mosque. It’s about sort of opening up—going to a local library, even and saying: Could we do an evening here where we’re talking about an interfaith thing for different people in this community? It is, in fact, about what a community wants to do. And so much so that, you know, mayors across the world know this. I mean, we have mayors here in the United States that have built their cities around, you know, new concepts for, like, the modern era. You look at, you know, Mayor Fischer who’s made Louisville a city of compassion. And in everything that they are doing as a city, it’s around those kinds of things.

So it’s about communal ethos. It’s about who we are, and what we are, and what we stand for. And I really am so happy you asked that question. I’m sorry I went long on the answer, but I think it’s important that you asked it.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Ashima Kaul Bhatia with Yakjah Reconciliation and Development Center.

Kaul Bhatia: Yes. Thank you so much. And thank you, Farah Pandith, for your presentation.

My question is that most of these extremist organizations and groups co-opt women, and that impacts on—in terms of in [inaudible], the kind of seduction, in the [inaudible] brothers or sons or husbands in the service in [inaudible] or they are co-opted into extremist movements. So while [inaudible] about of pressure and the role that they are pressured to play in it, what role do you see the mothers play and what role mothers can play in [inaudible]?

FASKIANOS: I’m sorry. Farah, I don’t know if you got that. Did you get that?

PANDITH: Irina, I’m so glad you said that. I think I heard what can mothers do to make a difference.

Kaul Bhatia: Yes.

PANDITH: Is that the question?

Kaul Bhatia: Yes.

FASKIANOS: OK. Great. Thank you.

PANDITH: OK. So thank you. Your line was a little bit mumbled. I heard a little bit about how you set the question up. But I’m really happy you asked the question about mothers. A mother is, as we know, most often a child’s first teacher, and so what’s happening in the home really matters. I find that—found that to be extremely important in my early work on countering violent extremism when I was working on this in Europe because I kept talking.

In 2007 and 2008, I was working at the State Department, working with our embassies across Europe to build the kinds of programs to be able to build networks of like-minded thinkers who are pushing back against this kind of ideology and one thing I kept hearing was, what are you doing to understand what’s happening in the home, because the way in which mothers were teaching their children and setting up the system within the home to think about the other really mattered.

And so one of the problems was that a lot of the mothers were not—and now, by the way, here I want to be really clear. I’m speaking about women who are Muslim who are raising their children in a way that is Muslim, and I want to be really clear about that because one of the things that I heard from them were—was the fact that they often didn’t have enough information about what was really allowed for them in terms of their religion versus what the culture was telling them.

So there was a cultural versus a theological divide and so that they were eager and anxious for more clarity and more information. They also wanted to get more information from women themselves who happened to be Muslim doing different kinds of things so that they could see sort of the diversity of the female experience—Muslim experience—globally.

And then, finally, they also, on the other side, were really interested in understanding how the bad guys were recruiting their children. So there was a deep lack of information not just in the online space about how their kids were using what I call Sheikh Google to get answers but what was actually taking place.

So there was—all of these things were sort of brewing around and, in fact, what we decided to do was to use the model that we have here in the United States called Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is a grassroots model. It’s not a perfect—it’s not a perfect model for what I’m about to tell you but it helped us understand the agency and the power of mothers and parent-teacher associations and all these kinds of organisms that live within a community, and we knew that there was far more we could be doing.

And so what we did is we set up something that we called Sisters Against Violent Extremism—S-A-V-E—SAVE—and it was, in fact, mothers that either had great—wanted to take part in making sure that there was resilience in communities or mothers that had lost children to the bad guys and were victims themselves because their children had been radicalized and went off, or mothers who had, in fact, lost children in battle.

And we brought those players together and we ceded an initiative through an NGO in Austria that now has it—I mean, I’m telling you this—like, this is ancient history now—we ceded it. We gave it to them. They are running it. It’s been around for—since 2008 and they have chapters all over the world doing the kind of education and they have a thing called Mothers Schools where mothers are doing grassroots action against extremism.

So the question is a really important one, but it comes back down to how we think about how to build those antibodies and how we build education experiences so that the mothers have as much information at their fingertips as they need and support that they need.

Thank you for the question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Zul Kassamali with Toronto Area Interfaith Council.

KASSAMALI: Thank you for taking my call. Farah, first of all, I would like to congratulate you on your effort and you are still the ambassador on this particular subject. I recall when we met in Ottawa some years ago you did this presentation at the Association of Progressive Muslims of Canada.

PANDITH: I remember that. I remember that. It was a great—I enjoyed that very much and I have a picture of me with a—is it a Mountie?


PANDITH: A Canadian—yeah. Exactly. I remember that. Yes.

