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Beware the hoax of countering violent extremism

UN global youth effort is an exercise in delusion

September 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

The annual United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York will witness many meaningful events, but the Global Youth Summit Against Violent Extremism taking place this week will not be one of them. Despite the good intentions and fine characters of those who will gather for this meeting, it promises to be yet another waste of time, money and effort in the current Western-managed drive to counter violent extremism.

The youth summit — culminating on Sept. 29 with the presentation of recommendations to the Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism hosted by President Barack Obama — will gather more than 60 youth-oriented leaders and organizations from approximately 45 countries in order to “share their experiences in building resilience to violent extremism in their communities,” according to the website for Search for Common Ground, which is hosting the youth summit with the Counter Extremism Project, with support from the U.S. State Department. The youth action agenda that participants will draft will aim to articulate how youths recognize and work in their communities to prevent violent extremism and will issue a “call to action for governments, NGOs and policymakers to seize this moment and engage youths as partners against violent conflict and violent extremism.”

The main problem in this well-meaning effort is that none of this has worked in recent years, and young people have emerged as the heart of many terrorism movements — in the Middle East and increasingly in Western states as well. The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February was supposed to jump-start this global assault on violent extremism, but in recent months we have seen violent extremism only continue to expand in many countries. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, for example, have enhanced their operations and territorial bases in Yemen and Libya during the past year, and tens of thousands of recruits reportedly have joined ISIL in the same period.

Such attempts to address extremism fail because they evade rather than address the central causes of the ongoing expansion of terrorism and political violence around the world, especially in the Arab world. This way of framing the legitimate battle against terrorism through the lens of countering violent extremism is simply another hapless twist to the American-driven global “war on terrorism” that has spurred perhaps the greatest expansion of terrorist organizations and attacks in modern history. 

An approach that leaves in place existing Arab, US and Israeli policies merely perpetuates the colonialist idea that violence is a consequence of alien values or mindsets in the Arab and Islamic world.

The global “war on terrorism,” public diplomacy, promoting the voices of moderate Islam and countering violent extremism have all consistently failed to stem the violence. These efforts, which typically emanate from U.S. or other Western political institutions, see political violence as only a reflection of extremist values or behavior that are anchored in Arab-Islamic societies. They refuse to see the causal influence of Western policies in this grim cycle of global violence. Violent extremism, it turns out, is the consequence of policies of Western and Middle Eastern states, and radical changes by both are required to stem the problem.

Specifically,  the countering violent extremism approach ignores four of the most important drivers of political violence and terrorism in the Middle East: 1) sustained socioeconomic stress, deprivation and marginalization, including rampant official corruption, that leaves several hundred million people destitute and powerless; 2) chronic, Western-supported authoritarianism and dictatorships that leave citizens without any political rights in most of the societies that generate terrorism; 3) the impact of sustained Western militarism in the region over the last few decades, especially the Anglo-American war in Iraq; and 4) the persistent radicalizing impact for the past half-century of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli colonization of Arab lands and U.S.-led Western acquiescence in Israeli policies.

These four critical elements are behind most of the reasons ordinary young men might break away from their social norms and take up violence and even terrorism — occasionally against Israeli or Western targets but mostly against their own societies. Such violence usually represents a desperate reaction to political and socioeconomic hopelessness at home and dehumanization from foreign armies. It is naive beyond description for anyone to think that individuals who snap under this kind of mistreatment by their own and foreign powers can be easily persuaded to turn away from the violent ways they embraced, if all they have to return to are the failed economies, political deprivations and foreign military humiliations that drove them to violence in the first place. The past quarter-century of U.S.-led military and cultural warfare in these realms only confirms their desperation. Most of its costs are paid across the Middle East, in the currency of shattered societies, several million dead and injured and flows of millions of refugees who now seek refuge in Europe, risking their lives in the attempt.

I do not wish to dismiss showcasing young people’s decency or pressuring moderate Muslim clerics to raise their voices as a means to reduce the growing terrorist threat. Yet such an approach that leaves in place existing Arab, U.S. and Israeli policies merely perpetuates the colonialist idea that violence is a consequence of alien values or mindsets in the Arab and Islamic world.

Rami G. Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian national, is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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