The Fight Against Extremism: How We Win

Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Feisal Omar/Reuters

Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat, @Farah_Pandith

Kal Penn

Former Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement; Actor

John F. Dickerson

Co-Host, CBS This Morning, CBS News

In her new bookHow We Win, Farah Pandith argues that despite spending billions of dollars since September 11, 2001, terrorist groups are still a looming threat. To some degree, the threat has become more potent. We seem doomed to an ongoing struggle with an enemy that remains a few steps ahead of us. To make things worse, current policies are poised not to reduce this threat but to exacerbate it. Yet we actually have the means today to protect communities from extremist ideologies.

Farah Pandith and Kal Penn discuss how to inoculate communities against extremism, and how to mobilize the expertise and resources of diplomats, corporate leaders, mental health experts, social scientists, entrepreneurs, local communities, and, most of all, global youth themselves. 

DICKERSON: All right. Welcome, everyone, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “The Fight Against Extremism: How We Win.” How We Win. (Laughter.) 

I’m John Dickerson of CBS News. 

This is Farah Pandith. She is the author of How We Win, and I should give you the full title: How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat. 

PANDITH: (Laughs.) 

DICKERSON: So How We Win. 

And then—and then to Farah’s right is Kal Penn. He is an actor. You may very well have seen his work. But he’s also the former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. 

So, Farah, congratulations, first of all, on the book. Let me just get you to set the table of where we are now. It’s been almost twenty years since 9/11. And put us where we are today, but give us a little bit of the arc of where we came from. 

PANDITH: Unfortunately, we are looking at a two-decade, almost, time period since 9/11 when, instead of being able to speak to Americans and the rest of the world to talk about how many great initiatives we’ve put forward to make sure young people don’t get recruited, we’re in a situation where we not only had al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State, but we now have many of these groups that have found allegiance to these two organizations, where an us-versus-them narrative has blossomed. And on top of all of that, we now have white supremacists that are out there that also use the us-versus-them ideology. So we’re not in a great position globally. But even worse, John, we don’t have the antibodies in the system to be able to prevent young people from getting recruited. 

DICKERSON: So the connection you’ve already made to the white supremacists is fascinating, and the extent to which they kind of follow the ISIS playbook. But I don’t want to jump ahead too fast because I want to—let’s stay, for a moment, on Islamic extremism. But we hear that ISIS is being wiped out, that the momentum that was once driving recruitment is—on the battlefield, anyway—is down. So isn’t that helping things? 

PANDITH: Well, the president is absolutely wrong when he suggests that we have been able to defeat ISIS. You cannot defeat an ideology that is a global ideology if you haven’t actually worked at it to make sure that young kids don’t find it appealing. And in this administration we have not. We came to a place at the end of the Obama administration when we had market-tested, if you will, lots of different kinds of programs that we knew could work, and there was fierce attention on this issue of how to stop the ideology from becoming appealing. 

So, in fact, as we—as we begin to unpack where we are today, let me put just some statistics out there because I think it connects very strongly to the way in which we have to frame the situation we’re in. There are a billion Muslims under the age of thirty in the world, and that is the demographic from which groups like the so-called Islamic State or ISIS or the Taliban, any non-state actor that uses the name of Islam to recruit, that’s a huge demographic. And we are looking at a global phenomenon where it isn’t just about territory, it’s not just about what’s happening in the Middle East or what might be happening in Afghanistan or Pakistan; it is about what’s happening across the demographic. 

So a young kid in Trinidad and Tobago, for example, or a kid in Tajikistan, should matter to us, not just because kids from Trinidad and Tobago actually joined the so-called Islamic State but because the peers—the Millennial Muslims and Generation Z—are connected to each other as digital natives. 

DICKERSON: And your argument, which we’ll get to in a minute, is that’s the solution, so we should care because it’s a peer-to-peer solution. Your friends are going to do more good work than some government program, even though there might be a government program to get those peers. 

But let’s not jump ahead to the solution section yet, which is one of the great things about your book is that it has solutions. You know, it’s not just, oh, this is awful. 

But, Kal, let me ask you an “oh, this is awful,” or maybe it’s not a(n) “oh, this is awful” question. 

PENN: It’s probably awful. (Laughter.) 

DICKERSON: Farah talked about an us-versus-them mentality. Give me on your scale of one being total placid coexistence, ten being ultimate us-versus-them, what’s your assessment of the current administration’s view towards the Muslim world. What number would you put it on that scale. 

PENN: You guys want to take a poll with this? (Laughter.) I feel like it’s hard us-versus-them, and it’s being done in a way that’s really, I think, quite awful because it runs counter to our American values, right? We’re not just us-versus-themming people who live beyond other borders, but we’re doing it to American citizens who happen to be Muslims. And that’s dangerous because it’s also—I mean, some of the points you make in the book, obviously, but it’s also regressive. It’s going backwards in these twenty years. It’s not sort of taking the framework and saying let’s abandon this framework because maybe a conservative ideology is not compatible with the last twenty years. It’s actually working hard to dismantle some of the cohesive work that’s been done. 

DICKERSON: And when you were in the administration you were doing outreach to every kind of community. But give us a sense a little bit of how efforts were made to reduce the us-versus-them. 

PENN: Yeah. So, you know, I worked in the Office of Public Engagement, now back to Public Liaison, and two of my buckets that I worked on were outreach to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities—which of course include Pakistani Americans, Bengali Americans, and many others—and outreach to young people. So both of those sort of touched CVE marginally. But the president— 

DICKERSON: Explain to people what CVE is. 

PENN: Countering violent extremism. 


PENN: And President Obama’s sort of view of bringing folks together was that people should be at the table for every conversation. So you don’t just bring in a group of women to have a conversation about women’s issues during Women’s History Month. That is maybe something we did in the ’80s and ’90s. Americans should be at the table for all of the things that we’re talking about. So when we had meetings about the ACA, we had Muslim Americans and young Muslims were at the table. And they were just sort of thinking, why are we at the table for this? Because one of their major issues was, obviously, getting health care, but the idea that they were only previously viewed let’s bring you in to have a conversation about what it means to be Muslim, which was sort of the wrong approach. Like, what about all the other things you care about as an American? 

Go ahead. 

