Is Australia fooling itself on countering violent extremism?

Ethnographic research shows why current CVE programs are unlikely to work

Clarke Jones

National security, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia

5 April 2018

If programs aiming to prevent violent extremism are to succeed, they must start working with communities as partners – not subjects of scrutiny, Clarke Jones writes.

The field of countering violent extremism (CVE) continues to come under considerable fire in Australia. Civil society and community organisations cite the negative effects it has on young Muslims and the Islamophobia and racism it creates in the general community.

Despite this, significant government resources are still being dedicated towards pushing a securitised CVE agenda, particularly towards the prevention, identification and reporting of so-called ‘radicalised’ Muslim youth.

Researchers and experts have subsequently identified many problems associated with CVE, such as its terminologies and concepts, and the potential intergenerational damage they may be causing Muslim youth, their families and communities. Yet, despite this knowledge, many continue to be attracted to CVE-focused funding sources, further feeding problematic government narratives.

With the government’s involvement in funding and direction, one of the main issues associated with CVE has been the lack of in-depth community engagement. This has meant that university centres are failing to properly understand the broader social issues and multi-level risks underpinning youth vulnerabilities.

More on this: Building community resilience to counter violent extremism

Problematic constructs of ‘violent extremism’, ‘radicalisation’, and always linking them to Muslim youth have, in turn, helped shape and inform equally problematic government CVE practices. As such, many of the so-called evidence-based CVE programs have often led to negative outcomes, such as stereotyping and further marginalisation of the more vulnerable Muslim youth.

As many CVE researchers fail to appropriately engage Muslim communities (or don’t engage them at all), untested secondary information is propagated and circulated between research papers or conference presentations. The result is that government audiences construct policies with little recourse to real-world engagement or buy-in.

Here, at the ANU Research School of Psychology, we are trying to recalibrate this dynamic by building a body of community-based participatory research with Muslim communities in Melbourne and Sydney, among them some of those not generally reached by policymakers and their favourite ‘experts’. This has included engaging with the Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ) organisation, the main Salafi body in Australia, as well as other communities in both states.

Rather than developing an intervention or program outside a community and hoping for the best, our aim has been to first understand the needs and social dynamics of a community and then to provide specific ‘grassroots’, co-designed solutions. The crucial importance of this approach is that Muslim community members involved in programs are engaged as partners, rather than being labelled as participants or subjects of scrutiny.

But, to get to this stage, we’ve spent over two years developing trusted partnerships and relationships. This is not to suggest that this was easy. The type and depth of relationship will differ between government and non-government entities. Yet, with their pre-emptive and securitised approach to CVE, it is not hard to see why governments have had considerable difficulty developing trusted relationships with communities.

More on this: Australia’s counter-terror strategy in context

One of the major issues with current CVE efforts is the absence of ecological validity – that is, a lack of relevance in real-life settings. When you spend time in communities and engage closely with them, it is easy to see that there are far more pressing issues at play.

As in all sections of society, the main issues we have encountered include drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, delinquency, self-harm, suicide and other problematic behaviours – not violent extremism.

Another major problem is that programs developed without ecological validity fail to understand or factor in cultural or religious sensitivities that are required for effective youth interventions.

The extent to which a program or resource is religiously or culturally-relevant can affect a participant’s receptiveness or willingness to participate in that program. Programs that modify content to reflect the religion or culture of the participants may increase relevance and contribute to the success of the program.

A further key finding in our research has been the cumulative effect of risk. Preventative programs or resources should have an ecological framework where the interrelationship between factors is recognised.

It is crucial that programs address as many levels as possible to reduce risk factors and promote protective factors. Programs that focus only on one individual will fail to address other problems that might occur in that person’s social relationships, family and community.

An important finding in our research is that many Muslim communities and the programs they run provide informal social control mechanisms that help to provide stability, promote wellbeing and, with it, reduce externalising behaviours among youth.

More on this: Tackling terrorism beyond jail sentences

Youth who engage in community activities may be more protected against violence and other externalising behaviours. Further, adult support from the community may be particularly important among young people who experience Islamophobia, racism, or bullying, or who risk being associated with gang-related behaviour. Youth who are excluded from school may find alternative connections via community support.

As a result, it is the Muslim communities that are having the greatest success in helping young people – not government or police-led programs.

Community environments that are cohesive, stable and provide opportunities to connect with pro-social adults and get involved with extracurricular activities can protect youth from a range of negative outcomes. They can also help develop pro-social skills and other competencies in youth.

To date, what has passed as ‘community engagement’ has been superficial and, arguably, not reaching the right groups. Without dedicated efforts to understand which communities require the most support and what type of support is wanted and required, funding will continue to be wasted.

Programs to counter violent extremism – or indeed any programs – should not attempt to socially engineer someone’s belief system, ideology, identity or connection to family or communities. Nor should programs ostensibly aimed at protecting young people contribute to the underlying issues that make them vulnerable in the first place.

Instead, programs that understand and support differences, promote diversity and encourage community connectedness are likely to bring about the greatest success in youth interventions.

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