President Obama’s Keys to Countering Violent Extremism

During his time in office, President Barack Obama has made many statements on America’s stance on violent extremism, including in his State of the Union (SOTU) last month. Recently the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram’s presence in Africa have dominated the president’s public addresses on terrorism.

Yesterday the President spoke at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. His statement began by emphasizing international cooperation to counter extremism and strengthening border security to prevent foreign fighters from joining extremist groups.

The President then discussed five key points that governments should employ to counter the development of violent extremism. Those five points were:

  1. “We must remain unwavering in our fight against terrorist organizations.” The President mentioned the United States’ continued commitment to counterterrorism by citing the training and advisory roles U.S. forces have taken in Afghanistan and Iraq. He echoed the SOTU by saying that while the U.S. has established a strong coalition to counter ISIL, it still reserves the right to act unilaterally when necessary. He concluded this thought by addressing sectarian violence; saying that “countering violent extremism begins with political, civic, and religious leaders rejecting sectarian strife,” as opposed to using proxy wars to pursue sectarian agendas.
  2. “We have to confront the warped ideologies espoused by Al Qaeda and ISIL, especially their attempt to use Islam to justify their violence.” While the President rejected the notion that these groups represent Islam, he acknowledged that they use their propaganda to target Muslim youth. He urged Muslim scholars to counter this narrative in order to resist perpetuating the notion that the west is at war with Muslims and their faith. The President suggested taking advantage of former group members who have renounced their extremist views as “powerful messengers in debunking terrorist ideologies.”
  3. “We must address the grievances that terrorists exploit, including economic grievances.” The President recognized that poverty is not the sole link to terrorism, but that poverty can make extremism seem like the only way out of poor living conditions. He also mentioned the need for governments to address poor education (especially for female youth), corruption, and government instability. He encouraged wealthier nations to invest in emerging nations, but stressed that the aforementioned domestic structure is essential in order for any assistance to be successful.
  4. “We must address the political grievances that terrorists exploit.” The President returned to his points on division based on sectarian beliefs. He stated that denial of the democratic process based on ethnic or religious viewpoints feeds into the extremist narrative. A judiciary system to uphold the law, a strong law enforcement body, human rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are all essential elements to counter extremism.
  5. “We have to ensure that our diverse societies truly welcome and respect people of all faiths and backgrounds.” The President called on national leaders to “set the tone” for religious freedom by countering the “lie that western nations are hostile towards Muslims.” He argued that people who feel as if they are denied the ability to succeed because of their religion are prone to turn to violent solutions. The President suggested inter-faith discussions as ways to “bolster and build bridges of trust” to assist religious tolerance.

In closing, President Obama recognized that the majority of Muslims throughout the world are a peaceful and faithful people. These people must not be put in the same category as extremists, such as the ones who committed the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, just because the extremists claim to represent the same faith.

For more resources on Extremism and Jihadist/Islamism, visit the Homeland Security Digital Library (some resources may require HSDL login).


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