DICKERSON: And so, Farah, explain how the way Muslims are treated in America matters both to Muslim Americans with respect to potential lone wolves or whatever else, but also how it affects the perception of America in the way Americans think about Muslims, which has a whole global effect. 

PANDITH: Look, Kal said something really important, which is basically you don’t want to engage with somebody in the moment of crisis. You want to engage with somebody because you’re engaging with somebody, so that in a moment of crisis you already have those connections made and you have coalitions that can be built. And that is a really important point. And I think as we begin to think about how the bad guys try to recruit, they’re doing several things around the us-versus-them, one of which is to suggest that America cannot be a place in which Muslims can live their religion in any way, shape, or form that they want to. And that’s absolutely false. That is not the country that we have, and that is not true to our own history. 

So it’s important for us as Americans to remember that, in fact, Islam came to this country with the slaves. It’s been in this country since our country began. And secondly, every single president from George Washington until President Obama, through him—his administration, has spoken with dignity and respect about Islam and Muslims. So there’s a change. There’s a dramatic change that’s happened. And it feeds the beast, if you will, because it tells the extremists—we told you so, they can say to people they’re trying to bring on board, of course America’s not a place in which you can be a Muslim. 

And that goes, John, actually, to the heart of how young kids are getting recruited, which is one of the things that was very shocking to me when I was special representative to Muslim communities was that having traveled to nearly a hundred countries around the globe, whether you were a Muslim in a Muslim-majority country or you lived as a minority, something singular was happening to that demographic across the world, and that was a crisis of identity. So post-9/11, these young kids are asking questions about culture versus religion, what does it mean to be a real Muslim. And at the very same time that that’s happening, the bad guys are coming in saying there’s only one way to be a Muslim, let us show you how to do that. And it absolutely corresponds to what you’ve just said. So if you are in that mindset, and you are being told that America will never accept you, and that there’s a different place for Muslims and it’s not in America, you are allowing the bad guys to tell a story that seems to be true. 

DICKERSON: And just to stay on that point for a moment, you write about the identity crisis for those one billion in that kind of vulnerable cohort all across the world. And tell the story briefly of the Danish Muslim woman and how that sense of purity was used to make her feel uncomfortable, because I think it really puts a fine point on what you’re saying, and this notion of purity and who is the arbiter of purity and how that’s used to recruit. 

PANDITH: This idea of being an authentic Muslim or a real Muslim is something that when you’ve having an identity crisis you’re trying to find the real value, what does it really mean. And you’re trying to find people who can tell you what it really means because they seem authentic to you. 

I tell the story in the book about a young woman who was meeting with me and a group of about fifty young people who were all Muslim. She raises her hand and she says—she asks the question, my—well, she says, my mom tells me that I’m not a real Muslim. And you know, I said, why? And she said, well, look at me. And everybody in the room looks at her. Nobody can figure out what she’s talking about. And I said, I’m so sorry; I don’t understand what you mean. And she said, look at me. And again we all looked at her and we didn’t understand. And so I finally said, I am so sorry; I don’t—I don’t know what you mean. And she said, well, look at me, and she went like this to her T-shirt and her jeans. And she said my mom tells me that if I dress like this I’m not a real Muslim. And it’s important to understand that that—whether what you wear, what you eat, how you pray, how you experience your daily life, there is an answer available to these young people who see—that seems authentic to them. So this imam with the longest beard and the highest hat who came from Morocco, who is in Denmark, telling this girl who speaks Danish—obviously, she’s a Danish Muslim who is going to live her life in Denmark—he is saying to her you need to dress like the Muslims in Morocco for you to be a real Muslim. 

And, John, you know, the navigation of identity anyway is complicated. We all growing up have questions about who we are and where we’re from and what we’re supposed to do. But at the very same time that that’s happening you’re seeing the name Islam or Muslim on the frontpages of papers online and offline ever since 9/11. You’re confused. There’s fierce attention to you. And now all of a sudden you have a whole set of people that want to tell you and define for you what Islam means, and that’s very, very hard. 

DICKERSON: But it also creates a structure—or does it also create a structure where if somebody’s giving you a code and a thing to live by, that might be a club you want to join? And if that club says, you know, part of the membership is to root out people who are impure, isn’t that the breeding ground for extremism? 

PANDITH: It is absolutely important to get that point. It’s very valid and it’s very important. The techniques that are used can vary, but at its core it’s if you’re a bad guy and you’re trying to recruit a young Muslim to your army—and that’s where it goes back to what you were saying to begin—it is impossible to be looking at where we are in 2019 and to say we’ve made progress the way we should have made progress when they’re still able to recruit. And if you’re still able to recruit you’re building your armies. You’re building them for the next day. And those very same things that make a young person say I want to go to an al-Qaida or I want to go to a Taliban or I want to go to a so-called Islamic State to get my pure answers, they still exist today. And that’s a—that’s a dramatic—a dramatic statement, I realize, but it’s very important for us to understand that authenticity. If we can’t puncture what it is that they’re saying—and we know how to do that, but if we don’t puncture it they will continue to be able to recruit. 

DICKERSON: And I promise we’ll get to the we know how to do that part because I don’t want everyone to lapse into a slough of despond here with thinking—(laughter)—there are no solutions. 

But, Kal, let me just—staying on this point on the portrayal of Muslims, so in the entertainment industry how do you think that—well, how are they portrayed? Because it seems to me you could point, if you were of a mind to try to recruit and say the West and America in particular doesn’t care about Muslims, you could perhaps pick an image from popular culture. 

PENN: Yeah, and there are so many grad theses and books written about the depiction of Muslims and really, you know, any sort of minority group in the history of cinema and television. It is changing a little bit nowadays, I think for the better, and I’m hopeful that it’s going to be for the better. I’m remembering I want to say it was maybe fifteen years ago I did a four-episode arc on 24. I played a young kid who was radicalized in Southern California and took a family hostage. At the time there was no U.S.-born radicalization, period. It wasn’t in the news. It was happening in the U.K. I based my character on what was happening in the U.K. That was just sort of my nerdy actor research. But the writers thought they were writing a fictitious representation. And I remember shortly after I think it was New York Magazine asked me for an interview and we sat down talking about the role, and they kept hammering home, well, is this racial profiling. And I said, I think it’s a pretty nuanced role and it’s based on fiction, except it’s happening in the U.K. The entire article ended up being Kal Penn thinks that his role was racial profiling, which I did not. 

