For some years now, the Obama administration has worked on developing a “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) strategy. Its goals: to be proactive in stopping terrorists from radicalizing and recruiting followers, and to address the factors that allow such actions to occur in the first place. Last week the result of some of these deliberations — a twelve-page strategy fronted by the State Department and USAID — was published.
In its foreword, Secretary of State John Kerry lists some of those countries affected by “violent extremism” (“from Afghanistan to Nigeria”) as well as the identity of violent extremist groups (“Da’esh . . . al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram”). The focus then, seems clear: countries with a significant Muslim population and Islamist terrorist groups. Yet here is where the strategy takes a turn for the surreal, because from the content of the actual strategy, you would not realize any such thing — the document is just that opaque, obfuscatory, and, ultimately, unhelpful.
Regarding why violent extremism takes root, the reader is treated to a variety of possibilities. They include “individual psychological factors . . . community and sectarian divisions and conflicts.” Other explanations are corruption, insufficiently robust courts, and a lack of tolerance among different ethnicities.
Apparently not even worthy of discussion is Islam or Islamism, words that are not mentioned once. This is no accident. There has been a concerted attempt to scrub any religious aspect from the actions of ISIS and al-Qaeda: That is why phrases like “violent extremism” even exist. (First mainstreamed by the British government, “violent extremism” was dreamed up as a way to avoid saying “Islamic” or “Islamist” extremism in the months after the July 2005 suicide bombings in London. The phrase swiftly traveled across the Atlantic and into the U.S. government’s vocabulary.)
The strategy states that “to be effective, CVE efforts must be guided by ongoing research and analysis of the context, drivers, and most effective interventions against violent extremism.” One can only wonder what would happen if this ongoing research and analysis concluded that the biggest context and driver to violent extremism was an ideologically driven reading of religion.
This is a dishonest approach in multiple ways. Consider a White House Fact Sheet on CVE from February 2015, which states that “CVE efforts address the root causes of extremism through community engagement” and that “violent extremist threats can come from a range of groups and individuals, including domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists in the United States.”
We know that this is not truly what the White House believes with any sense of seriousness, because there is no outreach under way to address “root causes” that white racists or neo-Nazis might have (and that’s a good thing). It is why the U.S. has attempted to develop “prevention frameworks” in Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minn. (which has a significant Somali population), and not — for example — Montgomery, Ala.
The CVE strategy also states that violent extremism can afflict those “belonging to diverse religions.” But if State and USAID are creating any outreach programs to counter Jewish or Buddhist violent extremism, they are keeping them very close to their chest.
Taking liberties with the truth does not end solely with CVE. For example, when Barack Obama said, after ISIS beheaded an American hostage in Syria in November 2014, that “this has nothing to do with any religion, least of all Islam,” the president was clearly being dishonest. A twisted interpretation of religion, perhaps. But nothing? Are executioners yelling “Allahu akbar” actually more inspired by Hinduism than Islam?
Obama knows this is not true. We know it is not true. And yet the next time ISIS or al-Qaeda massacres innocent civilians, we will hear a variation of this line trotted out by leaders across the world.
Admittedly, there is some logic to this. Being careful with our language is not just about political correctness; it can be used to get a tactical advantage over the enemy. For example, in his personal correspondence, Osama bin Laden lamented President Obama’s insistence that al-Qaeda did not represent Islam and that the U.S, was at war with al-Qaeda, rather than Islam itself (though it must be stressed that George W. Bush made the same distinction clearly after 9/11). This was why bin Laden mused about changing al-Qaeda’s name to incorporate a reference to Islam or Muslims, in an attempt to get around what he believed was Obama’s sleight of hand.
Yet the negatives outweigh any short-term tactical gains. Ignoring problematic areas of theology simply shuts down debates that must be had and weakens the reformists. This is fundamentally dishonest in a way we should hope our governments will not be. There certainly are those who believe Islam is perfect and immutable, but I do not believe they all work at Foggy Bottom and on Pennsylvania Avenue.
There is another unpleasant effect, too: The lies the government tells are so transparent that those being governed very quickly notice. Just look at Europe. After every Islamist atrocity, citizens of the afflicted country are quickly told by the political class that this is nothing to do with religion, that something they can see clearly with their own eyes is simply not the case. As the author Douglas Murray has observed, “unless mainstream politicians address these matters then one day perhaps the public will overtake their politicians to a truly alarming extent.” Considering the street protests now occurring in Europe, that day does not seem so far away.
A new, bolder method is needed. The CVE strategy is the symptom of a craven approach to addressing the causes of terrorism. No doubt religion is not the only reason that radicalization takes place. Yet by refusing to even acknowledge that it might be a factor, governments risk seeing these difficult, uncomfortable conversations taking place in conditions far more unfavorable than the ones we currently find ourselves in.
Originally published in National Review