The Problem with Countering Violent Extremism

A real strategy for fighting terrorism.

klObama’s Summit to Counter Violent Extremism was one of the most schizophrenic events on record. Its overall strategy was to counter Islamic radicalization while claiming that it had nothing to do with Islam. Even the King of Saudi Arabia and the leaders of a number of Muslim countries are willing to talk about Islamic terrorism. Obama isn’t. But he is rolling out a strategy to influence the theology of Muslims.

How do you change the beliefs of a religion which you can’t even name? You can’t and you don’t.

The whole premise of CVE subdivides “violent extremism” from Islam and then further subdivides violent extremism from extremism. Barbers split fewer hairs than this. CVE tells us that the best way to fight violent extremists is with “non violent extremist” Salafi clergy who have the most influence on them. We’re supposed to fight the ISIS Caliphate with supporters of another kind of Caliphate.

What it really comes down to is paying Muslims to argue with other Muslims on social media. And hope that the Muslims we’re paying to do the arguing are the good kind of extremists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and not the bad kind of extremists, like ISIS. Even though they’re both vicious killers.

CVE not only doesn’t fight terrorism, it perpetuates the whole reason for it by outsourcing our interaction with domestic Muslims to the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s a big part of how we got a terrorism problem in the first place. CVE’s promoters have convinced us that the best way to fight Islamic terrorism is by partnering with Islamic terrorists.

Obama began by watering down terrorism from a military problem to a law enforcement issue. CVE waters it down even further by eliminating it as a law enforcement issue (the FBI chief was not invited to the summit to avoid making law enforcement the focus) and turning terrorism into a social problem.

The underlying problem with CVE is that it tries to transform a military problem into a civilian social problem. It bogs us down in debating Islamic theology while warning us not to mention Islam. These are not problems that we can solve. Even if there really were a definite split between Muslim moderates and extremists, rather than an immoderate Islam broken into different factions in a power struggle, the government is not the right tool for settling a religious dispute. And that’s what CVE tries to do.

CVE declares that ISIS and its supporters are not Muslims. The Saudis might have the authority to do that. Al Azhar may have the authority to do that. We don’t. The only people who believe these claims are American non-Muslims. Muslims are not impressed by us deciding who is and isn’t a Muslim.

The United States government is not an Islamic authority. We’re not a Muslim country and we shouldn’t try to be. And non-Muslim countries don’t have a good track record of exploiting Islamic theology.

Islamic terrorism is a military problem. It always has been.

Post 9/11, that’s how we first saw it. Islamic Jihadists are not domestic terrorists even if they have the right passport. Nazi saboteurs in WW2 or Communist spies during the Cold War were not a domestic enemy. It’s not the possession of American citizenship that distinguishes a domestic enemy from a foreign enemy, but his cause. Domestic enemies may seek to overthrow the government. Foreign enemies are working to aid a foreign force in inflicting harm on the United States of America.

CVE demands that we fight a war over someone else’s ideas on our own soil. It’s a dead end strategy. At best we would end up with a government approved Islam and an anti-government Islam. And then our accomplishment will have been to replicate the same totalitarian state of affairs in the Muslim world. But it’s far more likely that we will end up being used as pawns in a war between different Islamist groups, such as ISIS and the Brotherhood, funding their causes and bleeding for their political agendas.

But we’re not actually in a war of ideas. It’s still a war of bombs and bullets.

Terrorism against America won’t be stopped on Twitter. It can be stopped at the airport. Our domestic terrorists are mostly Muslim refugees or their children. And the occasional American converted by them. The situation would have quickly gotten ugly if we had allowed large numbers of Nazi and Imperial Japan loyalists to enter the United States during WW2. The Nazis sent in teams of saboteurs who were tried by military tribunals and executed. The spy rings and saboteur teams were not seen as a domestic problem.

The United States did not employ moderate Nazis to try to reason with the extremist Nazis or non-violent Nazis to educate the violent Nazis about the true peaceful meaning of National Socialism.

Instead the issue was defined in terms of allegiance to the United States. Everything else proceeded from that. Either you were loyal to the United States or you weren’t. CVE shifts the emphasis of allegiance from the United States to Muslims. It puts the burden on the United States to integrate Muslims, to make them feel at home, to reassure them so that they don’t turn to violence.

And that’s exactly what the Muslim Brotherhood wants.

Instead of placing the burden on Muslims to be loyal, a burden that all Americans already carry, it commences a process of domestic appeasement for trying to win the loyalty of people who already swore an oath to end all foreign allegiances and defend the nation against foreign enemies. It transforms Muslims into a separate nation within the United States whose allegiance is always contested and has to be constantly won over and over again.

While claiming to combat an Islamic State Caliphate, CVE concedes its central premise.

The allegiance of citizens in a nation at war is not a bargaining matter. Either it exists or it does not. A sensible counterterrorism strategy at home will not aim at parsing different flavors of Islam, but at distinguishing between those citizens whose allegiance we have and those whose allegiance we do not.

Islamic terrorism and support for it, of any variety, is first and foremost a failure of allegiance. It is treason in the practical, if not always the legal sense. It is the action of an enemy who through this betrayal knowingly abandons his or her citizenship.

We do not need to counter “violent extremism”. What we need to do is to be certain of allegiances.

This isn’t new territory. During WW2, the United States not only arrested enemy agents, it also initiated denaturalization proceedings against Nazi sympathizers. Not only did we not take in new Nazis during the war, but we made it clear to the existing ones that they would be executed or deported.

The combination proved to be extremely effective. It did not ensure loyalty. What it did was make it clear that treason would not be tolerated. And it prevented a flow of new enemy recruits.

That is what is needed in wartime.

A real strategy for fighting Islamic terrorism begins with the recognition that we are at war. It identifies the enemy. And it offers those whose allegiances are mixed a choice between committing or departing. CVE does the opposite. It refuses to recognize that there is a war. It rejects the idea that Muslims should be expected to show their allegiance and instead demands that the United States show its allegiance to them. It inverts the balance of citizenship and invests the United States in an unspoken religious debate.

We have lost sight of the problem and so we are unable to arrive at a solution. The problem is military. Islamic terrorism is not domestic unrest, but foreign invasion. It should be understood and addressed in those terms whether it comes through an immigration checkpoint or carrying a bomb over the border.

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