But I think we have a way of sort of being really reductionist about identity, to your point, Farah, that identity can be very complicated. I think it’s sort of a two-pronged approach to those of us who like to think we’re more mindful about the content we’re creating. On the one hand, you know, I grew up as a brown kid in America never really seeing myself onscreen except for Apu on The Simpsons and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so like, you know, you just never see yourself. And you have issues about that growing up a little bit. But part of creating diverse content is knowing that it normalizes what it means to be American, right? I grew up knowing that I’m American, but I didn’t see myself being represented as American on TV. 

The other side to that nowadays is, particularly with streaming platforms, the big networks are still a little slow to catch up on diversity, but there are—you know, think about how many shows on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu—which, by the way, are global networks—feature strong women, people of color, Muslims in roles that you haven’t seen before. And part of that is just the artistic impetus of audiences are savvy and they want to see characters they haven’t seen before, period. So a lot of people who are watching these shows with strong Muslim or strong female characters, they’re not watching it because they’re woke and they want to watch things that they haven’t seen before; they’re watching it because it’s entertaining to them. And I think there’s an opportunity there to create content. 

DICKERSON: Right. The more normal it looks, the more just— 


DICKERSON: —regular old entertainment, it’s like your point if you’re at the table for every reason, you’re not there just because you’re this person. 

PENN: Right, exactly. 

DICKERSON: All right, Farah, let’s turn a little bit to some—well, let me ask you this before we get to the solutions. (Laughs.) What’s halalization? 

PANDITH: So when I was special representative and I was traveling everywhere, I coined this phrase just sort of to make it easy for me to understand. I was talking with my team about the thing that I was seeing. The thing that I was seeing—everybody knows what halal is. So halalization is really living Islam like a lifestyle brand. And it was a very weird thing that was happening to me because I was watching these kids—I am an American, I am a Muslim, I grew up in Massachusetts, and you know, the mosque that I went to growing up was extremely diverse. We had people from all over the world, and so I saw different expressions of Islam and there wasn’t sort of one way to do something. And so this monolithic idea was very, very difficult for me to absorb because I knew that that was coming out of extremist groups, first of all—they all want you to believe that there’s only one way to actually be a Muslim. And, two, what was unifying across the world was this weird thing where everybody was dressing the same, they were eating the same things, they were doing the same things. And yes, it is true that they are all digital natives, and so they’re connected and they’re using social media platforms where they can get cues from each other, but it was strange. 

So we were seeing, you know, just the same way you would wear, you know, a Fitbit on your—on your wrist, I mean, some of you wear a Fitbit because you want to be fit—(laughs)—and you want to check out what’s happening to your body at all moments in the day. But others of you sitting in the room, I know, have a Fitbit on because somebody gave it to you or you want to seem cool, right? You have it on there. You’re really trying to do something. And that’s the kind of expression that I was seeing these young boys and girls do. 

So they would—they would not—they would migrate to things that seemed pure, that seemed Muslim, not just, quote, “halal,” but also had this sort of branding feeling to it that they were part of a club, that they were a very particular kind of Muslim. So young women, for example, were, in fact, dressing not in the lifestyle or culture, shape, and form that had existed in particular communities around the world for hundreds of years, but they were adopting a very particular look from the Gulf that had been spread around the world, which was very interesting to me. 

I also saw people who would make choices about what they were doing because it seemed like they wanted to show off—look at me, I am a Muslim. For example, cars that I saw in Pakistan where you put the key in, turn on the ignition, and the first surah of the Quran would be heard. And I thought that was really interesting. 

I went to New Zealand and people were buying water—halal water doesn’t exist, just FYI—(laughter)—halal water that was branded. A social entrepreneur was making money off of—off of this. But people wanted to touch and feel and experience Islam not only because they wanted to experience it, but because they also wanted to show others that they were also Muslim. 

DICKERSON: Yes. Right. So did that make you think—what did that make you think about, or did it at all, about the—your notion of peer-to-peer influencing, in other words? Because it seemed what you’re describing is something that kind of catches on like wildfire, which is part of your way at getting at a solution here to the battle against—battle of ideas against extremism. 

PANDITH: Well—oh— 

PENN: Can I add one more thing sort of on that? 


PENN: Are you finding that in these places there’s an absence of young people being able to connect with sort of society as a whole? What are the reasons for that— 

PANDITH: They want to be in the in group. They want to seem authentic. They’re not going to their parents or their grandparents to ask about the expression of Islam; they’re taking it from someone else. 


PANDITH: And to me it felt like a fragility around identity rather than a strong identity, so it was a very, very odd kind of situation. 

But there is another layer to it, too, which is really important as we think about the issue of extremism. You cannot buy into this idea of a monolith if there’s not something that’s seeded before you that suggests that there is an us-and-them and that there’s one way to be a Muslim. And in many places that was—that was the soil from which—I mean, I talk in this book, as you know, about the system that is underlying extremism. And one of the components of that is the presence of Saudi Arabia and what they’ve done. And so on the identity piece, if they are coming in to old cultures and saying to peers you are—you are not doing it right, you’re not practicing right, you got to do it our way, it’s a very different conversation because it’s not government that’s telling you what to do, it’s your peers who are saying you’re not—you know, you’re not tying your shoe the right now, or you’re not doing your hair the right way, or you’re—this is the real authentic way to be a Muslim. Which is really interesting because nobody really talks about this anthropological phenomenon that’s happening, or ethnographic phenomenon, and I think it is impossible to talk about the issue of extremism globally with a billion Muslims around the world if you don’t connect the dots on what’s happening to what they feel as Muslims. 

DICKERSON: It feels like the—I kept coming across the idea that identity is the battlefield here. 


DICKERSON: It’s not a physical place; it’s a fight for identity. So how do you—how does the—how would you direct policy in a way that gets at this lived experience you’re talking about, which seems awfully hard? 

PANDITH: Well, I don’t think that after all of the navigation of what do we do and the handwringing post-9/11 around stopping recruitment, we can—we can actually look at the American public and say this is too hard for us to do. You know, I think that’s the first thing. And I think a lot of—a lot of government folks are saying it’s very complicated, it’s too hard to do. 

