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  • Partnering Up:How to Work with Religious Leaders to Counter violent Extremism
  • Manal Omar (bio)

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The video opens with a shot of a woman with bright blue eyes wearing a black abaya. As she walks across a war-torn area, an ominous voice in a U.S. accent describes how the Islamic State demands women “wear the veil.” [End Page 73]

This is an early clip from the State Department’s “Think Again, Turn Away” media strategy to counter extremism. It’s one of many—there are thousands of short films, multimedia projects, Twitter accounts, and active Facebook profiles that the U.S. government has designed to stop people from joining the Islamic State or similarly minded groups.

By all counts, the campaign was a failure. In 2014, Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, explained in TIME magazine: “Had the people behind ‘Think Again, Turn Away’ understood the jihadists’ mindsets and reasons for their behaviors, they would have known that their project of counter messaging would not only be a waste of taxpayers’ money, but ultimately be counterproductive.”

A single conversation with a local expert would have pointed out the video’s flaws: The woman’s eyes appear to be foreign, and the use of English—especially in a voice that sounds American—ensures that the footage won’t be taken seriously. Even the video itself provides a new platform to spread violent jihadi messages.

After this flub and others, the State Department eventually realized it would need partners on the ground. The U.S. and other Western governments are now turning to strategies known as countering violent extremism, or CVE. According to the White House, CVE addresses “the root causes of extremism through community engagement.” Instead of fighting violent ideology with bombs, bullets, and bloodshed, the goal is to engage with local groups to prevent individuals from joining terrorist groups in the first place. In this battle, it’s often religious leaders who are on the front lines, and so a successful CVE program must figure out how to work with faith-based groups.

To accomplish this, practitioners need to commit to an inclusive agenda that addresses concerns that CVE is designed only to serve Western interests. Programming should acknowledge factors other than religion that drive extremism. It should also identify ways religion can help and not just focus on the ways faith can be abused. Finally, CVE projects must build alliances with women and youths to ensure longer-term engagement and establish deeper ties with the community.

Of course, as much as this discussion should focus on multiple religions, CVE programs overwhelmingly concentrate on Islamic groups. Despite violence from Christian militias in the Central African Republic and marauding Buddhist monks assaulting Muslims in Myanmar, when CVE experts talk about religious extremism, they inevitably mean radical Islam.

As long as the only targets are Muslims, it will feed into the conspiracy theory of a “global war on Islam.” Incorporating other religious extremist movements into CVE strategies not only allays this concern, but also provides opportunities to apply lessons learned from one situation to others.


Despite assurances that CVE is meant to be community based, given the harm inflicted under the guise of the so-called War on Terror, social justice and foreign policy activists are rightfully wary of the new strategy.

In the U.S., 27 organizations—including Amnesty International, the United States Council of Muslim Organizations, and the American Civil Liberties Union—asked the White House in April to make sure CVE wouldn’t be used to restrict rights. [End Page 74]

The Obama administration appeared to have listened to their concerns and changed some domestic policies. The Department of Justice canceled its plans for Shared Responsibility Committees, where the FBI would tap mental health workers, clergy, and counselors for information regarding potentially violent individuals. Muslim Advocates, a legal defense group, described this program as having “the potential to open participants to legal risks and liability, create distrust amongst community members, and impede on Americans’ civil rights.”

But whatever modicum of goodwill that President Barack Obama earned by hearing out civil society...


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pp. 73-79
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