How to counter violent extremism

Dec. 8, 2012Seven-year-old Walid, right, is comforted as he mourns a fallen Syrian rebel fighter taken away for burial in … Continued

Dec. 8, 2012Seven-year-old Walid, right, is comforted as he mourns a fallen Syrian rebel fighter taken away for burial in the al-Fardos area of Aleppo. The orphaned boy is staying with this unit of rebel fighters after his father was allegedly killed by the regime. His mother’s whereabouts is unknown. After months of fighting, the city is without power, and running water and basic commodities are getting scarcer.Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images

Horrific recent events in Syria, Kenya and across the world focus our attention on the urgent need to counter violent extremism. Immediate security and counter terror responses are rightly assessed, terrorists hunted down. But ultimately this is only half the story. We will only achieve lasting change if we deal with the root causes as well as the consequences of extremism.

The $200 million fund recently announced by Secretary Kerry at the 4th Ministerial meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum is a welcome step forward.

As someone advising on the fund’s approach, what struck me about the plans was that this represented a complete approach to countering extremism, which recognized that preventing radicalization begins at the grassroots. Key to this is unlocking funding for groups who struggle to access support but are achieving long lasting change in communities. But what do these groups do? How do you counter extremism on the ground? From my experience, community engagement, education and practical ways of supporting prevention are key components.

Firstly, community engagement. In conflict areas such as Nigeria, religious leaders need practical assistance to help them in their reconciliation efforts. During crisis points the lines of communication need to be kept open. In response to recent attacks on a church in Peshawar in Pakistan, campaign groups have shown solidarity between religions. Muslims have organized protests against violence, forming human chains around churches whilst they hold services. In Egypt prominent Muslim activist and television preacher Amr Khaled took part in similar protests against attacks on Coptic Christians. He also uses his influential broadcasts as a platform to counter views of hatred through inspiring messages of hope. These kind of visible, determined displays of defiance in the face of violence strengthen ties between communities.

After the immediate crisis, over time communities then need to have the space to lead dialogues where people of different religions can identify what they share — the mutual daily encounters on health, schools, parents and children. When they start working together and living for the good of the wider community, they encounter each other in charity, compassion and good deeds. Minds are opened to diversity and forming long lasting and positive relationships.

Secondly, there is no answer to this problem that doesn’t start with the importance of educating our young people. Our Face to Faith schools program works with 12-17 year-olds in the US and worldwide, connecting students where they interact in a moderated space, discussing global issues from a variety of faith and belief perspectives, in a respectful and safe way. Young people learn to respect, not fear, difference and gain understanding about one and another. If we can teach our children to recognize our common bonds, the common humanity that we share with the other cultures of the world, then we can have a better idea than those who seek to distort and divide.

Finally, at the sharper end we need to fund those groups who work practically and directly in places where the early stages of radicalization can form. The UK’s Quilliam Foundation challenges extremism head-on in schools and college campuses. Their staff includes people once involved in radical groups, who understand how people can be sucked into this world. By creating powerful counter narratives they directly challenge extremism head on inside the Muslim community. They helped set up Khudi, a social movement for young people in Pakistan that counters extremism through the promotion of a democratic culture of healthy debate and discussion.

These are just a few examples of the kind of work that should be supported and sustained. Funding must be long-term and consistent. Those who wish to divide communities along religious, sectarian lines have a head start. They stick to their strategy over years and decades and defeating it will require us to match and beat their commitment. Hard power alone is not enough. This is why I welcome this fund it is a chance to provide the long-term practical support on the ground required to help prevent religious prejudice and extremism before it explodes into conflict.

Charlotte Keenan is Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation

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