Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States by the organized terrorist movement Al Qaeda, there has been a growing international focus on preventive approaches to transnational violence, including terrorism, organized crime and conflict. In relation to acts of terror associated with or driven by militant Islamist ideologies, these preventive approaches are now commonly referred to as “countering violent extremism” or CVE. The emergence of CVE programming is an additional burden to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the East and Horn of Africa, most of which are already deeply committed to institutional work ranging from humanitarian aid to human rights.
The challenge with the CVE approach lies in its ambiguity. What exactly is violent extremism? Is extremism acceptable if it is not violent? At what measurable point is an ideology said to have reached an ‘extreme’ point? What measures are acceptable in countering such extremism? The recent rise of ideological militancy has terrorized and destabilised communities in Africa. Exploiting community vulnerabilities such as poverty and alienation, extremists have radicalised and lured Muslim youth towards a militant and foreign ideology.
Social identity in the East and Horn of Africa region is a highly complex matter. The concept of citizenship is not affirmed in all states, and where it is, it is often not applied equally, most times to the disadvantage of minority groups. Ethnic and religious affiliations remain the determining factors in the shaping of identity and access to national resources and services. In this reality, the current CVE approach is overly simplistic and largely ignores the driving factors of extremism and the region’s historical injustices meted on minorities. The assumption that grant-making to NGOs to undertake development-style programming will create a shift in communities’ social identities or erase the causative factors behind inequality and injustice is flawed. It seeks to redress communities’ lack of inclusivity, unequal citizenship and marginalization with social and economic development.
The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), has been focusing on challenging religious militancy and its impact on the rights and the overall existence of women. SIHA has engaged in work on gender relations in the Horn of Africa for many years. Experience has taught us that challenging and addressing any form of social transformation should be led by actors from within the communities. These actors are conversant with the insights, heritage and realities of their societies. Therefore, any CVE intervention driven by actors from outside the region will often lack context, and is likely to fail. Islam has a long heritage of reform and transformative discourse. This can be utilized to facilitate persuasive transition in communities’ awareness using their own religious guidance. SIHA sees a localized preventive approach using Islamic principles as being more effective in creating this awareness, and a long-term approach aimed at realising true and sustainable transformation within Muslim communities as the best option.However, SIHA has not been able to identify external interest in such a cause. To date, one of our most effective approach has hinged on careful and structured dialogue on the injustices suffered under militant Islamists. This approach was introduced by the Sisters in Islam movement in Malaysia. Sisters in Islam brought together women from across the world and, together, they established the Musawah movement. This movement supports and facilitates independent interpretation of Islamic texts ranging from the Qur’an to traditional Islamic jurisprudence, taking the current context into consideration. These interpretations are exposed to Muslim communities through reformist and moderate teachings, intended to foster space and platforms for Muslim communities to engage in dialogue and debate, challenging the ideology of extremists. Unfortunately, this approach and interventions based on it have not been seen as being aligned with CVE’s overall objectives, which are typically characterised by a ‘quick-fix’ approach and which pose the risk of undermining Muslim communities’ sense of identity.
In most countries, counter-terror policies and CVE approaches have given rise to a vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence, followed by human rights violations and the victimisation of citizens, both Muslim and non-Muslim. In combating the violence of militant groups and their ideology, progress will only be achieved through a comprehensive long-term approach. For any serious transformation to occur, the preventive intervention should encourage ownership by Muslims themselves and include a local Islamic approach.
Hala al-Karib is a Sudanese activist for women’s rights in the Horn of Africa. She is the Regional Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) ownership by Muslims themselves and include a local Islamic approach.