Countering Extremist Violence: Local Activists Are Already Doing the Job

Thursday, February 19, 2015
Viola Gienger

Fatima Kadhim al-Bahadly, an activist for women in southern Iraq, remembers the swell of chaos across her country last June. The extremist militant group calling itself “the Islamic State” had captured Mosul in the north, and the country’s most powerful cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, had issued a call for citizens to take up arms against the insurgents. Suddenly, her city of Basra was awash in weapons. Young men left universities to join armed groups.

A mother of three boys, al-Bahadly worried that her children too could be swept up in the turmoil. So when she heard about a training center where many of the new recruits were being honed for battle, she embarked on a mission to persuade the youths to find more constructive ways to help. She collected $5,000 to buy food and clothes so they would have an alternative to the benefits of joining a fighting group. She connected with 500 of them on social media and began finding community service tasks for them, like cleaning hospitals or schools.

“When I met those young people at the training center, I found that they are carrying misleading understandings about carrying weapons, about jihad, and about life and death,” she told an audience at USIP last week, speaking through an interpreter.

It’s a classic example of a phenomenon that Western aid organizations too often overlook – local leaders and activists already doing the yeoman’s work of countering radicalization and recruitment to militant groups. Such local initiatives are organic rather than spurred by outside funding or strategies, and therefore more likely to succeed, especially if they’re supported effectively.

There is already work that’s being done at the front lines of some of the most extreme violence that we’re seeing.” – USIP’s Susan Hayward

“There is already work that’s being done at the front lines of some of the most extreme violence that we’re seeing,” said Susan Hayward, USIP’s interim director of religion and peacebuilding. “She knew what the problems were and how to address [them].” Hayward said afterwards that it was clear that al-Bahadly didn’t need any outside “experts” to tell her what to do or how to do it.

The USIP event was an extension of the annual Human Rights Defenders forum held at The Carter Center in Atlanta Feb. 7-10. Several of the international participants in the forum traveled to Washington to share recommendations with policymakers on how to counter extremist violence with sensitivity to religious and gender dynamics.

Both events preceded this week’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.

"Groups like al-Qaida and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives," Obama wrote in a Feb. 17 commentary in the Los Angeles Times that also was cited in news reports about the summit. "The world has to offer today's youth something better."

Transforming societies from within

Hayward and USIP’s Manal Omar, the acting vice president for Middle East and Africa programs, participated in the Carter Center forum. The Atlanta center has since set up an online Forum on Women, Religion, Violence and Power to continue the discussion. President Carter was the chair of his Center’s forum and recently wrote a book on the topic.

“Our view – and his view when he was in the White House – is that people can actually transform their societies from within,” Karin Ryan, senior advisor for human rights at The Carter Center, told the USIP audience. “And our job is to think about how we can help them and not impose from the outside.”

While physical threats such as those arising from the group calling itself “the Islamic State” might require a forceful military response, as much funding as possible also should be dedicated to a more long-term solution, Ryan said.

“We are relying on tactics now,” she said. “What we need is vision.”

At USIP, al-Bahadly said one kind of support she needs is more funding and media attention to spread the word and expand the project. The boys and young men didn’t understand, for example, that jihad is not necessarily about violence or carrying weapons, al-Bahadly said.

Mubin Shaikh was born and raised in Canada, but he became radicalized at age 19.  The 9/11 attacks prompted him to go to Syria to study Islam and Arabic culture, and he soon renounced militancy and joined Canadian intelligence as an undercover operative. Now a prominent counter-terrorism expert, he said at the USIP discussion that “the real work is being done” in villages the world over like the communities of women peacemakers he heard at a conference in San Diego.

“Everyone will tell you [that] you can’t kill your way out of this problem,” he said.

USIP’s research and programs to prevent and counter violent extremism in countries such as Nigeria, Iraq and Burma delve into the areas where gender, religion and the drivers of conflict intersect. In each case, the Institute works in partnership with organizations and community leaders on the ground, Hayward said.

“Sometimes there can be a little bit of baggage with American organizations coming in to support these efforts,” Hayward said. “So how can we do that work strategically and safely for them and in ways that are effective, recognizing who is already doing this work on the ground [and is} often not seen?”

A purple hijab

Alaa Murabit is another example. She founded The Voice of Libyan Women when she was just 21 years old in an effort to strengthen the status and influence of women in the society. An initial attempt to promote international conventions failed because it didn’t fit naturally yet with what people in local communities understood.

Her next attempt scored – International Purple Hijab Day, a campaign to end domestic violence with an annual commemoration on Feb. 13, when supporters wear a purple hijab, tie or scarf. Thousands participated in the first year, 2012, and the Prime Minister made a public statement on television that domestic violence violated their belief system. The second year, Queen Noor of Jordan and other international elites signed on, and 35 cities and media outlets joined the campaign through their public schools.

“This was a way where we could address social issues, where people felt comfortable [and that] their belief system was being recognized, and we could actually make significant change,” Murabit said. “Our justice minister that year spoke out in favor of reparations for rape victims.”

The International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) has a specific affiliated network of women’s groups in 13 countries that are affected by increasing militarism and extremism, who produce security briefs for early warning of radicalization and recruitment, said Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a co-found of ICAN. Their Winter 2013 issue quoted “Islamic State” leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi saying, “We’re coming back to get you.” Six months later, the militant group exploded into the public consciousness in northern Iraq.

“This is from women on the ground who were telling us, `We’re seeing the extremists coming,’” Naraghi-Anderlini told the USIP audience. “I can give you Libya – same story. We just published one on Turkey. It is early warning, and so we need to take that seriously.”

Women in these environments do have power and influence, she said, as the threats to their safety attest, Naraghi-Anderlini said.

USIP’s Omar lamented that, while the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000 called for women to play a greater role in decision-making on conflicts and peace efforts, that hasn’t translated into practice and change on the ground.

“We just keep repeating the recommendations, but over and over we’re failing to initiate them, particularly in times of conflict,” Omar said. “We know that religion is a powerful tool, both negative and positive,” Omar said.

But most often, efforts to incorporate religion into the struggle against extremist violence involve either sidelining religious leaders or using them as a tool for delivering counter-messaging, rather than nurturing genuine partnerships to address the full range of issues, she said.

“The quickest way to change a community – and the most sustainable and practical – is through the people who have access in that community,” Murabit said. “If we continue to solely bomb schools and bomb hospitals and create this feeling of persecution in the local community, we’re only going to get more young men who want to pick up guns.”