Globalising ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ – The New Imperialism?
“We could favour the birth of a new Islam, more inclined towards compromise and tolerance of Europe; to encourage the young generation of ulama who are working in that direction…” ~ French Colonialist, Edmond Douttee, 1901.
“It is the modernists whose vision matches our own. Of all the groups, this one is the most congenial to the values and the spirit of modern democratic society.” ~ (Former) wife of US neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, Cheryl Bernard, 2003.
“We’re now going to actively encourage the reforming and moderate Muslim voices.” ~ British PM David Cameron, Speech on Extremism, 2015.
Slogans based within particular parlance and values often provide the veil for an agenda of a different kind. During the 1970s, the human rights industry was used as official US imperial policy. Prior to this, the enlightened liberalism of the west was driving colonisation of the world to bring it out of “darkness” – a psychological projection of its own “dark” past. Today, neoconservatives have taken much of the above, tweaked the rhetoric and driven a strategic policy which has now begun to gain international traction. Today, the “cure” for “backward” and “violent” Muslims remains one grounded in the European, supremacist experience. However, this prescription is administered through the now pressing lens of security and specifically the counter-extremism agenda. In other words, neocons have successfully managed to securitise human rights, allowing them to foster closed societies domestically, whilst pursing their doctrine of pre-emption objectives on a global scale through war – both physical and ideological. The vehicle which provides the language set and values for this culturalist war is the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) agenda.
It has been previously noted how the underlying neoconservative “clash of civilisations” assumptions about Islam have premised the counter-extremism discourse. In the British context, we now a have state-coerced effort to deconstruct Islam piece by piece in order to assimilate, as opposed to integrate, Muslims. When we understand that Britain through its neocon “think-tanks” and pseudo-liberal “reformers” are at the centre of defining the counter-extremism ideology transnationally, we can appreciate, or rather, be perturbed by the extent of the influence of this dangerous thinking.
Neocon Imperialism through Global CVE and Accompanying “Moderate Muslims”
During George W. Bush’s second term, Donald Rumsfeld suggested that “War on Terror” should be changed to a “global struggle against violent extremism”. Of course by using these terms, the conveyor-belt theory of radicalisation could be cemented; extremism, whatever that may be, would lead to violent extremism, however that is defined. The linguistic connection would aid this notion.
This strategy has come to fruition.
Neocons are clearly not content with using violence to create their Western hegemony. Muslims are being held ransom through the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) agenda for some reacting, however rightfully or wrongfully, through the paradigm of the nation state and modernity, to the dismantling of their historic vanguard system of governance and social institutions, the replete injustices across the Muslim world, persistent attacks on their faith, manners and mores, and the concerted effort to whip Muslims into congruency with Western tastes. Implicit also within this congruency is the making of their land and resources amenable to Western corporate exploitative designs.
Embedded in the CVE discourse, and certainly in the British manifestation of the agenda (PREVENT), is an effort to force an Islamic reformation, or as I prefer to call it, deformation. Neoconservatives have actively used this policy of division in order to achieve the greater neocon objective of creating a repulsion of Islam. For mainstream Muslims, this is nothing short of an attack on Islam.
Malaysian International Conference on CVE
Over the past couple of months, there has been increased activity to deal with “extremism” at the international level. Towards the end of January, Malaysia held the International Conference on Deradicalisation and Countering Violent Extremism featuring ministers and officials from the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with the grouping’s key partners: Australia, Britain, China, France, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the US.
The choice of the hosting country is interesting. Malaysia is predominantly a Muslim country. Most of the discourse around CVE focuses on ideology, namely Islam and those who act in its name, whilst comparatively ignoring the belligerent behaviour of say, the Christians of the Central African Republic and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Israel, the nationalist/separatist terrorists in Europe whom by far make up most of the perpetrators of terrorist acts in this region, or the terrorists in the US, whom again, are largely constituted of the nationalist/separatist movements.
Thus, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, in the opening speech of the conference, whilst acknowledging terrorism had nothing to do with Islam, proclaimed:
“An important part of countering violent extremism lies in clearing away distortions and lies about religion.”
In other words, the premise of this action is the need to deal with religious ideology. This focus however, is misdirected: more objective scholars now agree that religious ideology is not a driver in radicalisation. The benefit of focusing on ideology however, is that it enables ideological hegemony on the part of those implementing the CVE strategy.
