How Civil Society in the EU & US is “Countering Violent Extremism”

In Washington, acronyms run rampant. They can signify initiatives, policy challenges, names of offices and more. CVE is quickly becoming one of the more well-known acronyms in Washington and across the US and Europe, from the supranational level to national, state and local offices. CVE stands for countering violent extremism. In case this term is confounding or completely new to you, the USAID and State Department Joint Strategy on CVE provides a definition: “Proactive actions to counter efforts by violent extremists to radicalize, recruit, and mobilize followers to violence and to address specific factors that facilitate violent extremist recruitment and radicalization to violence.”

This photo was taken by Amy M. L. Tan in Bogotá, Colombia of work by artist DJ Lu, and originally published by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.

In 2015 the European Union awarded the British Council (the organization I work for), along with partners at Georgia State University and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a generous grant to spearhead a project exploring the ways in which civil society organizations are working towards countering violent extremism. Over the past year, we heard from numerous civil society organizations which work directly on preventing or countering all forms of violent extremism, as well as organizations championing other community-based initiatives focused on integration, communications, education or arts and culture.

In late July 2016, the European Union participated in a meeting of the Global Coalition Against ISIL hosted by the US State Department on countering extremist messaging.

We recently published a report which captures the perceptions, expertise and experiences of the organizations we studied over the past year. The report offers a snapshot of the CVE and wider sector working towards building resilience in communities to provide further insight into a complex topic.

Below are eight highlights from the report:

1. Societies need a holistic approach to confronting violence. Governments must continue to de-prioritize national security and intelligence-based methods, and increase support for civil society organizations’ capacity building programs.

2. These capacity building programs do the work of ‘building resilience’ in communities, including funding for improved social support programing, education, health (including mental health) care, job training, as well as safe spaces for discussion

3. CVE (as a term or an approach) is perceived to disproportionately target Muslim communities, thus contributing to their stigmatization and disenfranchisement.

4. Approaches within the CVE framework are often viewed as overemphasizing Islamic extremism, so the onus is on civil society and government to address all forms of violent extremism, such as right wing and anti-government forms.

5. Government and civil society actors agree: there is no one way a person can become radicalized. Focusing too much on certain ideologies, especially ideologies tied to religion as the sole cause or root of violent extremism creates more problems than not.

6. Safe spaces provide a time for members of a community to express grievances or other issues, such as the feeling of loss or lack of belonging. Extremists can otherwise exploit grievances which are pushed underground.

7. Religious leaders play a central role in building resilience to violent extremism.

8. Since they have the knowledge and trust of communities, civil society organizations are uniquely suited to create and disseminate grassroots-based communication, such as “alternative narratives,” i.e. organic messaging that is an alternative to violent extremist messaging.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy, speaks to the media at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, 19 February 2016. © European Union

If societies are to build more resilient communities, government and civil society must work together. Governments have access to resources that are helpful to civil society. Civil society operates at the community level and therefore has the ability to build face-to-face relationships, a vital factor in establishing credibility. The sector faces many tough challenges ahead, but over the past year, our team is encouraged by the incredible work being done by grassroots and private organizations around the world, as well as many policymakers at different government levels, to cultivate better communities free from all forms of violence. Our project hopes to continue to bring the perceptions and the good work of civil society to bear, and shine a light on the gaps that exist between communities, grassroots organizations and government.

More information on this project, supported by the European Union, can be found at http://www.britishcouncil.us/programmes/society/bridging-transatlantic-voices.