Skip to content Skip to footer

What Works, What Doesn’t to Counter Extremism: It’s Not More of the Same

It’s time to get serious about addressing the root causes of violence.

(Photo: Sgt. Roland Hale/US Army)

The president has affirmed that military force alone cannot fight violent extremism, both in the media and in last week’s White House global summit, which focused on countering violent extremism. We celebrate this step.

Yet the summit missed opportunities to address the role of our own policies as root causes of violence and how we might interrupt the cycles of violence and retribution. Now the White House is requesting a new, broad Authorization for Use of Military Force, even while recognizing that this approach won’t bring an end to the violence it purports to address.

Our organization, the American Friends Service Committee, has a 100-year history of working within some of the globe’s most intractable conflicts. That experience has taught us that some of the most obvious solutions can be the hardest to see. We believe the following key points are missing from the national conversation about violent extremism.

It’s time to get serious about addressing the root causes of violence.

Violence begets violence. Years of war desensitize populations and feed cycles of violence for generations to come. We need to find ways to interrupt these cycles. Perhaps the most dangerous, persistent myth in the world today is that military intervention is straightforward, fast and decisive, that overwhelming force can “win” today’s complex conflicts.

The birth of ISIS is a perfect example. Born in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this violent movement emerged from devastation of sectarian conflict and was fueled by divisive US sectarian policies, US arms, and in abusive US-run Iraqi prisons. We ignore this history at our peril. Durable peace can be built only by ending, rather than increasing, flows of arm; restoring human security; making space for civil society to grow; and protecting the basic human rights that form the foundation for a healthy society.

We get what we pay for. We spend over half of our nation’s discretionary budget on the military: More than all of Asia combined. More than every country in Europe combined, including Russia. As Vice President Biden says, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Our federal budget clearly shows us our preferred method of global engagement, and it is clear that this investment isn’t working.

It’s time to get serious about addressing the root causes of violence. We must prioritize peace-building in our spending as well as our rhetoric, investing in early interventions and development that address root causes of conflict long before violent extremism festers and conflict erupts. This means changing the balance and makeup of the US foreign policy toolbox – getting rid of outdated machinery that serves little purpose in today’s world and investing seriously in nonviolent tools to protect civilians, prevent conflict, and build durable peace.

We’re not seeing the whole picture. While images or stories of brutal violence shock us and urge an equally violent response, it is important to note that the numbers show the world is much safer than ever. As a recent Slate article notes, “the small picture is very bad, but the big picture of violence around the world is about as good as it’s ever been.” We also see a slanted view of who perpetrates violence. According to FBI data, Islamist extremists were responsible for just 6 percent of terror attacks in the United States between 1980 and 2005.

Since 9/11, University of North Carolina professor Charles Kurzman documents that Muslim-American “terrorism” has claimed 37 lives in the United States out of more than 190,000 murders during this period. Yet we focus inordinate attention, resources and fear on the idea of Muslim extremism. Addressing the whole picture of violent extremism will require responsible messaging and inclusive engagement by politicians, community leaders and media voices across the ethnic, religious, racial and political spectrum.

People want peace. After decades of costly, ineffective militarized actions and interventions, local, regional and international communities are increasingly seeking peaceful solutions to conflict. Communities affected by violence are hungry for resources and alternatives to this militarized model of global engagement. Opinion polls show that most of the US public has a pragmatic and hopeful outlook on how our country should act in the world. A large majority believes we should be engaged in the world, but almost half believe the United States relies too heavily on the military. Most favor more cooperative approaches to solving world problems.

Complex challenges require new ways of thinking about our security, cooperative strategies for shared solutions and new tools that match means with ends. A successful strategy will amplify the voice of courageous, local peace-builders: religious and community leaders working every day in communities around the world, often risking their lives to bravely promote nonviolence and mediating with those committing violence. To end violent extremism we need more engagement with disaffected communities and a serious global commitment to diplomatic and political solutions.

We have 1 day left to raise $25,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.