West could learn counter-extremism lessons from the Gulf

West could learn counter-extremism lessons from the Gulf

Counter-extremism programs are delicate creatures. Constructed in haste, they can cause more trouble than they solve. But, made too cautiously, they won’t do the job they are designed for. Unfortunately for governments who need to show action to a concerned public, they often do both.

Extremism — as opposed to terrorism — is about ideology. It is also about dealing with the causes of terrorism, not its violent end. The danger of extremism is that it can lead to actions that are to the detriment of society. These actions are often purely criminal, as opposed to terrorist, and the criminal behavior is frequently pretty pathetic. For example, the followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK jumped traffic lights because of their opposition to “man-made laws.”

But defining extremism in a way that captures the threat without threatening freedom of thought is a challenge that the world has been wrestling with for decades — and still hasn’t got right. These difficulties were evident in a study conducted for the British government in 2016/17 (leaked last week), which found that 95 percent of the counter-radicalization programs it supports are ineffective, and that some actually increased vulnerability to extremist narratives among their participants. 

These programs were part of the UK’s “Prevent” strategy, one of the four Ps of the government’s counter-terrorism efforts (pursue, prevent, protect, prepare). Prevent is the only part of the strategy that focuses explicitly on extremism, rather than terrorism, which it defines as “vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values” (these values being somewhat amorphously defined). 

I suspect that this definition has something to do with the problem. Governments need definitions, especially when dealing with a subject so fraught with difficulty, but this defines what extremism isn’t (“our fundamental values”), not what it is — not to mention the difficulty of who “we” are. Not all countries in the world share the “fundamental values” listed in the definition. 

When I worked at a think tank examining religious extremism, we came up with an alternative that avoids these difficulties: An extremist is someone who wants to impose a belief, ideology or values system on others to the exclusion of all other views by indoctrination, force, or by seeking to control government. 

But defining extremism in a way that captures the threat without threatening freedom of thought is a challenge that the world has been wrestling with for decades — and still hasn’t got right.

Peter Welby

The crucial difference is the cohesive force of ideology: Extremism brings like-minded people together for the same goal and purpose — whether religious or secular. Turning them from extremism requires turning them away from that ideology. Obviously, Nazis and Islamists require different deradicalization approaches, and these approaches need to directly address those respective ideologies.

We in the secular West have forgotten how powerful violent interpretations of religious belief can be. Anything that can make people die without fear and kill without regret is surely worth analyzing. But our lack of religious literacy and tendency by some to blame only ourselves for the world’s problems means we often discount this factor. So we have a habit of focusing on grievances: Poverty, education, alienation, respect. All of these can play a role in driving someone to extremism, but there is something else that holds people once they get there. 

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states understand this. A couple of months ago, I visited the Mohammed bin Nayef Counselling and Care Center and saw a briefing by a number of the staff. Amongst the counsellors — in addition to psychiatrists, occupational therapists and so forth — were a large number of religious scholars. Following a visit last year, UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson described the standard of care for extremist prisoners in Saudi Arabia as being “amongst the highest in the world” and said the deradicalization methodology “deserves the attention of other states.” Just last year, the Kingdom founded Etidal: A state-of-the-art center specifically set up to combat extremist ideology. The UAE has similar organizations, notably the Forum for Promoting Peace.

Meanwhile, there is rising concern in the UK about the impending release of prisoners convicted of terrorist offences because they have not been sufficiently deradicalized in prison. During the Cold War, the British security services had a remit to root out subversion: Concerted attempts to destroy our form of government and replace it with an alternative ideological system. The thought makes many people uncomfortable these days, but our leaders understood then that absolutist ideologies (communism, Nazism, Islamism) are cuckoos in the nest. They exploit the system in order to overthrow it.

It wasn’t only subversive activities that our governments attacked. We understood that it wasn’t enough to disrupt activities; we also needed to defeat their certainty in what they believed. The great leaders of the 20th Century saw a war of ideas. Ronald Reagan opposed the “evil empire,” while Winston Churchill described the war against Nazism as one of “peoples and causes.”

If we are to defeat politicized and violently imposed Islamist ideologies, we must be similarly robust. We must address their religious aspects; we should not be afraid to state what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in our society; but, above all, we must take it on at its roots. Islamism is an extremist ideology that comes out of Islam — there are multiple orthodox Muslim scholars and leaders who are fighting against it. 

The West should take its lessons from the Gulf. There is no reason for governments to be afraid of supporting orthodox Islam against the extremists; in fact, it is the only way that the West will defeat Islamism rather than be regarded as its sanctuary. 


  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby


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