Keynote Speaker Farah Pandith

Exclusive Interview with Farah Pandith: How to win the war on terror

Farah Pandith is a world-leading expert on the foreign policy strategies required to defeat Islamic terrorism, win the “war of ideas” and halt extremist recruitment of Muslim youth. Appointed the first-ever special representative to Muslim communities in 2009, she served under both Secretary Clinton and Secretary John Kerry. In this role, she was responsible for executing a vision for engagement with Muslims around the world. Pandith, who was appointed to Secretary of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) in 2015, believes we can win the war on terror, “but only if we have the courage to rethink, reinvent, reimagine”.

Terrorist attacks have grown more frequent and widespread in recent years. Are we losing the war on terror?

Farah Pandith: At present, yes, we are losing, and I find that tragic. Intractable problems confront us today, but after spending more than a decade working in government and visiting hundreds of Muslim communities around the world, I know that stopping extremist recruitment isn’t one of them. With the right policies and dedication, we could contain this threat in relatively short order, and relatively cheaply.

We have responded to extremism primarily by attempting to stop groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS using military means. By contrast, our approach to stopping recruitment has been incomplete, fragmented, underfunded, misguided, and ineffectual. We’ve contented ourselves with small-scale and “one-off” campaigns, and we haven’t built the infrastructure we need to fight and win the “war of ideas”.

Military action is important – we need to hit extremist groups hard. But ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and others are specifically targeting Muslim youth for their armies. If we can stop, or slow, recruiting, we can defang and ultimately defeat the extremist threat. We haven’t even begun to try.

What makes Muslim youth so vulnerable to extremist ideology?

Farah Pandith: Since 9/11, Muslim youth have experienced an identity crisis. Imagine growing up a digital native and seeing negative images of your co-religionists, culture, and heritage everywhere you look in the global media. That’s what Muslim youth have experienced. Unlike their parents, these youth have come to believe that America and the West are “at war with Islam”, and that their own, personal identity is all that matters. In this context, religious practice and the traditional way of life espoused by their families, teachers, and Imams seem inadequate and outdated to them.

This prevailing focus on and uncertainty about identity, global in scope, is unprecedented in modern Islamic history. It also colors how these kids see everything. The media constantly reinforces an “us and them” mentality, as do peer groups and daily behaviors. Like other millennials, Muslim youth live online, so they migrate there seeking insight into religious identity as well as a chance to meet like-minded “friends”. Unfortunately, extremists lie in wait, offering easy answers and proactively using the latest trends and techniques to connect to these young people. Most Muslim youth see through extremist ideology but, sadly, a small percentage don’t.

What should Western governments do to combat violent extremism?

First, take a grassroots approach. We need to engage daily with local Muslim communities around the world. We need to solicit their ideas, and further, we need to play the role of ethnographers, looking for broader trends in the emotional and intellectual lives of Muslim youth.

Second, scale up our support of “influencers”. Muslim youth don’t care what governments say. But they do listen to “credible” peer voices within Muslim communities. During my time in government, I pioneered a number of successful programs to galvanize such influencers. Sadly, no funding or other resources existed to expand these programs. Such programs could make a massive difference if we brought them to scale. Government should see itself as the convener, facilitator, and funder of credible voices, not as the sole bulwark against extremist ideology.

Third, be more entrepreneurial. Extremism is a fast moving, dynamic threat. Governments must become fast moving and dynamic, too. We must seek out great ideas and experiment with them. We must take creative risks. We must look for ideas and partners in unfamiliar places. Government talks all the time about being “entrepreneurial”, yet it lumbers around like an elephant. Let’s change that.

Fourth, get tough with our allies and partners. Saudi money has funded the global spread of Wahhabism, a brand of Islam that continues to inspire extremist groups and their ideology. In local communities, Wahhabism has displaced indigenous forms of Islam, destroying the religion’s traditional diversity. Today, that lack of diversity plays into extremist narratives about the one, true, “authentic” Islam they purportedly represent. To win the war of ideas, we have to stop Wahhabism’s global hijacking of Islam. That means pressuring our allies and partners to cut off financial and cultural lifelines to Wahhabi ideology.

Do governments today have an overarching strategy to combat extremist ideology?

They don’t – and this needs to change. We need to unite disparate global government bureaucracies relevant to the ideological battle behind a single, comprehensive strategy. In framing this strategy, we need to break with existing practice and consult with an array of experts, including psychologists, ethnographers, technologists, social media experts, cultural activists, communication specialists, historians, theologians, and so on.

We also need to change our underlying, theoretical approach to this issue. Instead of traditional “hard power” (military force) or “soft power” (attempts to change behavior through influence, coercion, and persuasion), we need to practice an updated form of soft power that I call open power.

We need to open up policymaking, in every sense of the word: “open-sourcing” solutions from the community; opening up our strategic approach to encompass many academic and professional disciplines; “opening the aperture” to see extremism holistically and organically, in its full nuance and complexity; and making policymaking more “open-ended”, so that it can keep maturing as global issues change and move.

Again, we can extinguish the appeal of extremism in our time. But only if we have the courage to rethink, reinvent, reimagine.

We need to open up policymaking, in every sense of the word: “open-sourcing” solutions from the community; opening up our strategic approach to encompass many academic and professional disciplines; “opening the aperture” to see extremism holistically and organically, in its full nuance and complexity; and making policymaking more “open-ended”, so that it can keep maturing as global issues change and move.

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