It is really difficult to know if this week’s three-day summit on countering violent extremism that took place at the White House and the U.S. State Department should be taken seriously, or dismissed as just another public relations waste of time and feel-good exercise. This is because the event was defined by a vigorous combination of sensible, mature and realistic ideas—alongside analyses and approaches that are truly infantile and irrelevant to the important task at hand.
The focus of the event, of course, was violent extremism by young Muslims around the world who get so much attention these days for their ugly deeds. What was not on the agenda was violent extremism carried out by racist Americans, predatory Russians, criminal Zionist settlers, Christian killers, or militias, sectarian gangs and many state police forces in Arab and foreign countries—partly, one assumes, because that kind of violent extremism is sanctioned or directly perpetrated by the governments whose officials were sitting around the table.
This is not a throwaway criticism or a secondary issue; it is a core, structural problem that largely explains why political, religious and sectarian violence continues to spread around the world, and why attempts to promote reason and peaceful coexistence mostly fail. So attempts to counter the problem of political violence and radical ideologies will always necessarily fail as long as they occur in a political context which prohibits including in the title “violent extremism” incidents such as the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq that opened the floodgates to the current waves of Islamist savagery, systematic Zionist colonization and settler violence in Palestinian lands, chronic political and physical assaults by Arab security states against their own citizens, and many other examples.
This is such a profound structural constraint on making progress in this worthy endeavor because it leaves the struggle lacking at once the most critical dimensions of legitimacy, mobilizing credibility, and efficacy. The dilemma here for foreign powers like the United States that cares so much about this issue that it organizes such high-profile global gatherings is three-fold: How can the governments that themselves routinely use political violence or demean their own people be the ones that counter this phenomenon? How can governments like the United States credibly work to curtail political extremism when a major and continuing promoter and enabler of such extremism is American military adventurism and criminality around the world? How can foreign governments strike a realistic balance between their awareness of the violence-inducing politics of governments in the Middle East and their own strategic desire to maintain those governments in place?
Such violent intellectual extremism in the American-led drive to counter violent extremism such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and others should not blind us to the fact that, amidst the usual hypocrisy and haughtiness, President Barack Obama made some very sensible and important points in his speech to the Washington gathering on Thursday. These touched on the local political and socio-economic causes of youth alienation that help to radicalize some people.
He noted specifically and correctly: “When people—especially young people—feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption—that feeds instability and disorder, and makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment.
“We have to address the political grievances that terrorists exploit. Again, there is not a single perfect causal link, but the link is undeniable. When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied—particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines—when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.”
Hallelujah, brother! Unusual for American senior officials speaking about the Middle East or Arab-Islamic dynamics, this is a case of refreshingly accurate, honest and relevant talk from a U.S. president. It is important to acknowledge this, but also to ask how many of those violence-generating governance problems in the global South occur in part because powers in the global North maintain those states in place.
How to change this situation has long eluded both the people of the South who suffer the ills of generational indigenous oppression and injustices, and foreign powers who now feel the danger of expanding extremist movements emanating from the Middle East mainly. The answer will emerge from more honest encounters and analyses that lead to a change in policies all around. Obama’s comments this week hint that this kind of honesty is possible, but it remains smothered under much stronger forces of imperial-vintage dishonesty and a refusal to grasp the collective roles and responsibilities for the violence that threatens us all.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter at: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global