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The Cult of Countering Violent Extremism


Here’s an acronym you may start hearing more of: CVE. It stands for “Countering Violent Extremism,” and it’s all the rage these days in U.S. establishment circles.

Sarah Sewall—the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights—described the CVE phenomenon in a recent speech as “a broader approach to address the underlying forces that make people vulnerable to violent extremism.” These “civilian-led … and preventive efforts” are, she said, “an essential complement to our military and intelligence actions against terrorism”—because, while “we must continue to capture and kill terrorists of all stripes … we must remember that no number of air strikes, soldiers, or spies can eliminate the complex motives and hateful ideologies that feed terrorism.”

Were we not willfully delusional, we might also remember that it is precisely our military “actions” that produce much of the violent extremism that must then be countered. Case in point: prior to the devastating U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq experienced not a single suicide bombing. Furthermore, the fact that America’s anti-terror efforts have entailed massive civilian casualties might render some cases of individual and/or communal hatred slightly less than “complex.”

This is not, of course, to offer a blanket excuse for acts of terrorism, but rather to propose that entities interested in countering violent extremism could start by ending their own extreme violence.

However, since there’s no place for logic in imperial hypocrisy, we end up instead with the CVE enterprise, which cleanly diverts all blame for extremist production onto afflicted communities and encourages them to engage in self-policing. As Sewall noted in her speech, CVE urges a “whole of society” approach encompassing “local officials, businesses, religious leaders, researchers, women, youth, and … former members and victims of violent extremist groups,” all of whom are supposed to work together to discourage extremism by reporting “suspicious activity” and identifying individuals who may be on a “path to radicalization.”

And while CVE celebrates the particularly helpful role of women — who, Sewall explained, are “often the first to detect warning signs of radicalization and can help off-ramp children into alternative opportunities”— other observers have voiced suspicions about what might be seen as an appeal to moms to report their kids to law enforcement. In a February blog post, for example, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Julia Harumi Mass warned that “under CVE, normal teenage behavior could be an indicator of the potential to engage in terrorism.”

For a country that has been known to pathologize whatever it can in the interest of profit (think of the pharmaceutical industry and the obsessive medication of energetic children), this is not enormously surprising news. Better yet still, when the pathologization can help fuel the notion of Arab and Muslim communities worldwide as fundamentally defective and in need not only of constant self-denunciation but also civilizing interventions by the West.

On the domestic front, antecedents to the CVE fixation might be found in a handy New York Police Department manual from 2007, which describes indicators that an individual may be headed toward “Jihadization.” According to the pseudoscientific study, a person’s “involve[ment] in social activism and community issues” or abandonment of “cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes” can all potentially signal “progression along the radicalization continuum.”

As we’ve since learned, carrying a pressure cooker while Arab can also merit visits from the FBI. It’s safe to surmise that, even if one weren’t prone to “radicalization” in the first place, incessant profiling and police surveillance of wardrobe changes and culinary pursuits might in some cases push one over the edge.

CVE is not only for domestic consumption; it’s also being shoved down international throats. In her presentation, Sewall announced the State Department’s launch of “CVE pilot programs in Africa focused on the most at-risk communities and key drivers of radicalization.” Lest we ponder potential drivers of radicalization in, say, African communities on the receiving end of American projectiles, we’re reminded that “CVE makes it more likely that our hard security approaches can succeed”—among them “drone strikes in Libya.”

In a November article for TomDispatch on the American military presence in Africa, investigative journalist Nick Turse observes that U.S. “bases, camps, compounds, port facilities, fuel bunkers, and other sites can be found in at least 34 countries –  more than 60 percent of the nations on the continent –  many of them corrupt, repressive states with poor human rights records.”

And although Sewall has warned against the “tempt[ation] to invoke counterterrorism as a pretext to disregard human right [sic],” the United States’ own history of doing just that would suggest that human rights-based counter-extremism probably isn’t the primary objective in Africa. Rather, CVE appears to be just another vehicle for imperialist meddling in strategically important, resource-rich locales.

Meanwhile, despite acknowledging a link between oppressive governments and violent extremism, the U.S. helped set up Hedayah — described by Sewall as the “first international center to support civilian-led approaches” to CVE — in Abu Dhabi, an emirate predicated on injustice and abuse. Incidentally, Sewall’s speech took place at none other than the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a preeminent Zionist think tank whose ideological orientation makes it complicit in all manner of extreme Israeli violence and ethnic cleansing.

Other dubious entities like the World Bank and Facebook have been involved, to varying degrees, in the unleashing of brand CVE, and the United Nations News Center noted in September that a CVE summit hosted by Barack Obama had “brought together representatives from more than 100 nations, more than 20 multilateral institutions, some 120 civil society groups from around the world, and partners from the private sector.”

But the idea that this seemingly united front can successfully counter extremism while remaining violent is itself — to say the least — extreme.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

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