News - Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center

Farah Pandith speaks about countering violent extremism in the wake of Trump Administration travel ban

| Feb. 14, 2017

A pioneer in the field of CVE (Countering Violent Extremism), Farah Pandith spent over a decade developing strategies to prevent and defend against the spread of extremist ideology, a policy area that has been under the microscope since President Trump declared his intention to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth,” during his inaugural address on January 20th.

At a Future of Diplomacy Project seminar on February 13, Pandith spoke about the evolution of CVE policy and the importance of soft power in combating the spread of extremist ideology. She identified three distinct phases in the development of US counter-terrorism strategy after September 11.

The first phase, she said, was led by an interagency group of advisors to President Bush in his second term. The initial approach to CVE grew out of the security values outlined in the 2006 US National Security Strategy, and focused on waging a “battle of ideas” parallel to the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this stage, officials drew on Cold War tactics to reach out to the targets of Al-Qaeda recruitment, she said. Pandith, a member of the original interagency group, led the CVE effort in Europe. She explained that her meetings with Muslim communities across the continent were an essential element of CVE strategy, despite initial skepticism from officials who failed to see the connection between US national security and meetings with religious communities that were located far from the military conflict in the Middle East. These actions were crucial, Pandith said, because they demonstrated continued U.S. commitment to supporting open, diverse and inclusive societies after the events of September 11.

As CVE evolved under the Obama administration, Pandith said, the scope of the State Department’s outreach expanded to include Muslim communities outside Europe, resulting in in her appointment as the first-ever US Special Representative to Muslim Communities in 2009. This global focus was not a symbolic measure, explained Pandith, but was seen as part of a strategy to realize the vision laid out in President Obama’s “New Beginnings” speech in Cairo in 2009, in which he called for closer cooperation between the U.S. and Muslim nations. 

Trump’s approach to relations with Muslim nations and Muslim communities within the U.S. represented a third, unpredictable phase for CVE, said Pandith, who left the State Department in 2014. Both President Bush and President Obama, she said, were careful to speak of Islam with respect, instead  specifically denouncing the action of extremist groups that identify with some form of the religion. She noted that this distinction was vitally important, as members of such groups are ideological outliers that comprise a minute fraction of the millions of practicing Muslims worldwide. Trump’s mixing of ideology and religion, she said, was counterproductive to existing diplomatic and military strategies aimed at countering extremism, as it provided fodder for extremist recruitment campaigns and ran counter to military efforts to build trust with Muslim partners in Syria and other countries. “Fear cannot drive strategy,” Pandith said, instead emphasizing the importance of soft power in creating counternarratives to combat extremist recruitment tactics. The focus of extremist recruitment is on Muslims under 30 around the world, she said, and must must be actively combated by efforts to scale up organic local voices on and offline to change the climate of “us and them.” She said that instead, leaders must give this demographic alternative narratives that allow them to express their identity. Pandith, who traveled to nearly 100 countries while at the Department of State, pointed to the crisis of identity as the singular commonality among the generation targeted by extremists groups. These young people are searching for belonging and purpose, she said, and groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda are providing ready-made options for them, As a result, she said, preventing recruitment will require a serious effort on behalf of nations and citizens.

Pandith believes that part of this soft-power strategy will be shaped by the action of civil society through engagement at the local level and in the private sector across traditional boundaries of race and class. “Not only is our nation going through an identity crisis,” said Pandith, “but so also are certain groups and generations within our society.” While these moments of crisis made certain groups vulnerable to exclusionary ideologies, such as religious extremism or white supremacy, she said, they also represented an opportunity for new voices to shape the conversation around religion, race, and identity, where government influence is purposefully limited. In this arena, Pandith made the case for a more inclusive public understanding of U.S. history and American identity. “How much do Americans know about Islam in America?” she asked. “Islam…has been in this country since it started,” she said. “Not to reject our European history- we must understand it- but [we must] equally put it on the table with everything else that is part of our nation too.”

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For Academic Citation:Farah Pandith speaks about countering violent extremism in the wake of Trump Administration travel ban.” News, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center, February 14, 2017.