We have the exact same tools in our toolbox that the bad guys have, OK? They have deployed them differently. Their focus is different. So this group is about solutions, One component is, obviously, what government needs to do and, obviously, what the private sector needs to do, and what regular people can do. But on the government side, it’s the kind of focus and the deliberate attention to scaling the kind of things that we know have made a difference in terms of how people are living this diverse identity out loud. And one of the ways is the way in which we speak as a county about Muslims around the world and how we—which is what I know you did when you were in the White House, and how you brought in a diverse group of different kinds of people, not just the token person who seemed to be Muslim. It isn’t about the guy with the longest beard and the highest hat. You know, we made mistakes after 9/11 where we believed that there was one person who could speak on behalf of Islam, and there is no such person. You have to be able to be conscious of the nuance that’s there, and that’s one of the ways in which we can bring to bring a different consciousness to the—to the table. 

DICKERSON: Front page of the New York Times today, Kal, has a piece where it talks about—left-hand-side, top of the fold—about how the president is going to use Islam as a foil for his campaign. He’s kind of—do you—well, I just wonder what you think the result of that will be because you have them—arguably the most well-known human on the planet making part of his reelection. It seems like that’s a pretty strong wind to compete against if you’re trying to follow the solutions in this book. 

PENN: Yeah. Well, also, it’s—you’re trying to create a scapegoat for something to the extent that it doesn’t exist because you’re—I think you’re worried that your actual policies don’t hold any water, right? So you’re trying to distract people with something, which is really awful. I mean, you know, this 42 percent of people who are still supporting the president have a whole number of very legitimate issues in their own communities, but he doesn’t seem to be addressing them and instead seems to be scapegoating people—which, by the way, you know, is going to increase violence in communities and people should be worried. I know a lot of relatives, friends, whether you are actually Muslim or not, the appearance of being generally Muslim, which you know that means you’re, what, Jewish, Latino, Hindu, Sikh, whatever it is. 

It affects all these communities band you saw that in Charlottesville. You see it, you know, when members of Congress right now. It’s dangerous, and it’s regressive. And I hope that it’s a tactic that backfires. 

DICKERSON: Farah, I want to— 

PENN: Can I just add one more thing? 


PENN: I had—you know, Mr. and Mrs. Khan, the family who lost their son—this was, you know, during the president’s campaign was at the—I keep thinking about his book, the father’s book, and their story. And this is a president who can’t even look at a Gold Star Family and speak with dignity about their brave son who gave his life for our country because he’s so preoccupied with the notion of what that guy’s faith probably was and how that impacts the way that his parents behave. I mean, it’s just outrageous and it’s un-American. And that’s—when I say I hope that that tactic backfires, these are the folks who I’m thinking of. 

DICKERSON: Nevertheless, the image to the world is of a rally cheering a president offering versions of these messages. So, Farah, if—let’s click through some of the solutions before we get to questions. Going back to peer-to-peer, what is Dumbledore’s Army? (Laughter.) Explain that concept. 

PANDITH: Well, I was—I was teaching a class at Harvard after I graduated from—graduated, yeah, sure—the State Department. I did graduate in many ways. (Laughter.) But I was trying to explain to a group of undergraduates about how important it was that peer influence is actually making a difference to the way they think about these issues, and that every person in that room can make a difference including every person in this room, the way you think about the choice that you make as a human. What you decided to do around hate matters, OK, your own consciousness around us-versus-them in big and small ways. 

And as I was talking about this, and the building of a movement, and how in fact if we think that you can’t boil the ocean—it’s too difficult to do, there’s—this issue of terrorism and extremism is just too complicated and too hard—I talked about, you know, well, what can you do in your daily life because, in fact, we have seen that one-on-one action makes a difference to how people communicate. And a young woman raises her hand and she said, Farah, you need to tell us that you’re building Dumbledore’s Army. And what she was referring to was the Harry Potter series, because this is a Millennial who grew up with Harry Potter. And in fact, in order to fight the evil in that book, it meant that everyone who was fighting, as you rightly said, for what is the right thing to do—to fight hate no matter what kind of hate it is—that you have a role to play, and that you have your own magic wand that you can use to do things. 

And I’m not being cute when I say it because we all know what it feels like when somebody does something to you. Even in the smallest way it stays with you all day, it makes you feel different. When you begin to think about the us-versus-them, the many us-versus-thems that have been unleashed certainly in the last few years, it’s terrifying to think that as Americans we could sit back and say it’s OK. It’s not OK to be lazy on hate. It is just not OK. And this is not only about people that are trying to recruit Muslim kids to their armies. This is about all kinds of extremists who are using the larger frame to be able to do this. And so the Dumbledore’s Army is real, and it is—and it is, I think, a very powerful anecdote. 

PENN: You said something that just, you know—the question how this ties in, I think, to sort of the president’s reelection strategy and that article, we have to stand up against people who are—who feel that they can define what it means to be American. And to your point about that, we have to actively have that conversation. By not saying something, this president gets to have the narrative of this person’s American and this person’s not American. And we have to have that very tough conversation, I think, in our own communities, right? 

I’m remembering in 2007—I know I’ve told you this story before—there was a very well-known producer in Hollywood who called me when I started volunteering for the Obama campaign—this is back when there were like twelve candidates on the Democratic side—and he— 

DICKERSON: Now there are twenty-four, so. (Laughter.) 

PENN: Now there are—right. Yeah, yeah. 

And he called and he said, hey, I haven’t donated to Obama. You know, if he—if he gets elected, is he—is he going to hire only black folks in his Cabinet? And I didn’t know how to respond to this question, so I said, “I hope so,” and that didn’t go over well. (Laughter.) And the point—and then I had this conversation with this producer and I said, look, I’ve been in Iowa for three months now, and I can tell you this is a guy who, you know, the person he nominated to handle his agriculture outreach in a 99 percent white state, he appointed a guy named Rohan Patel, who looks like me, because he was the best person for the job. And I think—I said I think you’re going to get somebody who’s just hiring the best American for the job. 

Now, that conversation was such a quiet conversation. We have those conversations with people who otherwise agree with us, and I think we need to be a little more dedicated. Maybe not necessarily—I mean, well, yes, louder, but more dedicated to saying you have to stop thinking this way because the other side then gets to define what it means to be American and why. 

