Is the fight against extremism winnable?

Pandith’s considerable experience with the subject lends particular credibility.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Nigerian special forces and Chadian troops participate with US advisors in the Flintlock exercise in Mao, Chad. (AP)
Nigerian special forces and Chadian troops participate with US advisors in the Flintlock exercise in Mao, Chad. (AP)

Despite US President Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that the Islamic State has been 100% defeated, the reality is different. Although Trump claims this is another campaign promise achieved, attacks such as the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka paint a starkly different picture.

Consider that US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats wrote the following in the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” published in January: “Global jihadists in dozens of groups and countries threaten local and regional US interests despite having experienced some significant setbacks in recent years…. Prominent jihadist ideologues and media platforms continue to call for and justify efforts to attack the US homeland.”

Adding concern is that there are thousands of extremists in Iraq and Syria representing dozens of nationalities who are marooned with undetermined futures. More regrettably, there are thousands of abandoned women and children condemned to live in refugee camps that are destined to be incubators for extremism.

This begs the question: Will extremism always be a threat and what, if anything, can be done to eliminate or at a minimum mitigate its impact on humanity?

Farah Pandith provides a solid framework on countering violent extremism in “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.” Published by Custom House, this is Pandith’s first book and it is one that should encourage discussion within and outside of government in the United States and beyond because terrorism and extremism know no boundaries.

Pandith’s considerable experience with the subject lends particular credibility. She was the first US special representative to Muslim communities. Other stints of public service included positions with the National Security Council, US Agency for International Development and US Department of Homeland Security.

She is now a senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School as well as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Of Indian heritage, she grew up in Massachusetts in the 1970s and ‘80s in an environment and time in which being Muslim was not seen as being “other” or threatening. The wave of fear arising from 9/11 lamentably continues to permeate the political and social landscape.

While not calling out names, Pandith makes it abundantly clear that, all too often, steps taken by the US government to build trust with Islamic communities did the opposite and that bureaucratic in-fighting wasted sparse financial and human resources.

She cites how millions of dollars were spent on “winning the hearts and minds” of Muslims by producing splashy videos and supporting social media campaigns to “demonstrate to Muslims and the American public that we (the United States) are taking extremism seriously and doing so without disrespecting Islam.”

Yet, as she notes such actions, however well-intentioned, avoid the fundamental problem of how to counter violent extremism. In her view, too much of the effort was aimed at the wrong audiences. The appeal to extremism, Pandith, writes: “[It] isn’t about anger at a specific US policy…. Extremists succeed with recruiting because youth crave answers to the problem of who they are or are supposed to be, how to live as Muslims, and how to belong to a community.”

As special representative to Muslim communities, Pandith visited 80 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She met with hundreds of young Muslims who, in surprisingly candid interviews, spoke of their sense of isolation and loneliness that made them attractive marks for “jihad” recruiters who offered a promised path to “true” Islam.

The role that social media and the internet play on all sides of the battle is explored throughout the book but especially in the chapter Sheikh Google. When searching for answers and guidance, Muslim youth, like adolescents the world over, turn to technology, believing that if found “online,” then it must be true.

The reluctance to turn to others, such as teachers and relatives, lends more legitimacy to digital platforms. As an example, one student told Pandith he learnt online that there was a “specific” way to fold a prayer rug and by doing so he was displaying his “piety.” To this day, there is a widespread belief expressed on various internet sites that 9/11 either didn’t happen or was an American conspiracy.

In what is the book’s longest chapter, Pandith deals with the Saudi role in fomenting violent extremism. The combination of Saudi Arabia’s considerable wealth coupled with its identification as the custodian of the two holy mosques has given it incomparable power to shape how Islam is perceived.

“Extremism would not have become the pervasive threat it is had it not had a patron awash in trillions of dollars of oil wealth and happy to spend it so as to secure hegemony for an extreme, uncompromising and literalist interpretation of Islam,” writes Pandith.

That the Saudi version of Islam is increasingly seen as the only truthful one makes it especially difficult for other countries to build a counter-narrative to the strictly conservative Wahhabi version. That still today, hard-line interpretations of the Quran are distributed widely throughout the world, including in schools and prisons, is particularly worrisome.

It should be noted, that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who absolutely needs to build US and international goodwill, has taken positive and significant steps to rein in extremism by making consistent calls for moderation. At a time when both Saudi Arabia and the United States need to find strategic pathways to rebuild the relationship, putting countering violent extremism at the top is a good place to start.

On this subject and others, Pandith offers a series of prescriptions. For instance, to counter “Sheikh Google,” she calls, setting up online detection centres; regulating tech companies more stringently; and supporting offline interventions in which youth can seek help when approached by recruiters.

Pandith calls for closing foreign-sponsored training centre for imams (Yet, the governments of Tunisia and Morocco have been very successful in providing solid instruction and credentialing to imams from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.) and encouraging others to cut off financial support to religious leaders and organisations that incite violence.

These are certainly important goals but how to achieve them?

A central argument throughout the book is that a winning strategy will require the combined effort and resources of government, the private sector and philanthropists to recognise that this battle, long in the making, will not be won overnight.

A criticism may be made that, while Pandith sets up and solidly discusses many of the potential causes of extremism, her solutions often would require major changes in corporate governance and governmental actions, which would present insurmountable obstacles to many of her recommendations, however valid they are.

That being said, this book is an important one and while many may describe themselves experts on countering violent extremism, as one colleague said, Pandith was in the room when the term was first voiced.

“How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat” by Farah Pandith (Custom House, 2019)