Critiquing Countering Violent Extremism

From 2016 to 2019, in thinking through this topic further, first as a senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall in London looking after the CVE portfolio for a period before joining the Institute in 2018, I was taken aback at the lack of contextualisation of radicalisation, the long-standing issues that stem from numerous historical antecedents to modern politics and society, and the problems of framing terrorism given the predicaments of framing Muslims in global affairs per se. I was also astonished by a lack of appreciation of state terrorism. To overcome these limitations, I set about transforming my lectures, observations, talks and short essays and papers into a book during this period, which was ultimately the basis of Countering Violent Extremism: The International Deradicalization Agenda, published on 20 May 2021.

Countering violent extremism (CVE) has been an UN-led agenda across the globe since late 2015; however, there remain few critiques of the paradigm or the implications it creates for understandings of extremism, radicalization and terrorism, including what to do about the messy realities that most people’s lives consist of. Unquestionably, these are important concerns, as they raise all sorts of implications for society, including entrenching wider levels of polarisation and disengagement. Yet, there are limited discussions of the implications of placing both counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies under the rubric of CVE, which is presented as a focus on building resilience from within but, ultimately, at the cost of communities who are made to not only endure the consequences of radicalisation from within but are then also expected to eradicate its existence from within but entirely on the terms set by states.

The primary object of the book is to provide a detailed critique of the concept of countering violent extremism formalized by the UN late in 2015 and then fortified as a worldwide effort to fight against radicalization and extremism that might (or might not) lead to terrorism. The idea to both prevent and counter the risks of violent extremism among groups in societies the world over is critical, but the perspectives remain largely state-centric and overly focused on ideology. As a result, it continues to take attention away from the wider structural factors that are consistently in play when thinking through radicalization.

There are no simple solutions to violent extremism but the fixation on ideology can do more harm than good. Certainly, while it is proper to focus on ideology, we should not do it at the expense or even risk of overlooking and then exacerbating structural concerns to such an extent that the intended policy has the unintended outcome of reifying terrorism rather than ameliorating it. As scholars, practitioners and community organizations, we should ensure that we explore radicalization and terrorism as whole-society issues. Investigating terrorism and findings specific solutions for it in isolation can, for example, reinforce the dominant discourse concerning minorities or their religion, which then has the potential to exacerbate existing issues of discrimination or wider issues of Islamophobia.

Readers should take away the view that the orthodoxy consistently found in a significant body of research and writing on terrorism does not help in allowing them to think through the bigger and smaller pictures that often create the conditions for the outcomes we are interested in. It thinking about terrorism, there is a vast body of knowledge concerning the study of human and social conflict that is often missing. Given the importance of learning about state terrorism as well as the counter-terror state, this book will help to bridge these subjects with contemporary terrorism studies thinking further.

I was inspired to write this book in the hope it gives readers a critical outlook on the subject of ‘terrorism’. The book is intended for scholars, researchers, activists, and students but also those working in policy. I have written it in an accessible way so as to reach a wide audience – and I hope that those who read it that can take the important message away that extremists, radicals and terrorists are not too dissimilar to the rest of us. They are not a breed apart. The more we can appreciate how society creates radicals and terrorists, as it were, the more we can speak to the subject in a robust, honest and deliberate way without repeating the mistakes of old. I hope this book starts a debate to help critically reflect on the concept of CVE.

Terrorism is created in context. If we take the context away there is no terrorism. We need to talk context far more often.

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