DICKERSON: We’re going to move to questions in just a second. One last question for you, though, Farah, is another institution or group of institutions that can set the narrative globally is global business. What role do they play in pushing back against what you’ve described? 

PANDITH: One of the things that has been most disappointing to me in the years since 9/11 is that while people talk about how they want to make America safer, corporations haven’t stepped up to the plate to be able to do what I know that they can do. And this is not just about technology companies that, in fact, can do more around this issue of extremism on their platforms. And you’re reading about this on the frontpages of papers everywhere, and we can have a deep conversation about what—does that work and what more can they do. But we have to understand that even if it’s not about doing the right thing or being socially aware of the role that they play in communities, to understand, John, that everything that we do, everything we’ve learned about fighting extremism is local. It doesn’t come from the top down; it comes from the bottom up. It has to do with how grassroots communities connect with each other around identity, around belonging, around cohesion. And companies are in communities. They’re not living in some separate place over there. They have roles to play. 

Now, in many—in many large organizations the kind of information they have around behavior, around data about how people behave and how they operate, is stuff that nongovernment organizations can use to help them build better programs to fight extremists. And so the hand-in-glove approach between corporations and the knowledge they know about cultural listening and social listening and behavioral data, alongside the NGOs that are working at the grassroots to do this work, can actually be deployed in a much bigger way. And it isn’t just the right thing to do in my mind; it is a really necessary thing to do. It is a requirement because we will never be able to get ahead of this issue if we’re just waiting for government, OK? We do not need to wait for another thirty years before we figure out that there’s more we could have done. 

Companies also have an opportunity to understand that it’s good for their bottom line. Obviously, more safe and secure communities that are not affected by terrorism make a difference to the bottom line. Just look at what has happened in Boston. We’re almost at the anniversary, of course, of the Boston bombing, and you think about how many—how much money was lost by businesses in Massachusetts when they shut down the city for three days during that event. So when I talk about this it’s not just sort of yes and business needs to happen to; there’s, obviously, a lot more in this book about the bottom line here. 

But the last point I’d make is the newest customers for corporations are Millennials and Generation Z, and they care deeply about the values of companies and what they stand for. And if you’re a company that stands for hate, good luck to you. 

DICKERSON: All right. Now questions from members. Remember, we’re on the record. And so when the microphone gets to you, if you will stand and state your name and affiliation. Right here in the second row. 

Q: Maryum Saifee. I am a CFR international affairs fellow and I’ve been—and I’m also a State Department Foreign Service officer. 

And it was interesting, during my ten years—I started when Obama came into—was president—you know, there has been a conflation of CVE—countering violent extremism—and Muslim outreach. And so the thirty minutes of this conversation, the title of the talk is how do we win on extremism, but we’ve only focused on Muslim engagement. And I personally can say as a Muslim American and as a diplomat I was often tagged as the expert on countering extremism, even though there’s many forms. We’ve seen Christchurch. We’ve seen Charleston. We’ve seen many examples. So how do you broaden the definition? How would you do that for not just this administration, but even in your tenures when you were at the White House, when you were at the State Department? I would just be curious for comments. 

PANDITH: So in the book I talk about the origins of countering violent extremism and I talk about how it was formed. Countering violent extremism is the ideological war. The us-versus-them, it’s puncturing and making sure that that doesn’t thrive. 

When it was built in 2006, President Bush put in his National Security Strategy that we have a battle of arms and a battle of ideas. When we designed CVE, it was not just about Muslims, OK? That is not a true fact, right? We know that it was about all kinds of extremism out there. The kinds of changes of definition of CVE over the course of the years since has been very problematic, I think, to the field and to the opportunity for us to engage. 

So what I would urge us all to do—not just those in government—is to take away the titles and what you think it’s called and what you’re doing, and to really focus on what we need to do. And that is making sure young people, A, understand how bad guys recruit—all kinds of bad guys; how they prey on young people online and offline; and what we can do as a society to make sure there are antibodies in the system that don’t allow them to do that. 

And so to your direct question of how we win, the argument here is that we have to go all in, and that every single component of society needs to play a role. And we have not seen, for example, mental health experts take a role in this. We haven’t seen historians and anthropologists and ethnographers take a role in this. And I argue that what we have to do in order to deal with all of this ideological stuff is to think in a more comprehensive way about how we are building stronger young people so that they can reject this ideology. If a young person—any human—if a brain does not get mature until the age of twenty-four, we have a responsibility to these young people to make sure that we are disrupting what the bad guys are doing as they mature. 

PENN: Can I give you one quick example? So one of our strategies in the Obama public engagement side was bring people together in substantive ways that offer solutions and showing them that they matter. So this is less about CVE, but you’ll see what I mean with the example. 

The president asked us to put together a conversation with a bunch of young people on climate change. And he was adamant that it’s not just the progressive climate groups who should be represented. So I had, I think, 120 seats that I could fill in this auditorium. About a third of them I invited young progressive groups. About a third I invited young tech entrepreneurs. And then the other third were generally conservative Christians. They didn’t like Barack Obama and they didn’t agree with him on almost every issue. But on the issue of climate their view was God put us here to take care of the planet, so whoever’s going to help take care of the planet we’re OK with meeting with. And so these three different entities—great young people on all sides—they never would have really met without that convening space. 

Look, we didn’t get any massive climate change legislation out of it, but a lot of the conversations that they had and the relationships they built outside of that building were really exciting because it sort of showed everybody else, look, you’re twenty-three years old, the rest of the world and the cable news world are telling you that you don’t matter. And here was the greatest convening space in the free world telling you that you do, and a lot of those folks are still in touch trying to build companies, trying to, you know, engage in some grassroots action. So it’s just one of many examples of that strategy. 

DICKERSON: I think there was a question in the—well, we’ll take this one in the front row. 

Q: Hey, Farah. Congratulations. 

PANDITH: Thank you. 

Q: Yeah, really proud of you for the work you’ve been doing and also for publishing a book on such an important topic. I don’t know if you know this, but a few years ago I also published a book on ISIS and the tactics that they’re using, so I’m really glad that you’ve elevated the conversation to a much higher level in terms of speaking about identity. 

