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Winning “Hearts and Minds”

The United States won't be able to control terrorism, because it is unwilling to alter its imperial policies.

US-backed rebels in Afghanistan, October 1987.

On February 18, the White House convened a three-day summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), bringing together handpicked community leaders and national and international representatives. Ministers from roughly seventy countries, officials from various multilateral bodies including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and civil society and private sector representatives were all invited to the White House for the summit.

Their objective, according to the White House, was “to discuss concrete steps the United States and its partners can take to develop community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit or incite to violence.” More ambitiously, the CVE summit also focused on developing “a comprehensive action plan against violent extremism” globally.

Initial media coverage of the CVE summit revolved around the administration’s refusal to specifically name Islam (or Islamism) as the culprit, preferring to refer vaguely to terrorism. As it turned out, Republican complaints that Obama was refusing to name Islam as singularly responsible for violent extremism were largely unfounded. In an op-ed for the LA Times and later in a speech at the summit, the president focused heavily on Islam and Muslims (while tacking on the standard liberal qualifiers about terrorists having “perverted” Islam).

Obama’s op-ed highlighted supposed threats from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS) to the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP). It mentioned “deadly attacks” in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, and Copenhagen and concluded that the “campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.”

In his speech, Obama suggested that Muslim leaders also needed to play their prescribed roles in this battle for hearts and minds by doing more to “discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam.”

The fierce criticism of the summit hasn’t just come from the Right. A joint statement by a coalition that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Council on American Islamic Relations CAIR, DRUM–South Asian Organizing Center, and others represents the most comprehensive critique of these.

The signatories object to the stigmatization of American Muslim communities under CVE, which sets them apart as “inherently suspect” and falls under “a long line of programs that defines relationships with American Muslim communities based on a security lens, without meaningfully addressing civil and human rights problems.” The “nearly exclusive focus on Muslim communities” under CVE, the signatories argue, has also enabled hate crime by private actors.

Other objections include a reliance on flawed models of radicalization, the creation of a “climate of fear” through community surveillance over “the beliefs and expressive or associational activities of other Muslims,” the law enforcement’s deeply troubling record of “engagement” with American Muslim communities, and the government’s prerogative of picking specific religious and community partners to fund and collaborate with.

Such critiques are important in their own right. There certainly is a need to explicate the effects of government programs on their intended targets and as such, the joint statement — along with other similar critiques — plays a critical role in resisting the scapegoating of Muslim communities.

Also important, however, is the need to go beyond such critiques and ask why it is that government programs inevitably end up identifying Muslims as the source of terrorism (or “violent extremism” in the Obama administration’s favored parlance). Indeed, without asking about the government’s enduring fixation with Muslims, we are left thinking that the White House is merely misinformed about its approach and that the right information, delivered with sufficient earnestness and supplication, will help change it.

The problem is not that the Obama administration lacks the information to formulate an effective counter-extremism strategy that doesn’t scapegoat Muslims. The problem instead is that the most effective way to reduce the threat of terrorism is to retreat from empire.

It is no surprise that imperial wars and longstanding alliances with authoritarian states responsible for funding right-wing Islamist movements do not reduce the threat of terrorism. This holds true not just for “homegrown” terrorism but also for terrorist groups abroad. Unwilling to abandon policies that continually produce recruits for militant Islamism, the US falls back on blaming an ideology and the community which supposedly harbors it. Hence the focus on Muslims and the battle for “hearts and minds.”

Consider some of the terrorist groups Obama mentions in his op-ed. While much has already been written about the US role in the growth of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the TTP in Pakistan also owes much of its success to US policy in the region (along with America’s unsavory ally, Saudi Arabia).

Militant groups in Pakistan have long benefitted from state patronage and alliances with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. The former is perhaps the defining theme in mainstream media coverage of Pakistan’s ostensible “double game.” What is less often emphasized is the infrastructure established during the Afghan Jihad by the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, with US and Saudi funding, which produced thousands of militants.

According to an estimate by US officials, some fifteen thousand fighters were trained in “bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare” in Afghan camps that the CIA helped set up. As one American official told journalist Jason Burke in 1999, “we created a whole cadre of trained and motivated people who turned against us. It’s a classic Frankenstein’s monster situation.” The shared CIA and ISI strategy during the Afghan Jihad resulted in flooding the region “not only with all kinds of weapons but also with the most radical Islamist recruits.”

