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The Vivekananda International Foundation, in collaboration with Facebook and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi organized a conference on the theme of ‘Opportunities for Multi-Stakeholder Partnership to Prevent and Counter Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ on the 16th-17th January 2017. This was a follow-up of the first such initiative which was hosted by the VIF, in association with the University of Maryland National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and Facebook in November 2015, and brought together policy experts, information and communication technology specialists, community leaders, strategic thinkers and academicians to discuss the challenge of radicalization, particularly in the South Asian context, and means to combat the same.
The chief aim of the conference was to initiate a reasoned and enlightened discourse seeking to address the challenge posed by extremist forces to the social fabric, which in the Indian context, has been characterized by values of tolerance, coexistence and harmonious collaboration. The panels covered diverse topics ranging from developing an understanding about the concept of radicalization, the uniqueness of the South Asian experience, development of counter-narrative frameworks, and the geopolitics of radicalization, among others. These efforts are aimed at helping to develop government, technology and community centric options for addressing the threat from the spread of violent extremism.
Gen N.C. Vij, Director, VIF, in his Welcome Address, set the tone for the deliberations by putting forth several pertinent questions. These pertained to the need to understand the fundamentalist mindset, seeking clarity on the causal factors of radicalization and extremism, and role and desirability of governments to devise and spread counter-narratives, local community-based intervention models, the phenomenon of online radicalization through the ubiquitous and much dangerous Sheikh Google, and the theme of state-sponsored terrorism. Gen Vij termed terrorism as the ‘challenge of our times’ and empathised the need to create an effective firewall against the insidious and hateful propaganda put out by extremist forces through sustained, integrated and proactive approaches.
The working sessions kicked off with a panel which discussed the conceptual dynamics of the phenomenon of radicalization. Mr Brian Fishman drew a detailed comparison between the tactics, recruitment strategies and battlefield techniques of the so-called Islamic State and other extremist groups like the Al-Qaeda, and the tactical shifts in the modus operandi of such groups over the past few decades. He also addressed the critical role played by social media in dealing with online propaganda extensively proliferated by radical outfits, and the counter-messaging frameworks which must therefore be calibrated and curated. Mr Sultan Shahin, by placing contemporary developments in their historical context, spoke of the need for a “revolutionary theological change”, which leads religion on a path of progress and enlightened reformation. Dr Adil Rasheed’s paper explored the conceptual underpinnings of terrorism and the nuances of fundamentalism, extremism and radicalization. Terrorism, he opined, is a “brutal, asymmetrical form of psychological warfare”, and it is the hypocrisy of its ideological exceptionalism which must be exposed and challenged. His presentation highlighted the salience of developing a collective national religious and philosophical temper and a common cultural ethos in the face of such divisive forces. This session was moderated by Mr Shahid Siddiqui who emphasised the need for contextual interpretation of religious texts which suits the dynamics of changing times.
The second session underlined on the uniqueness of the South Asian perspective, with a focus on the experience of India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This session was presided over by Lt Gen R.K. Sawhney, who defined the uniqueness of South Asia such that while civilizational values of mutual respect and tolerance guided the existence of the people of the region, the impact of extremist forces and havoc wrecked by their designs has left an indelible imprint on the common psyche, with no visible signs of retreat. Mr Faiz Sobhan’s paper sketched the threat landscape as perceived by Bangladesh, flagging the alarmism that Bangladesh’s secular traditions are at a serious risk due to rising extremism. Extremists may be under heavy pressure due to crackdown by security agencies, but reports validating fears of continued recruitment and radicalization abound. The uniqueness of Bangladesh, as expressed by Mr Sobhan, is its identity as a “moderate Muslim nation with secular characteristics and a strong Bengali nationalist identity”, which must be guarded and reinforced. Mr Tufail Ahmad identified two major trends of radicalization being witnessed in South Asia: self radicalization, and proactive recruitment by terror groups based abroad which, he opined, is relatively new and constitutes only a minor portion of the threat, but a large and dangerous portion of radicalization in South Asia is state backed – by the Pakistani ISI. He also voiced his support for a reform in the educational curriculum to give greater emphasis to subjects rooted in science and rationality. Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, while maintaining the focus of his presentation on the tactical aspects of India’s counter-radicalization policy, traced the evolution of extremist strains within Islam in the South Asian region particularly in the Indian context since the earliest times till date, expatiating on key milestones which strengthened the divisive narrative of radical forces through history. His presentation served to remind the audience that while the Indian social fabric may yet be relatively well guarded against the deeper penetration of such ideas, the challenge has acquired a form at which it must no longer be negated or brushed under the carpet. He supported the argument previously raised that an enlightened policy of counter-radicalization must entail a comprehensive study of Islam to better its effectiveness.