But my question is that since we did that research we’ve seen a resurgence of all forms of extremism, right? So you and I both have roots in Kashmir and we have roots in India. And, Kal, you, I’m assuming by the look— 

PENN: New Jersey. (Laughter.) 

Q: —I think I know something about you. New Jersey, I don’t know. Are you from, you know— 

DICKERSON: Montclair. 

PENN: India, yeah. Yeah. 

Q: You are Indian. So, I mean, we see the resurgence of extremism in India. We see Buddhist extremism. We always though Buddhists floated on, you know, lotuses, and then we discovered that, you know, we have this phenomena going on there. And there are many other extremisms now that we are seeing here. I see certain threads in all of them. I see the similarities. I see—you know, if you map white supremacy with ISIS now and you look at their ideological framework, it’s almost identical, only slightly different tactics and different ways of saying the same thing. 

My question to both of you is: What can we do to study extremism as a phenomena, a growing phenomena which is trending all over the world and which is extremely disruptive to all of society? I think it’s a very—because you have both been in government, and I just want to know if you have any solution. I’d like to see a taskforce to study it, if it’s possible, in a very concrete way, and to provide solutions such as the one that you’ve given here specific to ISIS. 

PANDITH: Well, I’m not shy in my book, as you can imagine, about the role that many different parts of society can play around—and you talked about specifically research, and I think that’s extremely important. 

I’m going to make two points about the rise of white supremacist movements connected to groups like the so-called Islamic State, and that is this. Even though they cannot stand Muslims and they’re looking at groups like—and any group that has Muslims in it—as the other, one of the things that is very important for us to understand is every group is going to go to the extremists or the other entity that is actually successful. So ISIS’s playbook is being used by white supremacists to understand how to do it better. And it’s not because they have an affinity to them; it’s because they’re, obviously, trying to get the best tactic. And I think that’s extremely dangerous. 

There is a whole lot we can do around research and understanding not to compare and contrast these different kinds of extremism, but to understand the phenomenon. I think that we have failed desperately in philanthropic dollars towards extremism research since 9/11. This is a country that is one of the most profoundly generous in the philanthropic world, and yet we tend to run away from these issues around terrorism and understanding more about it. And I think that that’s an opportunity for philanthropy to step up to the plate. 

PENN: She’s the policy expert. I’m sort of the field engagement guy. So I’ll give you the field version of that, which is when we show up we discredit people. So if you just look at Charlottesville, I mean, the folks who showed up—call them counter-protestors—but the folks who showed up saying we don’t want this in our community, they far outnumbered the white supremacists who were there, and we don’t talk about that as much because of the tragedy that took place there. But if we stop showing up because we read an article like that in the Times that says, well, that’s a strategy I guess, that’s—this is just what the world is now, those folks continue to win. But they are easily discredited just in the strength of numbers. 

DICKERSON: All right. Yes? 

Q: My name is Peter Georgescu. I write books on inequality, among other things. 

(Comes on mic.) Yeah. Peter Georgescu. I write books on inequality. 

What brings to mind, this conversation, is about education. And I would like to have your perspective in terms of how do we reimagine education in America, first not just—let’s forget extremists, first to start what it is to be an American, have a sense of our past and history and what we stand for; and then to carry on the kinds of education that you’re talking about? How do we inculcate this in our educational systems? 

PANDITH: You want to go first, or? 

PENN: Yeah. Look, this is going to sound like a very low-hanging-fruit answer, but we don’t really invest in civics to begin with. And so the idea—when I was the president’s youth liaison, the number of times I had to explain what a Senate filibuster was to somebody under thirty-five, by the way, not sixteen, and where the pressure points were on how to actually get things done legislatively, not to mention some of the things that we’re talking about policywise, there’s just not a lot of awareness. I would—I would love if there was a magic wand—obviously, that’s more at the local level—but to start investing in civics again. I think that would change the conversation over the next ten, fifteen years. 

PANDITH: And I would just simply add I think that’s absolutely right. And the other thing, sir, is that I think that America needs to be honest about our history and talk about history in a different way. And we have failed our young people by not giving them the kind of education that they deserve here in America, and we tell tall tales about what it is we’ve done. And I think the more—and it actually allows extremists to tell the wrong stories to people to recruit. So we have to do—we have to get real about what we’re teaching to our young people, and not just what’s happening in the schools but the way in which we allow other people to take on fake stories about history and not reshape it into their correct—into the correct narrative. I am not—I am not aware of any movement across the United States that’s a movement to teach history in a new way, but I think it might be an opportunity for us to think differently. (Laughs.) 

DICKERSON: Gentleman in the gray there with the glasses. 

Q: Stephen Blank. 

This may be too trivial. I don’t think—I’m just want to ask you. In the 1930s—early 1930s, half of Americans went to the movies every week. The 1930s films reiterated the basic ethnographic stereotyping of the United States: all shopkeepers were Jewish, all cops were Irish, all laborers and farmworkers were Italian, and so on, and so on. During the war it all changed, the narrative changed. Every combat team was a whole panoply, array of Americans of different places. Every bomber, every submarine had a whole different array. Now, of course, we won the war so that made the story better to tell, but it’s hard to imagine that this huge outreach did not have some role. A sidebar, of course, is that black Americans were never involved in any of this anyway. But is there—is there a lesson there, that we can learn anything from that experience other than getting into a big war and winning it, that could be relevant to today’s experience? 

PENN: I mean, I’m, obviously, biased and fascinated about the history of cinema and entertainment overall, and the two sort of examples I think of when you say that are both comic books and jazz music were deeply stigmatized, and people pointed to that to say this is why our young people are delinquent—it’s because they’re listening to jazz and they’re reading those comic books. Today I feel like most parents would love if your kid was listening to jazz and reading comic books—(laughter)—instead of whatever else we have said we’re scapegoating. But I sort of view that as, like, that’s just another barrier between what we’re looking for instead of reaching out to young people, investing in education, a lot of the things that we’ve talked about today. So I feel like that’s an opportunity. 

And platforms—you know, moviegoing audiences have gone down in terms of numbers, but people are absorbing way more content because there are more platforms and more offerings with more diversity. So I think it’s a silver lining to having more nuanced conversations than we were maybe able to have even ten years ago. 