Already well established by the time the US invaded Afghanistan, militant groups in Pakistan were jolted into action by the war and its subsequent spread into the country. The militant landscape changed significantly after the Pakistani government’s decision to support the US war in Afghanistan.

Kashmir-oriented groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba all faced internal splits. Factions within these groups began to argue that by supporting US war efforts Pakistan had in effect become “a puppet of the Americans” and a legitimate target for jihad. Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), a local group in Swat that first emerged in 1994 to redress the legal vacuum in the valley by implementing shari’a, sent seven thousand volunteers to Afghanistan to fight the US. Not long after, the group would join TTP’s fight against the Pakistani state.

Anti-Shia sectarian outfits like the Sipah-e-Sahaba-Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi also developed closer links with the TTP. As an article in the Economist noted in 2012:

The violence has been notable not just for its scale, but for what lies beneath it: a growing alliance between established anti-Shia militant groups and the Pakistani Taliban, Sunni extremists who have spun out of the army’s control, allied with al-Qaeda, and are determined to attack the Pakistani state.

The reason behind this growing alliance, according to journalist Ahmed Rashid, was the growing conviction among sectarian groups that “the Pakistan Army was the lackey of the Americans and an enemy of Islam, so now God ordained them to overthrow Pakistan’s state through an Islamic revolution.”

As for the TTP, while various militant groups had been coalescing in Pakistan’s tribal areas since the US invasion of Afghanistan, the group was only formally established in late 2007— the Pakistani commando raid on the Red Mosque being its immediate catalyst. A 2011 report by the West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center admitted what by then had become obvious (even as it relegated this information to the footnotes): US drone warfare and US-subsidized Pakistani military operations inside the tribal areas played “central roles” in the creation of TTP and its violence against Pakistani targets.

Also important for the militant groups is the financial support they receive from donors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. According to State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks, militant groups in Pakistan “probably raise millions of dollars” in Saudi Arabia each year.

A secret December 2009 paper signed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed that donors in Saudi Arabia “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” specifically naming al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Another cable sent to the State Department by the US Consulate in Lahore pointed to a “sophisticated jihadi recruitment network” in the Pakistani province of Punjab that relied on “nearly 100 million USD annually” from sources in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

The TTP was not to remain exclusively focused on Pakistan. In 2010, it trained and funded Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square car-bomber. The story of how Shahzad arrived at a position where he embraced the TTP and attempted to carry out mass murder in Times Square further demonstrates the profound vacuity of the “hearts and minds” narrative.

Shahzad was troubled by and outraged at the US war machine, as various biographical portraits of him make clear, and sought a response. In 2006, for example, he wrote to a group of friends: “Can you tell me a way to save the oppressed? And a way to fight back when rockets are fired at us and Muslim blood flows? . . . Everyone knows how the Muslim country [sic] bows down to pressure from west. Everyone knows the kind of humiliation we are faced with around the globe.”

Ultimately, Shahzad gravitated toward a strain of militant Islamist ideology because it was able to provide an explanation, no matter how erroneous, that resonated with his own experience and common sense. It also offered a way to respond to US violence. As Shahzad pleaded guilty he told the court that “unless the United States pulls out of Afghanistan and Iraq, until they stop drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen and stop attacking Muslim lands, we will attack the United States and be out to get them.”

To suggest that the “violent extremist” threat, whether from individuals like Shahzad or groups like TTP, emerges simply from adherence to the wrong ideas is to overlook why the ideology itself has any appeal: in this case the Cold War uses of Islam against communism, the Saudi financial support to right-wing Islamist movements, and the post-9/11 US violence in dozens of Muslim-majority countries.

The CVE summit focuses on winning the “hearts and minds” of Muslims not because it must, nor because the government does not know any better, but because it usefully deflects attention away from US responsibility for terrorism. Additionally, by characterizing Muslims as a suspect population prone to violence, US violence against them becomes more defensible. This is the logic behind the summit: an attempt to counter “violent extremism” by dissociating itself from the imperial policies that continually empower it.