The focus on religious ideology can also be seen when the Malay PM claims that he has previously called for a “Global Movement of Moderates”. This organisation has given platform to deformists like Marina Mahatir of Sisters in Islam, a Malay feminist group. Mahatir has attacked Muslim women for donning long tunics, insinuated “conservative” Muslims as intellectually backward, and has hurled the label of extremism at those whom she does not regard as “moderate” (who are apparently, “mature”, and “respect another person’s point of view”). Of course, for all the claims of “maturity” and “respecting” different views, such flippant ascriptions attract CVE measures.
In demonstrating his commitment to CVE, the PM announced the initiation of the Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communications Centre, which is supposed to “synchronise efforts in Asean and beyond”.
The centre is modelled on the UAE Sawab Center. The Sawab Center links into the various other counter-extremism initiatives that have been started in the UAE in recent years, including the Hedayah Center for CVE.
As detailed in a previous blog, the Abu Dhabi-based Hedaya Center was born from the Global Counterterrorism Forum on Countering Violent Extremism led by the UK and UAE. The UK clearly set the focus of the global CVE agenda as “a battle of ideas”, whilst the neoconservative, pro-Israel Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) also influenced it. ISD’s late Board of Trustees President, George Weidenfeld was the key influencer of Michael Gove’s bible on Muslim securitisation and neoconservativism, Celsius 7/7.
UN Resolution on CVE
The prominent role of UAE in CVE translated into an endorsement of the highly questionable draft UN Resolution to Prevent Violent Extremism. Again, focussing on ideology, Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s permanent representative to the UN, said that the initiative should be a blueprint for coordinating efforts to “combat extremism”.
The Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, accepts that “violent extremism” is “without clear definition” and that it is neither new. It then provides example perpetrators of this undefined act:
“…in recent years, terrorist groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al-Qaida and Boko Haram have shaped our image of violent extremism and the debate on how to address this threat.”
The examples it could provide are those which are commonly used by the West to denote any threat of terrorism, i.e. Muslims. It was not the occupation of the Palestinian people by an entity armed and funded by hegemonic powers; the “state terrorism” of Western militarists which invade other countries in violation of international law; the various Christian groups in the Central African Region engaged in ethnic cleansing; and the “extremist” Bhuddists slaughtering the Rohingya, who have “shaped” the image of violent extremism. Indeed, whilst the mention of Islam is elusive, the examples are not. This is more indicative of those setting the discourse on CVE which this Resolution seems to have piggy-backed. The fact that the UN has brought into CVE assumptions without objective, evidence based-support for this “field” is a disturbing development.
Richard Atwood, International Crisis Group’s New York director, in his critique of the Resolution makes a similar point:
“Perhaps the gravest danger, though, lies in the United Nations buying into the assumptions underpinning the agenda in the first place. The plan implicitly frames much contemporary conflict as struggles between governments and violent extremists.”
Indeed even the distinction of the presence of “foreign fighters” is nothing new; British and American citizens are fighting alongside non-state Kurdish groups potentially allying with proscribed terrorist organisations; Israeli dual nationals travel to Palestine to engage in potential war crimes. Even the scale of violence by these groups is not as grand as Western media and politicians have often portrayed. Says Atwood:
“Islamic State’s theatrical displays pale alongside the brutality of the Assad regime and its Iran-backed militia allies in terms of terror inflicted and civilians killed or displaced.”
Naz K. Modirzadeh, the founding Director of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, has provided a stinging analysis of the CVE Resolution highlighting the major problems it is fraught with; problems which incidentally also afflict the British and US implementations of the CVE agenda. The entire piece warrants a read. She says:
“[The “Plan of Action”] reveals three fatal flaws. First, it does not define “violent extremism.” Second, it fails to present convincing evidence of the causes or “drivers” of “violent extremism” — to be fair, that’s an uphill battle considering the main concept is undefined. And third, despite these threshold failings, the Plan of Action nonetheless prescribes a host of programmatic, political, and institutional actions with significant implications… As many states and institutions run headlong into countering violent extremism (CVE)* programming, much remains unclear: What is CVE? What isn’t CVE? Is there sufficiently strong evidence upon which to base CVE approaches? What is lost by dedicating resources to CVE, and therefore away from other initiatives?”
It should be noted that whilst the advocacy of the UN Plan of Action is broad, it took over a decade for Britain to arrive at the thought-policing present state. Through a combination of neoconservative ideologues driving their agenda and the semantic equivocation in the definition of “extremism” (neocon Michael Gove famously said, “you know it when you see it”), we are now seeing state-sanctioned child abuse, and erosions of civil liberties manifesting from the British implementation of CVE that is the notorious PREVENT Strategy.