KASSAMALI: Yeah. So ever since, it has sunk into my head that we have to do something about this, and with Allah’s grace on the 28th of April we are launching a professional video on Islamophobia, bearing in mind what you taught us on that day, and it will be a teaching tool for school systems, for the corporate world, and it will be launched on 28th. So I will make sure that I send you a copy, which you will be very proud of.

PANDITH: Well, congratulations to you and thank you so much for telling me that that’s there. My website has a place where you can learn more information as this book—as Irina said, this book is three days old in the world.

But I’m hoping that I can hear from all of you things that you’re doing so that I can—I can build them into my awareness of things that are taking place, and I want to thank you for sharing that with me. So please make sure that you let me know when it goes live and so I know about it.

KASSAMALI: Thank you so much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Virginia Farris with United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

FARRIS: Thank you, Farah.

I wanted to ask you about your comment on peer-to-peer connections and how those are used to lure young Muslims into joining these extremist groups. Obviously, I am not of the social media generation but I believe that social media does play a particularly strong role in terms of how extremists recruit young people. So can you give me some examples of how social media is being used to counter that effort?

PANDITH: Oh, that’s a great question. So one of the things that the bad guys have done really well is to understand the nuances of the experience of young people and very particularly, right. So somebody who is sixteen is not the same as somebody who is nineteen. You know, they’re listening to different things. They’re eating different things. They dress a different way. You know what I mean? Like, you can slice and dice this in a thousand different ways. You get what I mean.

Nuance and data about cultural expression, behavioral norms, is stuff that companies use every single day to sell you things and make you want to want things that you didn’t know you wanted. This is what we are—this is the world we live in today, and the way in which you use the internet—and you know this, too—all of those micro data points together build a picture on what a particular profile would look like and what that person wants to do.

Now, that is something we all understand is taking place daily in our lives. To apply that kind of knowledge in an online space to dissuade a young person from, let’s suppose, going down a path where they eventually meet a recruiter on the other end who tells you that they need to go to the so-called caliphate requires us to be able to disrupt the algorithms. You know, along the way as they’re moving towards going into the dark web they’re getting exposed—they’re getting redirected—to content that is different and simultaneously alluring and compelling to the kinds of questions that they’re asking online that get them in a direction of negativity.

So, for example, you might—this is quite basic but I’m just trying to make the point. Like, so if you’re trying to ask questions about how to be a better Muslim, if you are exposed to only a particular kind of thing that tells you that the only expression of that is to be, you know, an ISIS fighter, you see, you know, beautiful, you know, communities, you know, singing by a campfire, I suppose, and doing whatever they do to make them feel like they’re all, you know, happy and engaged, you’re—then you’re going to get interrupted by, guess what, somebody who used to be a member of ISIS and is going to say, “Are you kidding me? That’s a forged picture. That never happens. In fact, let me just tell you what really does happen. I know, because I was there. I was there for a year. This is what they did to me. I escaped.” So they’re getting disrupted by legitimate real voices that make a difference or images that are the real deal. So on the online space it’s a redirection towards other people that can take you off of that path to go—to go down in that way.

You know—the other piece of—another example, rather, on peer-to-peer is what happens in the—way, way, way early when you’re beginning to see signs in a way that tells you that that person has a vulnerability.

It’s the same kind of data capturing that we use and we are aware that is happening in the behavioral sciences side where people may, in fact, show that they perhaps might be depressed or they might need help from a social services center somewhere near them because they are showing signs of maybe suicide or something like that.

There are triggers that they’re seeing—kind of questions that they’re asking paired with something else. Those kinds of signals that happen in an online space can be deployed to help us understand that why is that person—this is way early on, but why are they asking these questions in these ways. Could it possibly be that eventually they’re going to want to move in that direction. Can we disrupt that there? So can we present something to them in an online space where they’re seeing an alternative right then and there and can we deploy it in such a way that is peer friendly? So that’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We will take our next question from Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad with Minaret of Freedom Institute.

AHMAD: Thank you. You raised a point that because of the lack of credibility of governments in this area that there was a place for civil society to act. As president of an organization that is engaged in this kind of work, my question to you is do you have practical suggestions how to mobilize support for such activities, given that you do not want the support to be coming from the governments because that would then taint the organizations that are engaged in the work?

PANDITH: Well, thank you for that question. So I’m going to be pretty forward leaning here.

When 9/11 happened, that was the—that was the typical—let me step back. You are 100 percent correct when you say that civil society has a role to play. In fact, it has the role to play. There is no one more legitimate than organizations within your community that are doing work with your community. OK. People can’t just parachute in and tell communities what to do. That’s not going to work. We know that.

