Countering Violent Extremism: Déjà Vu All Over Again

by Emile Nakhleh

The White House’s recently concluded global conference on Countering Violent Extremism, also known as CVE, is yet another attempt by Western and Muslim leaders since the heinous attacks of September 11, 2001 to engage the “hearts and minds” of mainstream Muslims against terrorism.

Like the previous conferences I participated in while still in the government, the recent conference probably won’t produce dramatic results. It is not likely to prevent new terrorist groups from emerging, existing formations from expanding, or marginalized youth from signing up to fight.

Nor will this conference address the root causes of terrorism—dictatorship, repression, corruption, poor governance, suppression of human rights, discrimination, sectarianism, and intolerant religious ideology. Moreover, the bromides about Islam that such conferences promote miss one of the most salient features of the more extremist tendencies, namely their millenarianism. Ignoring the content of the Islamic beliefs that these extremist groups espouse makes it more difficult to counter their message.

The Convenient Crutch of Conferences

These types of conferences tend to focus on marginal issues that do not go to the crux of why some Muslims invariably find convenient religious interpretations to justify their violent actions. Many of the speakers at these meetings, including the recent one at the White House, repeat the same mantras we have heard since 9/11.

These sentiments include: “Islam is a religion of peace;” “Islamic terrorists hijacked Islam;” “Islamic terrorists are fringe groups;” “the Islam that jihadists spout does not represent true Islam;” “some jihadists are troubled kids who confuse criminality and religious violence;” and “the debate within Islam should be left to Muslims; the Christian West should stay out.”

In his speech to the recent White House, President Obama urged Muslim countries to address the endemic grievances their citizens suffer from, and to institute real economic and political reforms that could bestow on their youth a sense of dignity, self-respect, and justice as well as empower them to seek a more hopeful future. Despite the president’s thoughtful speech and call to action, it was ironic to see representatives from the most autocratic Arab and Islamic regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, sitting in the same room and cheering on the president. This hypocrisy did not go unnoticed by the thousands of Arab and Muslim youth who continue to be tortured by those same regimes.

The White House meeting, like previous gatherings, discussed the need for engaging mainstream Muslim communities and civil society organizations. Over the years, however, the call to engagement was always overshadowed by high-level policies advocating a more robust transnational collaboration among intelligence services and more advanced technologies to track and neutralize terrorists.

Only lip service has been given to engaging Muslim “communities” and to luring Muslim youth away from radical ideologies. Counterterrorism almost always trumps cultural and religious engagement.

Despite the good intentions of the conveners of CVE meetings and their desire to learn more about Islam, most of the new funding has invariably gone to combat terrorists and terrorist movements. By contrast, only pitiful sums of money have gone toward cultural engagement efforts.

History repeats itself whenever a new terrorist organization appears on the scene, especially if it begins to destabilize existing governments and threaten American and Western interests and personnel in the area where it operates. In response, Western and Muslim governments mobilize yet one more time to renounce terrorism and to proclaim that such terrorists have perverted Islam.

The cycle of international CVE meetings starts all over again with the inevitable recommendation favoring a tactical response and shying away from any long-term, strategic, or contextual analysis. ”Lessons learned” and “intelligence failure” are bandied about, but that’s as far as it goes—until the next terrorist attack. Consequently, most of these inside-the-Beltway conferences on winning the “hearts and minds” of Muslims have frequently amounted to naught.

The Perils of Short-Termism

According to media analysis and congressional reports, intelligence and policy analysts frequently briefed senior policymakers since 9/11 on the root causes of radicalization and terrorism. These briefings often identified the countries that practice these policies and preach radical and intolerant Islamic ideologies. As such, American and other Western leaders are fully aware of the systemic grievances that promote radicalization and recruitment.

Yet, in the last dozen-plus years, these same policymakers have refused to confront the ruling regimes in these countries beyond the gentlest form of nudging because of economic, military, and political reasons.

Another explanation might be that policymakers, who are driven by their two-week inbox, rarely have time to comprehend and address the complexity of the theological underpinnings of ISIS and other millenarian groups. Nor are they really interested in committing to policies that are generational in scope.

Changing “hearts and minds” is by definition a long-term proposition, which cannot possibly be achieved during a presidential term, much less during the last two years of a two-term presidency.  Along with my colleagues, I experienced similar frustrations during the waning years of the George W. Bush presidency.