Q: (Off mic.) 

PENN: Oh, I see. Yeah. 

DICKERSON: Well, it’s one of the—it’s one of the arguments behind national service, is that you have a barrier-breaking experience that people from all different walks of life participate in to create the mixing that you’re talking about, which has a salutary benefit to the people going through it. And as a cultural matter looking at it, you see a mixing going on that all of us living in our silos don’t go through. 

I can just—go ahead. Oh, sorry, wait for the microphone, for the— 

Q: Thank you. Rebecca Tavarason (ph). I’m with the U.N. 

You’ve talked eloquently—and I haven’t read the book yet, but I will—about the pull factor and the search for identity. And I wanted to ask about the push factor. In many cases—and my work with the U.N. is also in South Asia and in Afghanistan—financial insecurity was a real push factor for people to join extremist movements, and a lot of the U.N. work on preventing violent extremism has been economic development projects. So I’d be curious to know how you see the balance between the push-pull and prevention versus countering violent extremism. 

PANDITH: You’re not going to like me. (Laughter.) I take a very strong position on not—I think that this entire last five years of conversation about CVE versus PVE versus all of this has been a waste of time. And I think it has taken away our attention from what we know to be true, which is, one, local matters. And amplifying organic, authentic NGOs that are doing work and other organizations at the grassroots is, in fact, the way in which we can understand and hear what these young people are going through. 

All of the work that’s been done around poverty alleviation, around education, around all these other triggers that we know have a secondary source to how extremists are able to pull in is extremely important, but we have dramatically huge entities around the world that do the work of poverty alleviation and development work and humanitarian aid and all of these other things. Hardly any money goes towards the actual work of building programs and initiatives that has content that can make a difference on a peer-to-peer level to stop a young person online and offline from being able to get recruited. 

And so what I want to see is us to—you know, to not get into this conversation about which thing you call it, going back to the point that the Foreign Service officer spoke about, because I think it takes us away. What I want us to understand is if we were actually to look at how many organizations in the world, in fact, build programs to counter violent extremism or to stop the ideology from being appealing—leave it there—we would only have—we would only know of a dozen or so programs. Today that is an outrageous thing to be able to say two decades after 9/11, that we only know about a handful when, in fact, there are hundreds around the world, and we don’t know who they are, and we don’t know how to scale them. 

My answer here is to get to know those entities on the ground that have tested and marketed programs at the grassroots, to put our money behind them so that they’re not fighting to keep the lights on and to pay their staff, and that we scale what we know works. 

DICKERSON: This gentleman here in the—this gentleman here in the sort of middle area. (Laughter.) I’ve got to work better on my geographical descriptors. (Laughter.) 

Q: Hi there. Joe Volliver (ph). 

I wanted to talk about the tech platforms and the sort of echo chambers that are produced on there. Obviously, a lot of extremist content is flowing through those platforms. How do you think about that? What are the solutions in that space? Thank you. 

PANDITH: Do you want to say— 

PENN: Go ahead. 

PANDITH: One of the things that is important is awareness about how to—how technology actually works. I think both parents and young people don’t actually know how the algorithms work. So basic hygiene, technology hygiene, is really, really important to teach. Every parent teaches their kids how predators try to lure them in, and they teach kids how to be safe. We don’t do that at all with young people in the technology space around how extremists are able to do this, and I think that’s a really remarkable thing when we know the impact of that. 

We also don’t understand that within seventy-two hours of being able to start your searches or whatever you’re doing you’re going down a rabbit hole with the only thing you’re seeing is that particular kind of content. The bad guys have gotten ahead of us on this, and they’ve also—(laughs—surprise—built savvier and sexier, like, messages that can connect. And when I say messages, I don’t just—actually just mean a message. I mean images. I mean the design of the way in which they’re going to pull somebody in in an online space. So I think that technology companies that have been watching this have a greater responsibility in not only telling us what it is that they know, but actually designing a better system so that we aren’t seeing young people who are going through the mechanism of getting recruited. 

Obviously, we could have a conversation about takedown and what actually needs to take place. But I want to go back to sort of one larger thing that you touched upon when you—when you began, and that is sort of how we—how we have explored what’s happened in the last twenty years. We have always just been going at the pace of the problem. We have never, ever imagined what could happen next. We have never designed for it, OK? And when Kal was talking about the producer that was sort of thinking that his role was, like, way—you know, this is, like, never going to happen, I want the technology companies to tell us and I want us to think about what’s going to happen when the bad guys are using AI. I want them—I want us to be thinking ahead and design the system for it. 

So I think that there is a—the answer is not just sort of building that infrastructure that prevents us from seeing anything, but it’s also getting ahead of the curve because these guys are not waiting around for us to play catchup, you know? What I sit around worrying about—you didn’t ask me this—at night is I think about Hamza bin Laden. I think about him because he’s the favorite son of bin Laden who was thirty years old and has spent the last thirty years of his life training to be his dad. And he is a digital native, and he is charismatic, and he knows how to use the internet, obviously. 

So I think about what happens when he becomes the face of the next disaster we’re dealing with. So these are the kinds of things that keep me up at night. And it’s connected to technology because I think that we can redesign the way we think and the way we act, and what the technology companies should be doing. Facebook is one of the largest governments in the world. It is. And with that comes a responsibility to make sure its citizens are safe. 

PENN: You touched on AI. I just did an episode of—I host a show on Amazon. It’s a docu-series, and we did an episode on AI and AI’s expansion. And every person we interviewed who was the head of an AI company, when we asked them these questions, they said, well, you know, that’s up to members of Congress to sort of regulate. I said, oh, the same members of Congress that you’ve given millions and millions of dollars to so that they don’t regulate? (Laughter.) So these companies know exactly what they’re doing, and there is a profit margin obviously, but it’s incredibly worrisome. 

You know, just going back a couple years during the Obama administration, I was at a briefing for chiefs of staff of Democratic House members, and I was sharing some of our youth strategy. The gentleman who was briefing them after me was doing tech strategy. And this chief of staff raised her hand and she cut him off and said, you know, thank you for the briefing on Twitter, but you know, we’re doing pretty well there. My boss, our member, has four thousand followers. (Laughter.) So we’re pretty sure we know what’s going on. 

