The Role of Youth, Women, Religious Groups, and Civil Society in Preventing Violent Extremism

Robert Berschinski
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Remarks as Delivered at Central and South Asia Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism
Astana, Kazakhstan
June 30, 2015

Let me begin by thanking the Government of Kazakhstan for hosting this important conference and for your hospitality last night, and also thanking my fellow panelists for sharing your time and insights.

I'd like to take as my point of departure a few of the points raised by the U.S. head of delegation, Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, in his opening remarks yesterday.

Given that we've heard a lot of panelists since yesterday morning, I'll offer a brief recap. Commissioner Kerlikowske said five things I think are worth repeating:

First, that as a life-long professional law enforcement officer, his perspective is that "real security is not about arrests and detention," but about "the way governments interact with their societies."

Second, that as we seek to prevent violent extremism, it is in governments' best interest to empower non-governmental organizations and other citizens--youth, women, faith leaders, and victims among them.

Third, that violations of religious freedom are one important driver of radicalization.

Fourth, that respect for human rights is a law enforcement best practice.

And fifth and finally, that corruption undermines society's faith in its government, which produces the kinds of alienation that can drive individuals toward the forms of violent extremism that we collectively seek to end.

One additional theme I've heard running through all the panels thus far is that the drivers of radicalization are complex, and thus we need to be as holistic and inclusive as possible in our response. It's clear that government alone cannot successfully address the issue. Non-governmental, community-based, and religious voices are essential.

I'd like to offer a few thoughts on each of these lessons.

First, as we heard in yesterday's panel on the uses and abuses of new media, we are all grappling with extremists' misuse of the internet to spread their message. And while there are certainly times in which calls for direct imminent violence by terrorist groups and their sympathizers should be taken offline, we should remember that peaceful expression and the free exchange of ideas are an essential part of the antidote to the appeal of violent extremist ideologies.

When we suppress peaceful and legitimate expression and ideas, even ones with which we disagree or even find abhorrent, we simply drive extremist voices underground, where they are harder to track and challenge, while in many cases enabling conspiracy theories to thrive. So engagement, rather than censorship, needs to be part of the solution.

Efforts to clamp down on freedom of expression lead me to my next point, which is that notwithstanding the many things that we don't know about the process of radicalization, one thing we do know is that one of the key drivers of political violence is that it is in part rooted in experiences of injustice—such as discrimination, corruption, and abuses by government authorities or security forces that are perpetuated with impunity.

This conference's analogue in Kenya just wrapped up last week, and one of the data points noted during that conference was that 65% of Shabaab members interviewed by a think tank said they joined the group as a reaction to the aggressive and discriminatory actions of local security forces, as well as ethnic profiling, arbitrary detentions, and police corruption.

Now we need to take each instance of radicalization within a local context, but there is a generalizable point to be made that populations that have access to transparent and non-corrupt governance, the rule of law, and the fundamental freedoms of expression, religious belief, association, and assembly tend to have fewer grievances and more outlets for what grievances they do have, and are thus more resistant to the call of violent extremism.

With respect to religious groups, we know that government efforts to control peaceful religious belief or practice, especially for so-called “non-traditional” religious actors, generates grievances and in some cases alienates communities -- the opposite of what we should seek to achieve from the perspective of countering violent extremist narratives of oppression and subjugation.

More broadly, reducing the space for civil society to operate--a trend that is unfortunately spreading across this region and around the world in parallel to the growth of groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh--harms governmental CVE efforts, as civil society actors are often those closest to vulnerable populations.

This is particularly true not only of religious groups, but also of women and youth. That's why, through the Global Counterterrorism Forum and other means, we must continue to develop best practices on incorporating women's views into CVE efforts, and conduct more study on what motivates women and girls toward radicalism.

A range of contextual challenges, including legal and institutional restrictions, safety concerns, and lack of resources and skills, often prevent full and effective participation of women and girls in CVE policy-making and programs. But women and girls are leaders, problem-solvers, inspirers, and teachers, as well as mothers, sisters, wives, and providers -- their input and efforts are imperative to batting back violent extremism.

Let me say in closing that we in government cannot do it alone. More broadly, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said recently while touring this region, curbing freedoms creates “an illusion of stability in the short-run” but ultimately fosters “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies" in the longer run.

As Ban said, “Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights. The road to a stable future is by strengthening the rule of law. By fighting corruption. By ensuring an independent judiciary. By guaranteeing free media. By building just societies. By empowering citizens."

The United States fully supports these words from the UN Secretary General. Operating space for youth, women, religious groups, and civil society must be safeguarded—so that these populations can speak their minds, organize among themselves, and bring their experiences to bear on creating more peaceful, tolerant, and democratic societies.

Thank you.