Understanding Millenarianism in Islam

Western policymakers have not adequately understood, or seen any need to understand, millenarian thinking in Islam.  Treating ISIS as only a terrorist organization that practices savagery and barbarism risks reducing the whole religious motivation, no matter how warped, to acts of terrorism that require a tactical solution.

Non-Muslim Western policymakers should get over their skittishness in dealing with Islam as a religion. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has had deeply embedded millenarian and apocalyptic traditions that await the return of a “Mahdi” or a “Messiah.” These traditions, while embraced by a minority within a particular religion, are nonetheless central to the faith. It would be a mistake, therefore, for Western policymakers to dismiss this tradition and its adherents as a fringe group or perverters of Islam.

Adherents to a religious apocalyptic vision—whether Jews, Christians, or Muslims—usually base their belief on a literal reading of their holy text and aspire to return to the early years of the religion. For Muslims, the true guide is embodied in the “Good Ancestors” or “al-Salaf al-Salih,” who lived during the time of the Prophet Muhammad in 7th century Arabia. The Salafi-Wahhabi Sunni religious ideology, which Saudi Arabia preaches throughout the world, is squarely based on this tradition. The return of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) to the caliphate, therefore, is in the mainstream of Saudi Sunni theology.

This reality should be at the forefront in the thinking and articulation of Western policy toward Saudi Arabia.

Mainstream Shia Islam, known as the Twelvers, the predominant and official religion of Iran, is also built around the future reappearance of the Hidden (Twelfth) Imam or the Mahdi. The radical factions within this sect, like their Sunni millenarian counterparts, work hard to speed up the reappearance of the Hidden Imam.

Millenarians—Christians. Jews, and Muslims—share three common themes. They believe that humanity’s “salvation” can only come through their specific religion. They condone the use of violence in the defense of their beliefs. And since the “Rapture” or the “Final Days” could come any moment, they do everything in their power to hasten the coming of the “End of Days.”

Millenarians also support practices—strict moral code, circumscribed roles for men and women, capital punishment—that existed in those early years of their religion.

The international community should spare no effort in ending the bloody barbarism of IS. But Western diplomats and policymakers also must begin discussing this type of theology with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other Sunni regimes that tolerate and often preach apocalyptic theology. Since IS did not develop in a vacuum, Western and mainstream Muslim regimes must face this issue head on, with courage and urgency.

Beyond Millenarianism

President Obama spoke eloquently of “grievances” at the CVE conference, but rhetoric no longer suffices. His administration and other Western governments must confront Arab and Muslim autocratic regimes regarding the horrific human rights abuses they commit against their citizens and the repression, corruption, sectarianism, and poor governance they practice in the name of so-called domestic stability.

The recently enacted anti-terror laws—whether in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates—are a cynical tool to silence the opposition, discriminate against the Shia and other religious groups, and violate the human and civil rights of minorities and women.

Unless America and other Western democratic countries regain their credibility in the Muslim world and face down dictatorial Arab and Muslim regimes, IS and other terrorist organizations will continue to lure some Muslim and Western youth to their ranks.

The United States and its allies should understand that some radical and terrorist groups have promoted millenarianism in order to attract Muslim recruits from across the globe. For example, a jihadist from Indonesia who believes in the millenarian message could justify his participation in violence in Syria or Iraq on the side of the IS even though he has no connection with those countries. Osama Bin Laden used a similar message to lure potential jihadists, even though unlike IS he failed to conquer territory or resurrect the caliphate.

Standing up convincingly and persistently for good governance, human rights, and rational thinking in both the secular and divine-inspired spheres is the most effective antidote to radicalization, all the CVE conferences notwithstanding.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


One Comment

  1. Thanks for this post Mr Nakhleh, as usual, you have your finger on the right button. Your 3rd paragraph tells more than anything, that the U.S. still doesn’t get it. How it ever got to this point, let alone get past it, almost seems hopeless today. Ignorance doesn’t breed understanding, no matter how much it’s put forth. I suppose as long as the talking is taking place, there is the chance that light at the end of the tunnel is achievable, instead of the inevitable downward spiral to hell, that seems to be the direction being taken.

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