I mean, there’s—you know, then look at the Facebook hearings. They have no idea how the simplest of tech platforms work. And that’s really dangerous and worrisome, especially when you’re going up against folks who, you know, have the government of Facebook. 


DICKERSON: And all the way in the very last row. We’re only a couple more questions left. There’s—the microphone is right behind you. 

Q: Hi. My name is Sarah (sp) and I’m involved in the Muslim Reform Movement organization. It’s an organization based outside of New York, very close to Daisy’s (sp). 

My question is in regards to Muslim accountability to Saudi Arabia. We recently have come to the conclusion—I mean, I feel like Muslim—I mean, I feel like I’ve known this for a very long time, that Saudi Arabia is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. And we look at the recent Hasan Minhaj episode which was taken down, or the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. 

And my question is for Farah. What do you foresee for Muslims in America in terms of their accountability to Saudi Arabia? And what should we be seeking to reform? I think—I grew up in a community outside of New York, and I saw a super-diverse interpretation of Islam be kind of reduced to a monolith of something that I did not even recognize. And I think post-9/11 it has come as a result for this fight for identity. 

But I think it’s time that we move beyond that, and I think it’s also time that we hold, you know, the largest—the gatekeepers of Islam responsible for the interpretation that they continue to disseminate. So my question is, how can we do that? And what are the next steps for young Muslims to take? 

PANDITH: My chapter in the book is called Plague from the Gulf. OK, I am not shy about this. 

So I’m going to push back on you on a couple of things, although I agree with your central point. It isn’t about American Muslims taking this on. It’s about every American understanding the impact Saudi Arabia has played for the last 30 to 40 years in the effort to make sure that there’s a monolithic version of Islam that they get to curate around the world. 

The tools in their toolbox have been extremely wide. They’ve used all kinds of things. The State Department, as Kal knows, and certainly we have done all kinds of work around indices country to country on human rights and on various things that Saudi always does not appear very well. We don’t always see those reports. That’s one piece that every American should be aware of. 

But I’m talking beyond the issue of what textbooks say. I have taken textbooks off of the shelf in Leicester, U.K. that say that all Jews are pigs. And I have seen Qurans in every part of the world, including the United States, that are free Qurans that the Saudis have translated in a very specific way to give an us versus them and to build a monolithic version of what it means to be Muslim. Those are two easy tactics. 

Let me bring you forward on some other things that, as regular people, you need to know about. Hitler did this too. The eradication of history is a really successful tool if you want to say that your way is the only way, and they have eradicated history around the world. I could go on. 

My point here is unless Americans understand the impact of the way Saudi Arabia has reframed and recalibrated what it means to be a Muslim on the planet, we cannot hold our elected officials responsible for what it is that they do. We have to actually demand more from both our elected officials and of ourselves in how we’re talking about things. 

So the part I’m going to push back on you is not just American Muslims. It’s also this. They aren’t the arbiters of Islam. OK, they aren’t—they have not been divinely chosen to describe Islam to the world. And I think it’s very problematic when we begin to put them in a category, as they wish we would do, like the Vatican. They are not the Vatican. 

And so we have to be fair. And one of the things that we did when we were in the administration is that everybody is equal, OK. So a Muslim living in Surabaya, Indonesia is as Muslim as a Muslim living in Suriname. There isn’t some hierarchy of who the better Muslims are. It’s not just about what type of brand of Islam that you’re practicing. It’s about putting honor forward on equality in terms of every kind of Muslim. 

And I think the kinds of ways that we have to be looking at Saudi Arabia are contrary, dramatically contrary, to the way this administration has decided that Saudi Arabia is going to be the arbiters of all things Islam. And, in fact, the president chose to go to Riyadh, as you know, for the very first stop on his—as president, which is really a dangerous signal to send. 

DICKERSON: Last question. This— 

Q: Wendy’s had her hand up—(off mic). 

DICKERSON: Sorry, Wendy. (Laughter.) This fellow. 

Q: Hi. Oliver Cavupatero (ph). 

I think you touched on a couple of these points, but I was kind of wanting to ask about information. And you sort of commented on Facebook just before, but more importantly, misinformation. A lot of what we’ve talked about is propaganda. And sort of a lot of the views that you’ve been describing is outreach to people. 

And so my question is, does outreach work if you’ve already been brainwashed? And sort of if the information is already out there, isn’t a top-down approach more successful at actually controlling what information is out there, how, and why, from media, from Facebook, and so on? The U.K., I think, recently passed something to Facebook holding them accountable for, I think, the anti-vaccination stuff that they have. So I was kind of curious what you guys think about that. 

PENN: I can say broadly I think outreach works. And I’ll—the first example that pops into my mind is I can’t tell you how many young people I invited to an event at the White House on behalf of President Obama who I called and they thought I was lying. You know, and these are people who are student-body presidents representing fifty thousand students. These are people who, you know, represent trade associations and veterans’ organizations. They had every right to have a seat at the table. They just didn’t believe that, even though we were coming off of this history campaign and everybody saw the speeches, oh, you’re actually inviting me to something? 

So I think it does work. And I think part of that work is acknowledging that we exist, bringing people together and empowering them and their voices, just even at that very simple level. 

PANDITH: I agree with what Kal said. I also would say to you that, as we think about engagement, there’s a role from the top down for sure. And I think the greatest strength of the United States government is to be the convener and the facilitator and the intellectual partner with the ideas that we hear on the ground. You can’t have one brush that changes the way somebody thinks. You have to have a lot of nuance—a lot of nuance there. 

And to your question about if somebody has already gone to the dark side—(laughs)—and you’re trying to bring them back, the most compelling voices that can help them move away from that are former extremists, people that have walked that walk and have come back and actually, on a one-to-one level, can connect with that person to say I know where you are. I can move you back. 

Our government actually worked very hard to build, along with the private sector, the Gen Next organization, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Google Ideas, put together the Against Violent Extremism network. And it’s the only network in the world of former extremists—so former FARC, former IRA, former Taliban; formers who actually have a narrative that can be mined and turned into content that can make a difference for a young person. 

DICKERSON: I’d like to thank all the members here. (Applause.) And thank you to Farah and Kal. 

PANDITH: Thank you very much. You were so great. 


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