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How to Counter Violent Extremism in Our Communities

How to Counter Violent Extremism in Our Communities

British police officers on the street

Less than a week before the May 22 attack at a concert in Manchester, England, I returned from a 10-day State Department fact-finding trip to Europe on countering violent extremism. The trip provided insights that helped me process and confront such all-too-frequent tragedies.

Here are four of the takeaways.

1. “You can’t investigate your way out of this,” says a representative of the London Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command.

Using only a criminal lens – surveillance, investigation, disruption, prosecution, etc. – limits the success of law enforcement in addressing threats. Our delegation heard from law enforcement and government officials that the most crucial tool in their kit is the trust of those communities most vulnerable to extremism.

Community-based organizations are essential to this strategy. The greater the sense of social cohesion and the more people see themselves as having a stake and a voice in society, the less rationale there is for attacking the system. When engaged and supported as partners (not seen as potential threats), communities will often identify ways to address the problems with greater cultural literacy and legitimacy than government or law enforcement.

2. “Safeguarding against extremism is no different than safeguarding against drugs, gangs, and sex trafficking. It’s out there, and we want you to be able to protect yourselves from it,” one instructor tells British students.

Messaging matters. Great Britain’s “Prevent” program – a centralized governmental effort to safeguard against violent extremism – still suffers from a faulty launch that undermined its effectiveness. Many perceived its focus to be solely on the Muslim community.

By shifting to a message of safeguarding people vulnerable to recruitment by extremists and emphasizing that the program addresses all forms of extremism, Britain is starting to repair misperceptions and increase trust.

Community leaders and parents need to know that if they have concerns about their kids or friends radicalizing, they can access the intervention and help they need. Working together, mental health professionals, schools, faith communities, and other community-based organizations are essential partners in identifying people who are at risk of or already on the path to radicalization. Understanding this kind of violence as a public health issue can help engage a broader network of partners in the fight.

3. “Targeting Muslims is counterproductive. You have to identify extremist behavior,” says Horace Frank, Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief of counterterrorism.

Focusing exclusively on Muslims undermines the relationships needed in the Muslim community to identify and uproot real ISIS-inspired threats. It also ignores a rising statistical threat from extremist right-wing nationalists. Nearly 20 percent of referrals for suspicious behavior in England are for right-wing extremism. About 10 percent of those serving time in prison for terrorism-related charges are radical right-wing nationalists.

In our American context, Muslim organizations correctly claim they are more likely to be on the receiving end of a violent hate crime than guilty of committing one. When law enforcement is present to protect minorities, it builds trust in those communities.

Like many Jewish institutions in the United States, some mosques in my community have recently received threats of violence. Police arrested a local man with an arsenal of weapons and a plan to attack the Muslim community. The way law enforcement stood with Muslim leaders reflected the deep, local relationship-building that has been ongoing in community for years.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric at the national level – framing violent extremism as an exclusively Muslim problem – undermines the extraordinary work occurring locally between Muslim leaders and law enforcement. Many Muslim organizations have built sophisticated programs to safeguard their communities from ISIS-inspired extremism.

But some are now having second thoughts about moving forward with these programs or are considering outright rejection of federal funds to support their work, fearing the money will come with problematic strings attached or that it may undermine their internal legitimacy for collaborating with those who amplify anti-Muslim sentiment. Local trust-building can go only so far amid a toxic national conversation.

4. Despite our best efforts, governments now treat acts of violent extremism as a question of when, not whether, they will happen.

Part of the holistic approach to this work also includes effective disaster response that can help contain the impact and lessen the casualties.

I also learned how the Jewish community can be on the front lines in safeguarding against extremism.

First, our community must become more nuanced in our relationships with the Muslim community. The more integrated the Muslim community is in America, the less ISIS-inspired extremism can take hold here. We isolate and reject mainstream Muslim leaders at our own peril.

If you care about ISIS-inspired terrorism, then you also should care about fending off Islamophobia. We can and should disagree fiercely with our Muslim counterparts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we should call out rhetoric that crosses the line into anti-Semitism. But isolation and exclusion feed the narrative of extremists. This isn’t merely a progressive talking point – it’s a best practice from the most experienced law enforcement professionals and government officials in the world.

Second, language matters. We must apply consistent rhetoric when speaking about various forms of extremism. The shooter at the AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and the thwarted attacker on the Los Angeles mosques are extremists just as much as the shooters in San Bernardino.

As part of a strategy of thoughtful language, I now refrain from using the term “Islamism” when referring to extremism that emerges cloaked in religious garb. Although this term seeks to differentiate ISIS and al-Qaida from Islam proper, it retains the association between violence and Islam. Instead, I take my cue from a former Homeland Security employee who uses the terms “ISIS-inspired” or “al-Qaida-inspired” to refer to such extremism. This wording avoids vilifying Islam and makes it harder for vulnerable young Muslims to see ISIS as a legitimate expression of Islam.

Finally, the positive work of the Jewish community in mental health, social services, refugee assistance, and interfaith collaboration – which has tremendous experience and expertise to contribute in these areas – will be on the front lines of safeguarding against extremism by serving the vulnerable, de-escalating potential issues before they become credible threats, and modeling these efforts for other minority communities.

We have no choice but to work even harder toward our goal. 

Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and former executive director and board member of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin
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