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Notes from the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism

Last week’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) has come in for criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, but what emerged from the event is a needed roadmap for countering the polarization that feeds the extremists’ recruitment effort, and damages trust within communities and groups across the nation.

Here’s the critique: conservatives complained that the administration should be focusing on military and intelligence strategies to fight ISIL, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, not soft tools. But CVE didn’t originate with this administration.  The CVE Summit traces its roots back to 2001, when in one of his earliest public appearances after the attack on the World Trade Center, President Bush went to the Washington DC Islamic Center to reassure American Muslims that the US was not planning a war against Islam, but with a few of its adherents who used select interpretation of Quranic doctrine to justify violent extremism. Outreach efforts continued through the Bush years, and have been revived by the current DHS Secretary. From the left, the criticism is that since Islamic radicals are only one of a number of fringe groups that use violence, any focus on Islam when discussing violent extremism is misplaced.  To them, I commend this New York Times op-ed in which Roger Cohen argues that Islamic terror happens to be the issue of the day, and recent remarks by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

{mosads}Here is my own take: the Obama administration overachieved in organizing the summit, and invited participants from too many different stakeholder groups to the table. The result was three different conversations all taking place at the same time. But each was valuable, and deserves focus of its own.

The first conversation focused on US multifaith efforts.  While an interfaith movement has existed in the US since long before the attack on the World Trade Center, events at home and abroad since 9/11 have created an increasingly polarized climate, as illustrated by polling by Gallup and by the Pew Research Center.  Representatives of several best practice models at the CVE Forum described ways to bridge that polarization. There are dozens of such efforts around the nation. Tools includes multifaith Habitat for Humanity weekends on college campuses, study groups and symposia to increase religious literacy, twinning of congregations from different faiths, and open houses at houses of worship. 

For the most part, these are not efforts that U.S. government should have any part in, given First Amendment concerns. Faith-based and community groups around the country need to take the lead in building communities of trust, which embed the relationships that are essential for community resilience in the event of attacks ranging from hate crimes to terrorism.  “An attack on one is an attack on all” said one summit attendee, a slogan worth remembering in building these efforts.

The second conversation was global. An impressive array of participants from nations in Europe and Africa that have been afflicted by religiously motivated violence attended the summit. They had no trouble finding language to describe what has been happening in their nations, and they were anxious to have a safe space to discuss possible solutions. As one DC-area imam noted, the conversations that may make a difference occur both between faiths and along intrafaith lines, where moderate clerics may influence their more radical co-religionists. For decades, nations with a pluralistic religious structure lived together with only sporadic violence. In the wake of the rise of ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab, credible leaders of faith communities need to develop the tools to discourage recruitment and mobilization in their own nations. Foundations should take note of this opportunity for peace-building.

The third conversation nearly got lost in the noise, but it is the core of what the Summit was designed to address: countering radicalization and recruitment of US residents for what some call jihadism and others Islamist extremism. The killings in Paris, Brussels, Libya and Copenhagen over the past months all illustrate what we are talking about, whatever we choose to say or not say in public pronouncements. And as to that topic, we heard some pretty scary stuff at the White House Summit, including information on the new social media tools being used to recruit jihadis—pairing the incipient recruit online with the fighter of their choice, and then sending them to Sharespot or Kik to allow the grooming to continue out of the reach of standard internet tracking tools, which can lead to mobilization in a matter of weeks. Law enforcement is one part of the response, but parents, imams, mentors, community leaders and youth service organizations are all key, well before matters require law enforcement intervention.

At the White House, we heard reports on Minneapolis’ efforts to counter Al-Shabab and ISIL recruiting in the Somali-American community, efforts to create positive partnerships between minority religious groups and city government in Los Angeles, and other best practice models across the county. These efforts leverage many of the same tools already employed to counter the appeal of gang recruitment by successful U.S. youth service organizations. Investment in proven programs would be one of the most hopeful outcomes of the White House event. 

These efforts need a greater level of investment, both from government and the philanthropic sector.  While successful anti-gang programs, such as collaborations between the Department of Justice and after-school organizations, would seem a natural model for CVE, the Department of Education also could help through grants to local communities. Congress and the foundations should take note of the CVE Summit, and build on recently announced efforts by the Obama Administration to incentivize community-based programs around the nation to build a robust response to emerging threats.

Chertoff is executive director of the Justice & Society Program at The Aspen Institute.


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