UN Multi-Agency CVE
Disturbingly, the UN Resolution seeks to permeate the operations of its organs with CVE. This is similar to the PREVENT policy, where the duty to spy on citizens for “radicalisation” has been mandated across government institutions and public bodies, thus creating a Stasi-esque mandatory multi-agency public surveillance programme. To compound this, member states are called upon to implement the CVE policy, thus globalising the problems strategies like PREVENT are creating. On this point, Modirzadeh further elucidates:
“Their officials will refer to communities that are “vulnerable” to terrorism, or ethnic or religious groups that must be “protected” from their own tendency to be drawn to “violent extremism.” These communities will be scrutinized and surveilled under the banner of CVE; states will engage in efforts to make religious people more “moderate,” or to teach them that their religious texts say something other than what they believe… There is a real potential for backlash here, and it should be taken seriously in the contemporary geopolitical environment.”
Indeed, if the US, Britain and Egypt’s counter-extremism responses are anything to go by, oppressive measures coupled with the forging of a state-compliant Islam are their defining traits. The globalisation of this targeting will simply increase instability in every region as the initiative itself becomes a cause for grievance. Even the proposition to have CVE civil society-led is useless; in Britain, this has manifested itself in the establishment of the Community Engagement Forum, which is constituted of neocon co-opted individuals and organisations.
For despotic/ideologically-driven governments, the UN Resolution is a blessing as it readily provides a “normalised” framework to justify closed society measures which normally would be frowned upon. More pertinently, CVE protects governments against focus upon their own violent foreign and oppressive, apartheid domestic policies.
Britain, predictably, supported the Plan of Action and took the opportunity to conflate “extremism” with undefined “violent extremism”. Israel, which currently also occupies the British political landscape, also welcomed the Plan of Action, but was more emphatic of its focus:
“…we must be clear – the real and most basic threat we face is the extremist ideology itself. Thus, if we truly want to defeat violent extremism and terrorism, we must attack radical extremist ideology at its source.”
Concluding Remarks: 4 Year-old Extremists, Hijab as “Passive Terrorism”
The War on Terror created an industry of pseudo-experts and career-opportunists focussing on terrorism and almost entirely, “Islamic ideology”. Indeed, one of the “trigger figures” of the War on Terror, Tony Blair, has previously postulated at length how “Islamist extremism” must be dealt with on a global scale. Certainly in the case of Britain, this has resulted in Islam being the subject of reform efforts and culturalist attacks primarily spearheaded by neoconservative politicians. In a letter signed by nearly four hundred academics, lawyers and activists, PREVENT was slammed as “demonising Muslims and damaging the fabric of trust in society”. Just weeks ago, a nursery threatened to refer a four-year old to the counter-extremism programme because teachers thought he had drawn a ‘cooker bomb’. The drawing was in fact of his father cutting a cucumber.
In the US, neocon/pro-Israeli “moderate Muslims” who are connected to neoconservative think-tanks, wish to reclaim the “soul of Islam”. Part of this reclamation involves creating manufacturing hatred of Islam: they have variously described the Hijab as “Islamist”, “Jihadi”, and in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a symbol which “justifies the rape of women who refuse to wear it”. Against this demonisation, the Hijab has been categorised by the US military as “passive terrorism”. The response from academia and the Muslim community in the US too, has been resoundingly against the pre-crime CVE project.
The globalisation of Western-driven CVE means that the agenda has moulded itself into an extension of previous imperial efforts to render the non-Western world ideologically into its own image. And the targeting of Islam possesses more than echoes of colonial calls to change Islam into one compliant with the “highest form of Protestant Christianity”. With CVE, dangerous neocons who agitate a clash of civilisations find an outlet through which to enshrine hardened, counter-productive policies and in short, paraphrasing fascist neocon Douglas Murray, make conditions for Muslims “harder across the board”.
Muslim minorities in the West have mobilised against their local implementations of CVE. The time has come to transcend borders and internationalise the movement against this draconian, failed agenda.
 “L’Avenir de l’Islam”, enquete par Edmond Fazy, Questions diplmatique et colonials 106, no. 112 (1 October 1901): p.588, Quoted in Massad, J.A, Islam in Liberalism, The University of Chicago Press: London, 2015, p.68
 Bernard, C., Civil Democratic Islam – report produced by the National Security Research Division of RAND Corporation, 2003.
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.