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Countering Islamic Extremism

By Professor Peter Singer


PRINCETON – Last month, US President Barack Obama hosted a three-day summit on “Countering Violent Extremism.” That term has already spawned a new abbreviation, “CVE,” used no fewer than 12 times in a Fact Sheet that the Obama administration released on February 18.

The Fact Sheet also uses the term “violent extremism” 31 times.  How many times do, terms like “Islam,” “Islamic,” or “Muslim” appear?   Zero. There is not even a reference to the “Islamic State,” That entity is referred to only by the initials “ISIL.”

This is not an accident; it is part of a strategy to win the support of mainstream Muslims. Riham Osman, speaking on behalf of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which participated in the summit, said that using terms like “radical Islam” harms the cause of stopping the violence. This may partly reflect the Muslim community’s understandable fears that associating Islam with terrorism and violence would contribute to an increase in attacks on, or discrimination against, all Muslims.

Another reason that has been offered for not referring to “Islamic radicalism” or the “Islamic State” is that to do so concedes the terrorists’ claims that they are acting in accordance with Islam’s teachings. That might draw others, who regard themselves as pious Muslims, to join them.

Finally, the repeated use of “Islamic” as part of the description of enemy groups may make it appear that the West is “at war with Islam.” That could lead more moderate Muslims to fight alongside the extremists, thus broadening the conflict and making it more difficult to end.

Yet there are also problems with seeking to avoid these terms.

The first problem is political. The conservative US Senator Ted Cruz, who may be about to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, has said, “You cannot defeat an opponent if you refuse to acknowledge what it is.” That line could win votes. Indeed, it is never a good idea for a politician to appear to be denying what we can all see before our eyes.

Moreover, because it is obvious to everyone that most of the violent extremism is being carried out in the name of Islam, avoiding the word is unlikely to prevent attacks on Muslims in response to this violence.

A further problem becomes apparent as soon as we ask why it is important that mainstream Muslim leaders stand up in public and say that their religion opposes killing innocent people, or that those who die when committing such acts are not “martyrs” and will not be rewarded in the afterlife. Why should Muslim leaders, in particular, make such statements, rather than Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu leaders?

The answer, once again, is obvious. But it is obvious only because we already know that groups like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Taliban are not obeying the precepts of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, or Hinduism.

At the Washington summit, Obama said that “all of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative.” At least this statement, unlike the White House Fact Sheet, acknowledges that groups like the Islamic state claim to be Islamic. Otherwise, what would be the relevance of this statement to “countering violent extremism”?

Nonetheless, Obama’s assertion that “all of us” have this responsibility needs to be more narrowly directed. If I tried to get into a debate with any moderately well-educated Islamic State supporter about whether that organization is true to the teachings of Islam, I would lose the argument. I am not sufficiently expert in the Islamic tradition to be confident that extremists are misinterpreting it, and few of us are. The responsibility to which Obama was referring rests with those who are much more learned in Islam than “all of us.”

Even for people who are learned in Islam, discharging the responsibility Obama has placed on them will not be easy, as a reading of Graeme Wood’s revealing recent account demonstrates. Wood presents a picture of people driven by a firm belief in Islam, and knowledgeable about its key texts. Anyone familiar with Christian fundamentalism in the United States should be able to discern a pattern in the attitudes taken by religious fundamentalists, independently of the religion to which they adhere.

The Islamic State’s spokesmen insist on following the original precepts laid down by the Prophet Mohammed and his earliest followers, understood literally and with no adjustment for different circumstances. Like Christian fundamentalists, they see themselves as preparing for – and helping to bring about – the apocalypse.

Let me emphasize that I am not saying that the beliefs of today’s Christian fundamentalists are morally on a par with those of today’s Muslim fundamentalists. There is a vast moral difference between those who oppose the taking of innocent human life and those who kill people because of their nationality, or what they say, or because they are “apostates.” But the fundamentalists’ worldviews are similar in important respects, regardless of the religion to which they adhere.

By now, the problem with trying to counter those who seek new recruits for “violent extremism” without focusing on this extremism’s Islamic basis should be clear. Those considering joining an extremist Islamic group should be told: You believe every other religion to be false, but adherents of many other religions believe just as firmly that your faith is false. You cannot really know who is right, and you could all be wrong. Either way, you do not have a sufficiently well-grounded justification for killing people, or for sacrificing your own life.

