Posted by: ourvoicestogether | October 24, 2007

Overcoming Extremism: new definitions, new directions

Overcoming ExtremismThis week I attended a very interesting symposium hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) called “Overcoming Extremism: Protecting Civilians from Terrorist Violence”. The two-day program featured hig-profile speakers from many sectors of the counterterrorism movement, including law enforcement, academia, victims’ groups, journalists, and government officials.

From their website: “In addition to examining government responses and legal structures, the conference will consider how local communities and international partners can transform the enabling environment that can intimidate local actors into silence or acquiescence. Topics will include the impact of new media tools, changes in international humanitarian law, the evolution of terrorist tactics, the proliferation of suicide bombings, and innovative approaches to protecting civilians. ”

Video clips from the conference are available here.One of the most valuable things I thought to come out of the conference was the emphasis on viewing and defining terrorism from the civilians’ — the victims’ –viewpoint. Violent acts that target or indiscriminately affect civilians is terrorism, period. State-sponsored, group-sponsored, individual — that is of less importance when trying to figure out how to prevent attacks and how to decrease community support for extremism. Our Voices Together is keenly interested in the latter, in that we are trying to help create a world where terrorism is an unacceptable response to conflict, injustice, war, etc.

Of personal interest to me, of course, was the break-out session on new media, which included blogging. Two new fascinating groups, the Tharwa Community and OpenDemocracy are working to counter what Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups are already doing very well — using the Internet to recruit new members and create a feeling of cohesivness among existing but disparate members all over the world. When a terrorist attack occurs in Spain, or London, or Morocco, or anywhere, extremists all over the world feel a sense of personal victory and sense of accomplishment, whether they were directly associated or not. Through YouTube (and its arabic equivalents), blogs and websites, extremists can prolong the effects of the initial attack by recording and disseminating it.

What we need –and what Tharwa and OpenDemocracy are doing — is a counter movement that is not constrained by national borders, language, or physical distance. People everywhere who believe in dialogue, moderation and tolerance need to feel that every Safer, More Compassionate World forum is their forum, whether they attend or not. The Peace Tower is a long-awaited culmination of all of our dreams. A Department of Peace should be established in every country’s governement, and each time it is, we can ALL celebrate it as a victory.

As Ammar Abdulhamid, director of the Tharwa Foundation said, “we will create our own sleeper cells using the same techniques that Al-Qaeda and others have been using — and we will create sleeper cells for moderation and tolerance.”




  1. I have read with interest your observations regarding the symposium organized by CSIS. The topic of discussion sounds unique in a way that governments often, in an effort to overcome religious extremism, tend to overlook the effects of the phenomenon vis-à-vis the people.

    In order to ‘help create a world where terrorism is an unacceptable response to conflict, injustice, war, etc.’, one must, to begin with, look at the probability or the possibility of state involvement in terrorism.

    Whereas religious extremism that usually leads to the path of terrorism is rampant in certain Muslim countries, more than usual is the fact that the state itself is a part and parcel of the activity. Such involvement could be in the form of harassing the religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, and the like, via intelligence agencies, joining hands with groups that believe in extreme ideals and thereby consider it their ‘spiritual’ duty to impose their beliefs on the rest of the community and so on.

    One classic example that I experienced, of such an environment, is that of Pakistan. The religious ethos in that country underwent a drastic transformation and took a U-turn for the worst about 30 years ago. The rot that began in the late 70s continues till this day. The state machinery and the policy makers starting from the time of General Zia-ul-Haque down to General Musharraf’s time has been, for the most part, an extremist run enterprise.

    It’s hard to synopsize the story of the Pakistani nation’s struggle with fundamentalism. However, the root cause of country’s degeneration could possibly be found in the urge of the ‘higher management’/powers that be in the decade of 1970s to make international headlines and be a part of the mainstream world politics. The mad rush to acquire nuclear technology and, therefore, create the ‘Islamic bomb’, the active support of the Afghan Mujahideen, and of course the growing Arab influence at the state and societal levels that instigated the unnecessary spread of Wahabism, were some of the factors that lead to the ‘Talibanization’ of a country that perhaps was somewhat, if not absolutely, secular in outlook.

    I do not intend to confine the limits of your discussion and my response to one particular country or region of the world. However, whether we like it or not, Pakistan, has been, especially in the years beyond 9/11, so obviously ‘visible’ when it comes to tracking down terrorists and most of monstrous ones have indeed been found in Pakistan. That country is indeed redefined and redirected the concept of extremism!

    Despite being the strongest ally in the war against terrorism and notwithstanding General Musharraf’s ‘efforts’ to cooperate in this regard, the core values of the Pakistani intelligence and military institutions intrinsically remain extremist in perspective. The top officer cadre of these agencies that are responsible to take action and find and attack the extremists, remains highly sympathetic towards the madarrahs, the militant organizations and the Saudi Wahabism.

    This is the crop of officers that was never exposed to Western training (thanks to the sanctions Pakistan was under in late 80s and throughout the 90s), was constantly involved in various religio-political projects, that amongst others, included the creation and the launching of the Taliban in the mid-90s.

    The brainwashing done was severe and the ‘rewards’ offered were enormous. Also, of course, acting against the Wahabi brotherhood is sinful!! I understand that it will sound out of context but Benazir Bhutto who is considered as the harbinger of democracy and the pillar of moderation and secularism was the prime minister when the Taliban movement was given a concrete shape in the mountains of northern Pakistan.

    Is there a citizen involvement to check extremism in Pakistan? Yes, there has been resistance at times, but despite the awareness not many dared to encounter the government at a group level. Those who did were eventually bulldozed and had to either run for cover or were made to disappear! Now that we are in the Internet era, I do see some signs of questioning and condemnation of Arab-sponsored Wahibism at times but unfortunately nothing that can really be defined as a movement in its own right.

    I apologize for my ‘concentrated and focused’ comments but I thought it worthwhile to share my views with respect to a country that, to my mind, has ‘outsourced’ tons of terrorists and yet remains at a loss of curb the menace of extremism internally, probably because of an absence a community based to create a paraphernalia of checks and balances.

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