‘Radicalisation’ rhetoric reaching screaming point
With the current rhetoric around “radicalisation” bringing many commentators in Australia to screaming point, international experts are starting to question the terms of the debate and say we need to better harness the power of language in countering extremism and division.
Experts and community practitioners from the UK, US, Europe, Indonesia and the Middle East descended on Sydney in June for the Australian Government’s Regional Summit to Counter Violent Extremism. The gathering came on the back of President Obama’s Counter Violent Extremism Summit held in Washington D.C. earlier this year.
The Point Magazine spoke to some of the international delegates during their stay in Sydney.
“I think that for politicians it is natural to really be belligerent,” said one British delegate who runs programs for young people in London, and who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of his work.
By contrast, the discussion among practitioners at the Summit “was much more inclusive and talked about solutions,” he said.
He said that countering violent extremism needs to be better communicated to avoid misunderstanding in communities.
“For young people if you’re doing anything that’s tied to the government or government policy there’s a great deal of suspicion. Our methodology is to do a large amount of engagement activities; this allows us to build up the trust and rapport that’s required with communities that are being focussed on,” he said.
“I think there needs to be clarity on having a message that communicates countering violent extremism as being safeguarding rather than intelligence and that is so important and so vital that it can’t be understated,” he said.
The approach is supported by Hedayah, an Abu Dhabi based think-tank which aims to be the premier global institution for expertise in countering violent extremism “in all its forms”.
“You have to have an honest appreciation about what’s really at stake for an individual or community and not to push any agenda or hold any prior assumptions,” a spokesperson for Hedayah said.
“One of the biggest risks is that we securitise relationships with individuals and communities. To avoid this maybe that even means that we don’t call it ‘countering violent extremism’ and that we don’t do it simply for security reasons only.”
– Spokesperson for Hedayah, Abu Dhabi based CVE think-tank
“One of the biggest risks is that we securitise relationships with individuals and communities. To avoid this maybe that even means that we don’t call it ‘countering violent extremism’ and that we don’t do it simply for security reasons only,” he said.
He explained that communicating doesn’t just mean talking, but listening as well.
“I’m just concerned about young people who have genuine understandable questions in the very complex societies that they find themselves living in and maybe that’s how we should approach this, I think this is one of the key characteristics of ‘countering violent extremism’ it’s listening and understanding,” he said.
Timothy Curry, Deputy Director for Counter Terrorism Policy at the US Department of Homeland Security, runs community round-table discussions with Sikh, South Asian and Muslim communities where grievances are taken seriously with respect to civil rights and civil liberties.
“For the most part, they want to talk about screening at airports.... When they feel they are being targeted, whether it’s real or perceived doesn’t matter, ” he said.
Curry says his government is taking the same approach to ISIS supporters as they have to other forms of ideologically-motivated violence, including violent environmental and animal rights activism and white supremacists.
“We focus on the violence... We believe in democratic values and actively support freedom of conscience,” he said.
“To be radical is protected under the (US) Constitution – the right to be an extremist is protected,” he said.
He cites the example of right-wing extremist preacher, Pastor Terry Jones, famed for burning the Koran and setting off riots in Afghanistan in 2012, who recently toured Michigan, a place with a high Arab and Muslim population. The government did not prohibit the preacher from touring, but the community itself “galvanised the event to work against this kind of hatred,” he said.
Associate Professor Nick O’Brien, a counter terrorism expert at Charles Sturt University and former chief of International Counter Terrorism at New Scotland Yard, agrees that language is critical.
“It is important to get language right. I have spoken to people in the Islamic community who believe that language needs to be accurate... it can be difficult for politicians and commentators to immediately change their language and I suspect that we will hear the word ‘radicalisation’ for many years to come,” he said.
“One of the most resented words may be ‘jihad’ which is often used as meaning ‘holy war’ but I am told more accurately means ‘struggle’... Despite that definition I am aware that many in the Islamic community do not like the word ‘jihad’ used in the context of a holy war,” he said
“If you begin community engagement by using language which is resented it will be difficult for you to get community leaders to listen to what you have to say,” he said
He said governments will not succeed in gaining the community’s trust without adopting appropriate language.
International experts say we need to better harness the power of language in countering extremism and division.