Peter Mandaville and J.M. Berger on CVE, Past and Present

The Centre on Religion and Global Affairs has published an interesting interview with Professor Peter Mandaville of George Mason University, who recently left the US State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. (There’s no relationship between the Centre and the Office, despite the overlap in names.)

One exchange stood out to me:

There is a tendency for the topic of religion to be only seen through the lens of a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) focus. Does such a starting point help, or should governments take religion seriously beyond CVE? 

Well this question takes us directly into an area that has been more challenging. With respect to groups such as ISIS, I think the default assumption of many national security policymakers is that the U.S. government should be partnering with religious leaders who can create and disseminate something like “theological antidotes” designed to discredit Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam. I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding both of how religious authority works in Islam and also a faulty analysis of the extent to which the “correctness” of how ISIS interprets Islamic teachings bear on the calculus of those looking to join or support such groups. There’s also just a basic credibility problem here insofar as I suspect that a religious scholar whose views are supported or promoted by the U.S. Government would have close to zero legitimacy in the eyes of many young and politically conscious Muslims. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has therefore tried to emphasize instead the idea that religious actors who want to play a role in countering violent extremism are likely to be more effective by making their voices heard in the context of initiatives that deal with some of the underlying societal causes of terrorism – such as localized violence and conflict, corruption and other deficits in governance, and certain forms of socioeconomic deprivation and societal alienation.

Recently, there has been some well-placed concern the Trump administration’s plans to change CVE to focus entirely on Muslims. As J.M. Berger wrote earlier this month,

Theoretically, up to now, [CVE has] been targeting all forms of violent extremist ideology, from radical Muslim groups to domestic white nationalists. In practice, though, even under Obama, the focus was almost entirely on Muslims, aside from a tiny handful of mostly invisible grants and programs.

But there was still a powerful symbolic statement behind saying the government wanted to fight all extremists, no matter what ideology they espoused. And it would be an equally powerful symbolic statement if the Trump administration decides to drop all non-Muslim interventions and rebrand the effort as Combating Islamic Extremism…The administration is taking advantage of yet another opportunity to ratify white nationalism and white supremacy.

I see Mandaville’s and Berger’s points as entirely compatible. One might even sum it up as “old CVE, naive; new CVE, dangerous.”

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