Granted, some people are not open to reasoning of any kind, and so will not be swayed by such an argument. But others may be. Why rule it out in advance by denying that much extremist violence is religiously motivated?


Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His next book, The Most Good You Can Do, will be published in April.


Our thanks to Project Syndicate, for allowing us to cross-post this article, which is also available here.


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5 Comment on this post

  1. Countering Islamic Extremism requires us to understand why it is the current policy settings are not working and will never work.

    At its base counter-terrorism policy as it stands is driven by pragmatic politic but as well it is driven by a fundamental rewriting of the Western codex which is attempting to fit a square box into a round hole.

    How is it we come to determine al Qaeda a liberal-moderate organisation this is why:

    It is the World Health Organisation (WHO) Harm Minimisation Program in action driven by the rewriting of Western Cultural codex to determine diametrically opposed beliefs, ethics, values will not be confronted because they clearly cause terror but managed.

    This is not a conspiracy theory it is simply how the world as it stands works

    I want you to understand why you are being regarded and determined as racists, bigots, suffering from a mental illness/ irrational fear Islamophobia and worse are being accused of actually ‘provoking’ not only Islam/Muslim terror but the counter-terror rising to match it.

    The only way to stop this is not to confront Muslims but to confront our Western cultural ‘gatekeepers’ and remove them from political power inclusive of the ‘expert panels’ underwriting the destruction of their own culture.

  2. Granted, some people are not open to reasoning of any kind, and so will not be swayed by such an argument. But others may be. Why rule it out in advance by denying that much extremist violence is religiously motivated?

    I doubt that Prof. Singer will take on questions or comments here, but I just cannot see any denial, in Singer’s quotes from the US administration, that “much extremist violence is religiously motivated”.

    On the contrary, the “all of us” refers to the international community as a body of people whose moral values commit them to reject *any* form of extrememism (so the word “responsibility” in Obama’s sentence seems to refer to *moral* responsibility. The point that Singer seems to miss is that Obama’s call for a refutation of extremism does not specify the particular *moral values* people and groups acknowledge and relative to which rejecting extremism is required; instead, Obama merely presupposes that there are such values. What Obama’s statement implies is that the source or kind of these values does not matter (in particular, their relationship with the justification on which the religious extremists rely, does not matter).

  3. I really respect Obama’s initiative to combat generalization, which is properly summed up in this article. So often our society is in the habit of stereotyping or applying a broad spectrum upon a race or country. I, for one, am a woman. Everyone likes to assume that we are bad drivers, that we are somehow less strong and less smart and more emotional. We are often disrespected in the workplace and seen as objects. Luckily I have a strong mother who is successful on her own as a doctor and taught me right from wrong. But putting out these stereotypes in a broad sense in our society and media often leads to unfortunate thoughts about my gender.

    I am glad that a leader has approached the smaller things we don’t think about. Language is so important, and even more so interpretation of language. Once we start referring to terrorists and violent people as “Islam” and “Muslim”, we begin to categorize everyone this way. This leads to brutality and distrust upon a whole race/religion; this is why men with turbans get “randomly” searched, and why discomfort is felt when flying a plane with someone of that race/religion. In my opinion this is sad. If you had a real conversation with them you would realize that a bad face has been put upon all of them. Unfortunately, not everyone has a chance to do this. But if a man in power can put the influence that not everyone is how the general public assumes, a strong notion can be put out.

  4. anthony drinkwater

    Peter Singer is in my view right about the CVE factsheet not mentioning Islam, and I agree with his conclusions on this document. Discussing the religion of terrorists who hold it as their auto-proclaimed motivation is hardly stereotyping them, and is an essential part of understanding.

    However, reading President Obama’s speech (easily accessible on the White House web-site) at the conclusion of the conference gives a different view, one much closer to Peter’s. Incidentally, for what it’s worth, here’s the word-count –
    Al Qaeda 2
    ISIS 5
    Islam or Islamic 17
    Muslim 27

    Odd that the President and the White house Press Secretary have such different views …

  5. We should not forget that the United States, under Obama, has killed numerous people by drone without trial. This is immoral, counter-productive and inconsistent.

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