Beyond getting moms to talk
The White House Summit on countering violent extremism continued for three days during last week. Policymakers, community leaders, foreign officials, and representatives of law-enforcement agencies of more than sixty countries participated in the event. The UN chief and the US president were among those who addressed the summit. However, when it came to the ‘solutions’ part, the ideas expressed were far too weak compared to the challenge at hand.
As an exercise, participants of the summit meeting were asked to come up with an idea that they thought could be most effective for countering violent extremism. The ideas that won the maximum votes included: ‘get moms talking’. Is the problem of extremism in the world going to be resolved with such ideas? Does it not show the superficiality of our understanding of the magnitude of the problem? How naïve we are? Either we have very few workable ideas to root out the scourge of extremism or we are not sincere to the very cause.
The problem of extremism is multidimensional in nature – with economic, cultural, religious, and political dimensions – and all are connected. Economic, cultural, and political injustice provide combustible material to terrorist organisations which use them for their vested and malicious designs. Unless we snatch away from the extremists and terrorist groups the sources of extremism that motivate extremists for desperate acts like suicide killing and bombing, the problem is not going to be resolved. Not through ideas like ‘getting moms talking’.
“[The] many years of our experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership and an utter disregard for human dignity and human rights have caused tremendous frustration and anger on the part of [the] people we serve” (the UN chief in his address to the summit). The UN chief raised four important points, termed as the ‘four imperatives’ for dealing with violent extremism.
First, the world should identify the motivations behind the ‘twisted ideologies’ that make extremists indulge in violent acts. Such ideologies don’t just appear out of thin air. Oppression, corruption, and injustice fuel violence and terrorism. As per Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: “Extremist leaders cultivate the alienation that festers. They themselves are pretenders, criminals, gangsters, thugs on the farthest fringes of the faiths they claim to represent. Yet they prey on disaffected young people without jobs or even a sense of belonging where they were born. And they exploit social media to boost their ranks and make fear go viral”. Second, promoting human rights should be the most important ingredient of the toolkit meant for eradicating extremism.
Third, tackling extremism requires a multi-pronged strategy. Military operations are crucial but they are not the entire solution. Missiles and bullets may kill the terrorists but will not kill terrorism which will be killed through good governance, provision of social and economic justice, and by abolishing discrimination and oppression in society. Human rights, accountable institutions, equitable delivery of services, and political participation are the most powerful weapons to combat extremism. This was also stressed by the UN secretary general. And fourth, violent extremism should be recognised as an international problem. No single country can cope with the rising tide of extremism. Countries need to join hands to tackle violent extremism.
US President Barack Obama emphasised that governments should remain unswerving in their efforts to combat extremism. The ‘warped ideologies’ propagated by the terrorists should be confronted intellectually. The grievances that terrorists exploit should be addressed. During his speech he said: “Poverty alone does not cause a person to become a criminal. There are millions, billions of people who are law-abiding and peaceful and tolerant, and are trying to advance their lives and the opportunities for their families.
“But when people – especially young people – feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path of advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption – that feeds instability and disorder, and makes these communities ripe for extremist recruitment” .
The reasons and motivations behind violent extremism are multiple and require a multi-pronged strategy for tackling extremism. Such a strategy should take into account all the factors responsible for extremism. Long-standing issues such as Kashmir and Palestine should be resolved and the international community should honour its commitments in this regard.
Brushing such issues under the carpet gives one the feeling that the international system of governance is unfair and unjust, and is based on hypocrisy. And if the international system does not resolve such issues politically, then it is only the power of the barrel that matters. If somebody hurts the religious sentiments and sensitivities of the followers of a religion under the garb of so-called unlicensed and unbridled liberty, violence is the logical outcome.
Extremism is promoted when we try to impose our worldview on others or think that our worldview, system, colour, ethnicity, sect, or civilisation have superiority over those of others. When we propound a thesis like clash of civilisations, we are doing no service to any of the civilisation. Rather we are handing extremists a new tool for advancement of their vile designs. Extremism cannot and should not be linked to any religion, ethnicity, nationality, sect, or civilisation. Multiple factors are at play as far as extremism is concerned. For example, when immigrants feel marginalised or discriminated against in the US or Western Europe, we are watering the plant of extremism.
When an authoritarian regime garners support and legitimacy from countries known as champions of democracy, extremists find an argument to support their actions. President Obama said that: “When people are oppressed, and human rights denied – particularly along sectarian lines and ethnic lines – when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.
Pakistan is facing extremism and terrorism in their worst manifestations. The land is fertile for extremism and terrorism due to widespread poverty, unemployment among the youth, corruption, inequality, and low human development. Added to this is the unbridled freedom given to clerics and religious leaders who are free to say whatever they like or whatever suits their interests and the interests of those who financially support them. They have no qualms with playing with the religious emotions of the innocent to promote their vested interests. Tackling extremism means that nobody should be allowed to spew hatred against anybody on the basis of sect, creed or ethnicity. There is a need to regulate what is being said, preached and taught by religious leaders in mosques and the seminaries.
The state also needs to implement the social contract it has entered into with its citizenry in its entirety – which essentially demands that free education, quality public healthcare services, and cost-free justice are available to the man on the street. Religious seminaries have compensated for the apathy and neglect of the state by providing a type of social security to the children of the poor with unintended consequences in the form of extremism and terrorism. And unless serious efforts are made by the state into removing economic and social injustice in the country, extremism cannot be tackled on a sustainable basis.
Keep in mind that ‘getting moms talking’ will not work unless injustice, both at the global and national level and in all its manifestations i.e. social, economic, and political, is removed.
The writer is a graduate of Columbia University.
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