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Rather than costly, reactionary military intervention, the US should help tackle violent extremism by supporting local and peer-to-peer approaches that address root causes of violence and support young people at risk of recruitment to turn away from violence.
By Saba Ismail, Michael Olufemi Sodipo, and Bridget Moix
The new budget proposed by President Trump, as predicted, consists of major cuts to important programs such as the State Department, USAID, and other domestic and international civilian programs by 29%, while bolstering investment in military spending in order to combat violent extremism.
This is not a formula that will “destroy” them or “protect” us, but will make it even harder to stop them and make us safer. As individuals who have dedicated our lives to addressing the root causes of extremist violence in key countries of concern to the US, we caution the president and Congress to rethink how to tackle the problems our world is facing. A return to the counterproductive approaches of militarized counter-terrorism, and an analysis of the problem of extremism through only an “America First” lens, will likely fuel the very violence the president claims to address, cost more lives in the US and around the world, and further undermine US security and standing in the world.
Rather than costly, reactionary military intervention, the US should help tackle violent extremism by supporting local and peer-to-peer approaches that address root causes of violence and support young people at risk of recruitment to turn away from violence. Local peacebuilding approaches invest in proven methods of dialogue, early intervention and education, and civic engagement that hold out the greatest hope for reducing the spread of extremist ideology and empowering a new generation of leaders for peace.
The importance of community-led prevention and peacebuilding approaches to reduce global violence and extremism are increasingly being recognized. Violent extremism is the result of the broader epidemic of violent conflict and fragility. Exposure to violence is the single-largest driver of violence. An overwhelming 88% of all terrorist attacks occur in countries involved in violent conflict. A whole-of-society approach that addresses fundamental social and political drivers of extremism must be an integral part of any strategy.
We know these methods work because we use them every day. Here are two examples.
Aware Girls, founded by two sisters to empower and educate girls and young women in Northwest Pakistan, taps into the power of youth and non-violent, non-military approaches to counter and prevent violent extremism. In 2009, we established the Youth Peace Network to create a conducive environment for young people to resist violent recruitment and collaborate toward a culture of peacebuilding, co-existence and non-violence.
The Youth Peace Network uses a peer-to-peer education model in which young people reach out to other young people vulnerable to violent ideologies and recruitment by militant groups. It provides them with alternative narratives based on non-violence and compassion.
While empowering young women and girls is our focus, we also work with young men to re-educate and engage them in positive peacebuilding. For example, Jehangir is one young person from tribal areas of Pakistan who heard about Aware Girls and came to one of our training sessions because he was very angry with the work we did and wanted to disrupt it.
Once he joined our workshops, he had the opportunity to meet with other young people, to hear the alternative narratives of non violence and peace, and the different stories of other young people like him.
That was the day he realized that he has the power to build peace in his community. It was the day he decided that he would work to defy the extremism in his community. After the training he went back to his community and began connecting other young people together to share their stories and promote positive narratives of peace.
He also started engaging Imams (religious leaders) in his village and convinced them that they should preach non violence and co-existence in their Friday sermons rather than inciting communities to commit violence. Finally, he realized that defying extremism is not just about co existence and pluralism, it is also about empowering young women and striving for gender equality. He became the first man in his village to take his mother and sisters to vote in the elections.
This is the power of young people when we see them as partners and invest in them as peacebuilders. Networks like the Youth Peace Network make youth feel significant and help them to contribute meaningfully to building justice and equality in their communities.
Established in 2004, PIN is a Nigerian peacebuilding organization which helps mitigate violent conflict through peace education, advocacy, and vocational training for young people. Muslim and Christian youths from diverse ethnic groups are trained as peer educators and life coaches to encourage values of tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution.
Through weekly sport and peace education sessions, public lectures and summer peace camps, young people across ethnic and religious lines work together to promote inclusion and diversity, reducing their vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups.
The Peace Club program of PIN brings young people from diverse communities and backgrounds in northern Nigeria—Muslims and Christians, indigenous and settlers together in high schools and local football clubs to address the cause of deep-rooted prejudice and stereotypes that have contributed to violent conflict in northern Nigeria.
The Club started in 2006 with 50 members now has over 8,000 members from 60 high schools and colleges in four northern states. Over 60,000 young people have been reached since the program began. The life skills learned through the sport program for children and youth empowers young people in local communities in Nigeria and enhance their psychosocial well-being, resilience, self- esteem and connections with others.
Rather than pouring vast sums of money into ineffective military approaches, while slashing budgets for civilian diplomacy and development, the Trump administration and Congress should help lead a major new international initiative to reduce global violence, using methods that have proven to work over the long-term.
The world economy loses $13.6 trillion a year to violence. Violence also results in millions of deaths indirectly through conflict-related issues such as disease and food insecurity. Breaking the cycle of violence is key to American and global security.
About the authors
Saba Ismail co-founded Aware Girls in Pakistan and was named one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2013. She serves as a member of the UN’s advisory group for Youth, Peace, and Security. Michael Olufemi Sodipo founded the Peace Initiative Network in Northern Nigeria and has been recognized internationally for his work on engaging youth to prevent violent extremism. Bridget Moix is US Senior Representative for Peace Direct, an international NGO dedicated to supporting local peacebuilders around the world.
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A statement from U.S. Executive Director Bridget Moix following the violence at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6th, 2021. Read more »