Credibility is key to countering radical message

Al-Qaeda fighters celebrate on vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces, on a main street in Fallujah, west of Baghdad March 30, 2014. Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has been battling al-Qaeda faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), around the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Anbar province. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT) - RTR3J7RE
Al-Qaeda fighters celebrate on vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces, on a main street in Fallujah, west of Baghdad March 30, 2014. Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has been battling al-Qaeda faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), around the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Anbar province. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT) - RTR3J7RE

More than a hundred civil society organisations, communications professionals and government officials from around the world discussed countering violent extremism (CVE) at a special conference in Abu Dhabi this week. It was hosted by Hedayah, an intergovernmental organisation inspired by the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF), which is currently chaired by the US and Turkey.

This was not the first time this topic has been debated. The threat posed by ISIL means it is unlikely to be the last. Here’s the real question though – has countering extremism become a more precise activity over time?

There are a few points to be considered, especially since so many different sectors are involved in this discussion. It is no longer just civil society that is talking about how to tackle violent extremism: government officials are, as well. Almost a decade ago, I served as deputy convener of the UK government’s task force on tackling radicalisation. I was brought in as a specialist. Today, public officials are far more involved than they used to be.

Unfortunately, that is not always a good thing. Violent extremism thrives, in part, if there is a radical ideological message. There is a need to counter the message once it is out there and, if possible, prevent it gaining ground among those most susceptible.

But counter narratives succeed or fail on the basis of credibility. No government and no public official can deliver a credible counter narrative in the same way as a truly independent public intellectual or religious scholar. Indeed, the very association of any religious scholar with a government can critically damage that person’s credibility with the very people they are meant to pull back from the brink.

Credibility isn’t an optional extra. It is a necessity. Without it, there is little or no likelihood of success in countering violent extremism. And yet, many governments, both in the west and in Muslim majority states, often feel the temptation to try and rejig the way society thinks. In so doing, however, they can simply end up discrediting the religious message they hoped would dominate the narrative.

It is one thing to facilitate or provide a platform for religious messages. Though a delicate task, it can be done. But when those religious voices essentially become a part of government communication strategies, they can easily lose (along with their independence) their standing within the community. And then it is no longer clear who will take their place, which might easily be claimed by radical extremists.

However, few governments will be comfortable with allowing the messenger to be so independent. The person who presents the counter-narrative might, one day, target the government as well.

Governments the world over, not just in this region, may often seem unduly sensitive to criticism but that is precisely what is necessary if the counter narrative is to have any credibility. The alternative is that those working within the countering-extremism arena will never be taken seriously.

These issues came up repeatedly at this conference, which drew an amazing breadth of expertise and range of perspectives from around the world. Participants discussed many subjects but finally it all boiled down to this question: how best to counter the radical messages that serve to recruit individuals to extremist groups? It sounds like an easy question, but if the last decade has taught the world anything, it is not that simple at all. As one insightful participant pointed out: since the September 11 attacks in the US, no terrorist group has been eradicated and many more groups now plague us. Why? The answer to this question has to be addressed, however uncomfortable it may be.

This brings us to a key event earlier this week, when the United States senate released a report detailing the torture techniques used by their security agencies from 2001 to 2009. Many other governments are undoubtedly guilty of the same. Such reports are necessary, as is the freedom to criticise a government for its lapses.

That is how one counters radical messaging. Those who are at the forefront of countering the narrative of violent extremists need to take the lead in criticising governmental misdeeds and they should do so openly and frankly. When they are able to speak truth to power, then, and only then, will they also be able to do that critical job – speaking truth to violent extremists.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: December 11, 2014 04:00 AM

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