Countering Violent Extremism: Beyond Words

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The last seven years have seen leading Americans falter in their communications about violent extremists and the communities believed to be fostering them. Policymakers, journalists, and community leaders have reached an impasse in crafting a common understanding of how to describe the link between religion and violent extremism, both from a factual point of view and in terms of what might be effective in undermining the appeal of extremist movements. This paper begins at this impasse. It reviews the choices to be made about language and rhetoric in U.S. public discourse as elements of a necessarily broader communications strategy to counter violent extremism. It takes account of how these choices flow through the global media, especially Arabic outlets. It concludes with a call to go beyond debates about the words themselves and to implement a holistic approach to communication that comprehends both the contemporary media environment and the cultural and political landscape of conflict. Communication cannot be composed merely of canny use of media, nor only of a well-crafted message. In the 21st century media environment, words shape actions, actions beget words, and both are in perpetual, dynamic relationship.

Good communicators reveal, in speech and action, that they understand the motivations and aspirations of their audiences—and it is via this understanding that they gain their sympathies. A review of U.S. rhetoric shows a persistent failure to demonstrate this understanding which in turn can fan rather than dampen extremist sentiment.

This paper recommends correctives in three terminology areas that have driven U.S. statements on religious extremism:

  1. Religious Terminology: Religious ideology is not the sole source of contemporary violent extremism and terrorism. No amount of expertise and knowledge will make it possible to target in a communications strategy the precise school of religious thought driving terrorism.
  2. Geopolitical Generalizing: Islam and “the West” are not uniform concepts. Despite U.S. representations to the contrary, the attackers of September 11, 2001, did not represent a unified global movement guided by a coherent ideology with the sole aim of destroying or defeating “the West.”
  3. Extremism Lexicon: The use of the term “extremism” in place of “terrorism” will not be sufficient to solve the problems posed by the indiscriminate use of terms such as “terrorism.”

There are no neat solutions and it is not realistic to aim for full consensus or authoritative control over terminology. This type of approach would inevitably ii be undermined, not only by a vocal, multifarious, globalized media, but also by language itself, which is shaped by a variety of histories, viewpoints, and political objectives. Opinion makers should instead focus on creating a communication strategy that harmonizes words, policies, and actions, and on bringing all three to bear to create conditions in which not only friendly dialogue, but also conflicting viewpoints, are evident. Key messages for communications strategies to counter violent extremism: ‰ Actions speak as loudly as words

Only throwing this or that strongly evocative word into the communications environment is a hit-or-miss proposition. Speakers will be judged by their deeds and policies as well as by their rhetoric. Communications must be crafted in which actions, policies, and rhetoric are mutually reinforcing activities ‰ Take the politics out of personal faith Shape messages in ways that encourage the adherents of a religion to freely decide for themselves its meaning and virtues ‰ Ideological archaeology is not the answer Avoid engaging in debate on any particular religious claims or specific religious doctrines ‰ There is no “Them or “Us” Use communication strategies that recognize the potential for all communities to eradicate or contain extremist tendencies ‰ Specifics speak louder than over-generalizations Draw connections and comparisons between groups, actors, ideologies, and conflicts with care, emphasizing simple, situationspecific interpretations over claims about historical or social trends. ‰ Work with—not against—global media realities Acknowledge the multiple, dynamic, and contextual meanings of terms and language related to violent extremism. Where possible, identify the variety of interpretations for events.