Why work on Preventing Violent Extremism?
In recent years, Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) frameworks have been increasingly being used by development actors. This recent trend has been strongly criticised, with some rejecting any engagement in projects that are referring to PVE concepts. In this blog post, HAD’s Head of Research Dr Jennifer Philippa Eggert looks at why it may be worth engaging with debates on PVE anyway.
PVE: A controversial approach
Debates on Preventing Violent Extremism have received significant amounts of attention in recent years. PVE concepts and frameworks have increasingly started to creep into development spaces – often encouraged by considering funding opportunities in this area. This has not always been well-received by civil society actors and some researchers. There is no question about it – the topic is controversial.
Many Muslims and people of colour in particular are suspicious of the concept and the practices it has led to. Critics have denounced PVE as being inherently racist and Islamophobic and pointed to the divisive and exclusionary character of many PVE strategies. Critical voices include the Open Society Justice Initiative, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Assembly, and the UK’s terror watchdog, in addition to community groups and academics. Some civil society organisations have opted for a general boycott of any PVE initiatives and full-out refuse to engage. Looking at existing PVE programmes, one cannot deny that how that the way in which many PVE strategies are being conceptualised and implemented is indeed inherently problematic. Given this context, why would one decide to work on PVE anyway?
A personal experience
As a Muslim, I have long been hesitant to work on terrorism and violent extremism. I remember a course being offered on the topic at my university in the early 2000s, and even though I was interested in the topic, I decided not to take the seminar, because it just seemed so cliché – the Muslim studying terrorism…
It was not until much later, in 2010/11, that I started working on the topic – first from an academic perspective, and then with an international organisation in Vienna and a grassroots charity working with refugee women in London. I looked at terrorism and violent extremism from a gender perspective, and ended up being so fascinated by the topic that I started a PhD on female militants and fighters in non-state violent organisations. The PhD led to other experiences, such as a consultancy on women’s roles in preventing violent extremism in Lebanon, and many talks in front of academic and non-academic audiences, including for the Council of Europe and at the UN. I now have almost 10 years of experience working on terrorism, violent extremism and PVE. I see a lot of the work that has been done on the topic extremely critically. However, I also think that it is important to contribute to debates on the topic – for two major reasons.
Violent extremism affects us all
Regardless of what we think of many conventional PVE programmes, violent extremism is an issue that affects us all. It does so directly (as any of us could be caught up in a terrorist attack) and indirectly (in the form of poorly conceived, harmful counter-terrorism policies that divide and alienate). The work of many in the academic, public and NGO sector is guided by a will to change things for the better. Poverty, public health, road safety, discrimination, climate change, education – our societies face many issues, and people rightly work to address them. Violent extremism is one of them, so why would we not want to work towards countering it?
Adding critical voices and diverse perspectives
There is a second reason why I think that categorically ruling out any form of engagement with PVE is often not the most advisable approach. Think about it this way: if all those who are critical of the concept refrain from participating in debates on the topic, who is going to add a critical perspective? Who is going to ask difficult questions? Who is going to point out a lot of these debates for what they are – pretty exclusionary and often also a bit racist? The reality is that these debates are going to be led anyway, decisions are going to be made anyway, and policies are being shaped anyway – if we do not participate, how are we going to make sure that our voices are being heard?
When I attend roundtables on PVE and violent extremism, I am often the only Muslim on the panel – sometimes even in the room. If I decided not to engage, it would often literally be a bunch of white, non-Muslim, male speakers debating how violent extremism affects our societies. Is that what we want?
Let’s start the conversation now
A lot of harm has been caused in recent years by poorly conceived and implemented PVE strategies. It is understandable that this has led many to be extremely sceptical of anything that has to do with PVE. However, I am not sure if ignoring the topic is the most advisable strategy in this context. Let’s keep our scepticism, let’s not tone down our criticisms – but let’s consider engagement. Because if we don’t, we literally have no chance whatsoever to challenge existing discourses and practices that affect us all. To rephrase a famous quote, Preventing Violent Extremism is too important to be left to PVE experts. We need civil society in there – let’s start the conversation now.