So I take my hat off to all of you who are in communities doing the kind of work that we’re talking about. You understand exactly what I mean. One of the biggest challenges in saying what I just said is that, obviously, nonprofit organizations are nonprofit organizations. You’re not making money off of what you do, which means that every single day you are raising money to keep the lights on and pay the rent and pay your employees, and that takes you away from the jobs that you can be doing in communities. And this is the struggle that we’ve had since 9/11 because those NGOs that are actually going to have to do the work that government cannot do they are—they are fighting for every cent that they get to try to do it and one of the arguments I make in the book is about scale. We have a lot of programs that we’ve tested. We can’t scale what we need to do. Nobody has the money and doesn’t have the capacity.

So I’m going to push back in this one way—and I said this in the book—I get what you’re saying about tainting, and government needs to get a grip. You know, government is capable and they can’t fund everything but government and the private sector can help NGOs scale and do the things that they need to do and not—so that those NGOs do not have to be worrying about security, because a lot of these people are on the front lines, which just breaks me to pieces when I think about what we’re asking of these NGOs to do.

When government—you know, can’t do it and yet you’re asking NGOs to be putting their personnel in harm’s way by doing this work, being doxed and being—I mean, all kinds of things—and they don’t have the money for security. So the money part—the support part, the financial aspects of this, are important. I don’t agree with you that in 2019 government can’t help pay some of these expenses. I don’t believe that.

I believe government can’t pay all of them because we don’t have the money in government. But they can pay some because there are ways in which we can give grants that allow NGOs to keep their own authenticity, keep their organic value, not get the tainting because of the way they are—the grants are given and the way they’re used, and I think we need to be doing more of that. I know this. I’m not just speaking pie in the sky. I’ve worked hand in glove both inside of government and outside with NGOs who are trying to navigate through that.

It isn’t a luxury anymore for us to say, hey, we can just go raise that money, you know, outside of—we don’t have the time. The bad guys are raising money through sex slaves, through the sale of antiquities, through a lot of other criminal activities, and we are sitting around going, you can’t give money to that NGO because they think that people are going to think bad things about them because they got money from the Department of State.

Doesn’t work like that anymore. I think we all understand that we have an urgency and a seriousness with which we need to bring to the table and that’s why I have also said there are ways where—there are things, sorry—that we haven’t seen happen and I’m very fierce in this book around this fact.

Where are the philanthropists that ought to be giving the kind of money to build resilience to protect youth? I would like to know why we haven’t seen that kind of effort on behalf of philanthropy and I make a really hard case for that as well.

So I want to thank you for talking about the fund piece.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Dave Robinson, independent consultant.

ROBINSON: Farah, hi. I met you years ago when I was with World Vision. I would like to talk about scale and getting the message out. I was in Kosovo in 2016 working with a local multi-faith women’s NGO who were complaining most of—there was more per capita youth going from Kosovo than any other place in Europe into ISIS and they were complaining of how to get the message out that jihad was just as valuable in caring for Syrian refugees coming across the Balkans at the time as actually going to Syria to join ISIS.

And one of the issues they brought to my attention was what’s the role of media, both locally and globally, of making it sexy enough to Muslim youth to see fighting for justice, for refugees—in this case, the Syrian refugees coming across their neighborhoods—was just as valuable as representing their Muslim strive for justice as going to ISIS. So scaling up the message and the role of media locally and globally in giving the other side of how to be a responsible just Muslim.

PANDITH: So that’s a great question and I’m going to dissect it for you, Dave. I’m sorry I don’t remember meeting you particularly. I think if I saw you face to face I probably would. But I appreciate you raising it and for raising Kosovo because I think it’s an important part of the world and I actually talk a lot about it in the book vis-à-vis the role the Saudis have played there.

But let me take your question in two different ways. First, I absolutely agree with you that there is a role that media can play in many different forms but they aren’t the answer to everything. They have both helped and hindered what has happened since 9/11 and I think when you’re in it, you tend to look in—if only the media would say this we’d be fine and tell this story in this way.

There’s certainly more that they can be doing to talk about the efforts by Muslims themselves to push back against this ideology and I think that could really, really help and not only focus on stories that have to do with the kid in Seattle that found it, you know, and then got on a plane, and then went. I mean, you know, that’s the sexy story that’s being told so you think that’s everything.

You never hear about the Muslims who are, in fact, waking up every day, working tirelessly with their peers to make sure that their communities are safer and kids are learning about Islam in a new way. It’s very rare to see that side. So I go pretty hard in the book on what I know the media has done and has not done. But I don’t necessarily connect it to the second point that you raised, which is a very important one—what happens—how can we tell young people that there are alternatives to what the bad guys are saying?

And, for me, I see that in terms of, yes, there’s a media dimension to that but it also has to do with the way in which Muslims or legitimate peers—sometimes it isn’t Muslims, by the way, depending on the youth of the person. It’s somebody who has influence for them in a particular community.

So, for example, it could be a sports star, a Muslim, but those kids listen to that person because they like who that person is and you get what I’m saying there. But how do we talk about the real deal as opposed to just saying that the bad guys are trying to say is true? And I think I’ve seen an increase in essentially—talking about media in the stories that are being told by Muslims themselves about how they navigate through that or providing alternatives or role models. But they haven’t seen that kind of scale.