The third session discussed the various counter-narrative frameworks to be developed to challenge radicalization and violent extremism. This session was chaired by Ms Ankhi Das who set the context for the next hour of deliberations by invoking the salience of counter-speech frameworks which put “people at the centre” and are driven by grass-root groups through ground mobilization who then spearhead well-intentioned self organized campaigns, both online and offline. Ms Sara Zeiger spoke at length about the Counter-Narrative library project, pioneered by the Hedayah centre, which is aimed at coalescing ideological and religious narratives, government campaigns, factual counter-narratives and alternatives to violence. Her presentation focused on the various push and pull factors which define an individual’s journey through the abyss of violent radicalization, in the particular context of South-East Asia, and the counter-narratives which must be strengthened in accordance with the ‘best-practices’ approach which harnesses the power of regional diversity and creates opportunities for cross-ethnic and cross-religious dialogues. Dr Zubair Meenai began his presentation by addressing the need to cure inherent biases in framing definitions which impose a problematic binary upon the mainstream. He presented the key findings of the ‘Peer-to-Peer Challenge’ undertaken by his students at Jamia Millia Islamia in a bid to deconstruct and simplify globalized (Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) approaches. Significantly, while appreciating the outcome of such programmes, he underscored the necessity of approaching this immensely ‘sensitive’ concern with a certain degree of expertise which can be built through diligent and sustained research directed at addressing the issue in totality, with an accepting and open mind. Dr Ali Khan Mahmudabad, in his presentation ‘Bespoke CVE’ addressed key questions which deal with the intentions and goals driving counter-messaging techniques, the language to be employed and challenges encountered in dealing with issues tailor-made to suit the context under consideration. Dr Khan invoked the ‘Metaphor of the Matrix’ to define the various factors which propel radicalization into violent extremism, as opposed to a linear approach which considers religion and religious motivations as the sole driver of radicalization. Counter-narratives must thus address each of these variables in totality, aiming to facilitate the initiation and continuation of a continuous and engaging dialogue. Haji Syed Salman Chishty, in his presentation, celebrated the inclusive and encompassing cultural motifs, particularly through the Sufi traditions, which are unique to Indian milieu, and emphasised the need to preserve and popularize them. Proactive counter-messaging must engage all relevant stakeholders – government, civil society, religious leaders, and academicians – in order to develop and project a strain of thought which defeats the hate, violence and exclusion creeping into the social fabric.
The second day of the conference was inaugurated by H.E. Amb. Richard Verma, the Ambassador of the USA to India. Amb Verma congratulated the sustained partnership between the US Embassy, New Delhi and the VIF on several key issues and painted an optimistic picture of the relations between his country and India in times to come. Turning to the issue at hand, Amb Verma termed terrorism as a “nebulous” problem which requires to be studied from multiple perspectives – psychology, religion, ideology – to better the scholarly edifice which shapes the practitioner’s approaches. The Ambassador identified Daesh as a “clear and present threat, including in South Asia”, and underscored the threat posed by self-radicalized, home-grown, lone wolf terrorists, as they trespass the conventional confines of territorial boundaries, piggy-backing on the fluidity of the digital space. It is therefore imperative to identify, trace, track and ultimately destroy the nefarious designs of those who seek to pose a threat to the stability and security of national and international systems, a unique responsibility which must be undertaken by all concerned stakeholders, in the spirit of a common vision.
