The Absurdities of Counter-Extremism


More than a decade and a half has lapsed since the beginning of the Global War and Terror. In that time, the prosecution of the war with Special Operations Forces, drone strikes, and cruise missiles has been subjected to consistent and harsh criticism by those who maintain that it simply feeds extremism rather than weaken it. The domestic appendage of the war—counter-extremism—may put on a more friendly face but has also been unable to escape from similar criticism.

Organizations such as the Brennan Center for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have made matter-of-fact observations about its effects on civil liberties. Others have pointed to how it stifles dissent and crushes political speech and organizing. Still others have written about how it empowers Muslim organizations broadly supportive of US policies and deflects attention away from these same policies which contribute to the growth of extremist groups. Nonetheless, counter-extremism has proceeded apace, undeterred by such opposition, even as it has floundered to find its footing.

The manifold absurdities of counter-extremism have also been noted by many critics. The theories of radicalization which emerged to justify programs which seek to root out “homegrown extremists” or prevent the apparently inevitable drift of Muslims toward “violent extremism” have been rightly recognized as intellectually hollow. Many commentators have called out its identification of Muslims growing beards, giving up smoking, changing their wardrobes, putting on hijabs, or practicing other assorted acts of religiosity as “indicators” or “risk factors” of radicalization as deeply Islamophobic and empirically untenable.

Yet counter-extremist warriors are nothing if not persistent and their work ethic is enviable even if their output leaves something to be desired. Taking the time to go through their prodigious body of work, one immediately recognizes the overwhelming influence of a single idea, one that undergirds all of their policy proposals and recommendations. Muslims, one learns, are always on the edge of slipping on a suicide vest and anything that can be done to keep them busy will ultimately prevent them from doing so. This novel insight has finally caught the ears of government officials and journalists and is now being disseminated with the appropriate diligence and sense of urgency.

“For Youth by the Youth,” a basketball league in Minnesota, for example, is meant to promote “brotherhood, teamwork, and forward thinking” among Somali Muslims in the state. Voice of America, however, shrewdly detects the more important reason why such a league is necessary: to prevent these youth from falling prey to “the lure of drugs, gangs and extremist ideology.” The story helpfully notes the FBI’s fears about the vulnerability of Somali youth in Minnesota to violent extremism. Sports, it tells us, “can be a unifying force for good.” As long as these Somali Muslims are playing basketball, they will be less tempted to board a plane to join al-Shabaab or the Islamic State.

The recognition of sports as a “unifying force for good” is not limited to Minnesota. The Guardian reveals boxing and football clubs in Brussels (“a hotbed for terrorism”) which are fighting the radicalization of Muslims by keeping them busy and presumably preventing them from watching Awlaki lectures on YouTube and becoming jihadists.

There are also occasions when governments have recognized the importance of keeping the youth busy to prevent them from falling to the temptation to behead the kuffar. In Italy, for example, half a million 18-year-olds are slated to receive government vouchers of $500 each to allow them to “visit museums free, go to concerts for reduced prices or watch movies.”

In Jordan, where an international non-profit provides young Jordanians with rock-climbing instructions, the Washington Post wonders if this can lure them “from the pull of violent extremism.” The article emphasizes that the program “avoids talking about extremism or religion” because it recognizes that the “worst way to combat violent extremism … is to label vulnerable young people as potential terrorists.” Nonetheless, the Washington Post refuses to take this reasonable advice and devotes the entire story to how such a program may prevent violent extremism.

More recently, as the team behind Sesame Street considered providing programming for children in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, former U.S. government and military officials immediately recognized an opportunity. “If we’re not doing enough in aid, development, childhood education, we’re going to have to keep fighting terrorists,” said a former commander of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. And when it comes to violent extremism, the story notes, “Cookie Monster, Elmo, and friends … could pack as powerful a punch as a drone strike.”

As the above examples illustrate, every problem is reduced to one of radicalization when Muslims are involved. Alienation from community, drug use, lack of opportunities, and every other conceivable social ill is taken to be a “pathway to radicalization.” Muslims, it seems, suffer from offshoots of just one problem, that of radicalization and violent extremism. If there is a basketball league for Muslims, it is preventing radicalization. A boxing club or rock-climbing courses are helping keep Muslims away from violent extremism.

This reduction undermines the economic and social needs of Muslims and subsumes them under the rubric of national security. Lack of educational and employment opportunities are no longer issues of social and economic need but rather national security threats. Muslims are marked as exceptional and are to be treated as such, deserving of economic security and social services only because they may become violent otherwise.

This further undermines the basis for solidarity with other under-served and deprived communities. Adequate health care, mental health services, education, and employment are conceived of not as rights but as ways to solve particular problems. Such an approach helps maintain the neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state while using social services to ward off some of the worst excesses of the atomized society it has produced.

One can expect these programs and such reporting to continue for the foreseeable future, as long as there are vigilant counter-extremist thinkers monitoring the ever present specter of violent extremism. Their watchful eyes will remain on Muslim communities throughout the world, ready to pounce on the latest sports club or dance class that they can declare to be a lethal blow against radicalization.