I also don’t—and I’m also a realist, by the way—I do not see anytime soon the major media outlets of the world devoting their time to making sure that they’re—that they’re showing or trying to persuade young people that helping Syrian refugees is more important than joining a group like ISIS. I don’t think they see it as their job. But I do think that they should see as their job as journalists to report stories of people who are doing some tremendous things that work towards building secure cities and safer emotional states and those kinds of things.

So I hear what you’re saying and I call the media out in the book. I promise. But I also think one of the things—and I’ll leave you on a more positive note here—one of the things that has been great to see is that in the almost twenty years since 9/11 you’re seeing more Muslims themselves in the cultural regular space—in comedy, in film, in music—who are using their own voices to be able to tell different stories, and whether it’s through, you know, rap or it’s through art or it’s through, you know, a comedy routine, as I said, they’re talking about the false narratives of groups like ISIS and how, in fact, to be a better human—forget about a better Muslim, a better human—the right thing to do would be put that energy into other places. So thank you for raising the question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Other questions?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Tereska Lynam with Oxford University. Please go ahead.

LYNAM: Great. So thank you so much for a wonderful presentation.

I actually lived in Malaysia for a while and noticed very quickly how, around 2007 in particular, a lot of—it became much more extreme with Muslim, and not only were we seeing it in dress and a kind of removal of women from society but a sharp increase in domestic violence and women and family abandonment, and, more recently, in the United States I’ve noticed a lot of kind of the same extremism happening in more rural or poorer areas of the United States with evangelical Christians. And one of the ways that we combated or tried to combat locally in Malaysia some of these—some of the extremism is something that we’re also doing—I’m working with a group in Miami called LEAP—Miami, Florida—called LEAP, which is an economic help.

I do coaching with former prisoners—you know, prisoners who find it very hard to find a job afterward and so often have to start their own company in order to be able to afford to eat and take care of their children or recuperate their children if they’ve lost them, and we’re doing the same thing in Malaysia.

And since I saw that entrepreneurism was part of your title, I was wondering if you have any suggestions on how to do these investments in the marginalized communities, because one of the things that I’ve noticed is that if you’re economically independent you’re a lot less likely to go in with the domestic terrorists—go in, you know, with gangs—to go in with any sort of terrorist group because you just want a nice peaceful life no matter where you are, I think.

PANDITH: Well, I want to thank you very—thank you very much for that question, and I know we have, like, a minute left because I’m looking at the time and I know CFR is very strict on when they start and when they start. So I’m going to be very quick in this.

There is an entire—and speaking of Malaysia, I do talk about one of—an amazing entrepreneur named Dash in Malaysia who has been doing really important things around teaching kids what entrepreneurship is and how to bring their ideas into fruition both as business entrepreneurs but also as social entrepreneurs, which is what I think we really need in trying—to build better communities and doing good in communities with new ideas. So the social entrepreneurship side is really key.

I will say one thing, just because I feel like it’s important to do this. I do hear you on communities that are more fragile economically. But the research does not bear out the fact that in those communities you are more able and interested in joining terrorist organizations than not and that’s a data point—

LYNAM: That’s fascinating.

PANDITH: Yeah, and it’s contrary to what you would imagine, right. So you remember that right after 9/11 we all thought, oh, gosh, the people who did that horrible thing on that day had to have been poor, had to be uneducated, had to be all these things that we have in our brain because that’s the only we can sort of process this.

But, in fact, the only good news we have, really, since 9/11 is that there’s been a lot of research as to why people have gotten radicalized. There’s a lot of data out there, and the economic component is not part of the system. It is about identity. It is about identity. It’s about identity. It’s about identity. So if you’re rich or poor, if you’re educated or not educated, if you’re living in a city or in your rural place, or if you’re in a fragile state, you’re not in a fragile state, it’s about identity, and that’s the thing that I really—I’ll conclude with because as important it is to build economically sound and viable communities, something, obviously, we all want for a lot of different reasons—it isn’t connected to this issue of why a group like ISIS can get on board and recruit a young person. There are economic aspects to this, which we don’t have time to get into, but they are not because of this that happened. OK.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Farah, and to all of you for your questions and comments. We appreciate it. This was really a terrific hour.

We appreciate your taking the time from the first week of your book launch. I commend her book to you, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat, and I also encourage you to follow Farah on Twitter at @Farah_Pandith. We hope you will pick up a copy, again, and we also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest resources. And, you know, as always, reach out to us at [email protected] with any suggestions of topics, speakers, or other events we can put together.

So thank you all. And, again, thank you, Farah Pandith.

PANDITH: Thank you so much. Be well, everybody. Thank you. Bye bye.


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