The fourth session of the conference dealt with the geopolitics of radicalization. This session was moderated by Amb Kanwal Sibal who set the context for the discussion by stating that geopolitical considerations often, and unfortunately outweigh the dangers posed by radical ideologies as perceived by states and other international actors. Mr Amrullah Saleh, in his presentation, engaged with six immensely interesting, but equally challenging concepts: the Sufi versus the Madrassa and Wahabbi concept of God; what should be reformed – the region or the religion; a brief history of violent extremism in Afghanistan and the impact it carried on the region in particular and the global dynamics in general; the current state of extremism and violent insurgency and the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan; the reasons why consensus has fragmented and the region is no longer looking at the issue of terrorism from a common lens; and what can and must be done to combat this challenge. The questions raised by Mr Saleh were carried forward by Mr Sushant Sareen’s presentation underscored the essence of the phenomenon of states exploiting radical elements for their own convenient ends, unmindful of the potency of the devilish forces they unleash and the unintended consequences which follow suit. Mr Sareen also addressed the strategic disconnect in the manner in which states choose to respond to the impending threat, and the how the jihadists, despite ideological and tactical divergences are approaching their task. Ms Juhi Ahuja’s presentation delineated the various de-radicalization and counter-radicalization approaches that have been implemented in the states of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, which through their multi-vector models have emerged as interesting case studies for building social resilience against the spread of radical ideologies.
The fifth panel focussed its attention on evaluating a multi-pronged approach to respond to the challenge of radicalization. This panel was chaired by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain who in his introductory remarks put forth a compelling set of questions which were effectively taken on by the speakers in their individual presentations. These touched aspects pertaining to the legitimate use of force and its rate of success, and the potentiality of building a long term approach involving political, diplomatic and social efforts. Mr Arif Mohammad Khan highlighted the need to lay emphasis on the ‘interpretability’ of the Quranic verses, invoked in the spirit of contextuality, and the critical essentiality to undertake an extensive study of the subject, holistically and without bias or prejudice. Mr Irfan Saeed, in describing the multi-pronged, multi-stakeholder approach enforced by the United States since 2009, flagged the ‘five buckets of activity’ which identify a comprehensive CVE program, and aid a community’s efforts at building resilience against the broader spread of violent extremism. This involves: Research, Prevention, Intervention, Rehabilitation/Reintegration and Strategic Messaging. This was taken forward by Mr RaffaelloPantucci, who in his presentation sketched the heterogeneity in motivations and responses to radicalization. It would be foolhardy to expect a unified response across all spectrums, but the multifarious strands standing up against this challenge must speak from the same page while synthesising their interests and intentions. Dr Ajai Sahni, harped on the necessity and centrality of coercive measures – the idea of instrumentalising a legitimate use of violence. Pertinently, he also called into question the myth of ‘online radicalization’, mentioning that the internet only acts as a medium which facilitates the actions of individuals who are already radicalized – a hardened belief system already exists, online material only aids the execution of intentions.
The Valedictory Session was addressed by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Deputy National Security Advisor, Government of India. Taking note of the scourge of radicalism and violence entrenching its roots in society, Dr Gupta emphasised the fact that the solution to such extremism lay best in a ‘rule of law approach’ guided by the values of the Indian Constitution. Governments and local communities must share equal responsibility for the creation of cultures of tolerance and reconciliation, and initiate and sustain intra-civilizational and inter-faith dialogue. It is important to take a holistic approach in addressing the challenge, and reinforce political, social, cultural and religious approaches with a “measured, calibrated and legitimate use of force.” The need for preventive measures which rely on a proactive rather than reactive model was also reiterated, with a special focus on streamlining the discourse of tolerance and peaceful coexistence through education. The DNSA concluded on a note of optimism, invoking the strength of the Indian value system which cherishes the ideal of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakum’ – the world is one family – as the core of its philosophical conceptualisation.
In his closing remarks, Gen N.C. Vij summarized the two-day proceedings and highlighted some of the several key issues which were raised in various sessions. These include, the essentiality of framing counter-narratives with an eye on trans-national, inter-faith and cross-cultural cooperation to put an end to alienation which fuels conflict; coordinate counter and de-radicalization efforts through multiple channels involving the government, think tanks, NGOs, academic and religious institutions by framing narratives which weaken the discourse of violence in what may best be described as a battle of ideas and narratives; promoting in-depth qualitative research which question the flawed and bigoted fundamentals of those pursuing polarising ends; and the critical need to consolidate and champion the inclusive narrative of tolerance and co-existence which has defined the uniqueness of the Indian example.