Social cohesion to counter terrorism, violent extremism

Social cohesion to counter terrorism, violent extremism

Sana Malik May 22, 2021

In today’s world, terrorism and violent extremism are complex multi-faceted issues that transcend national borders. Unlike terrorism, there is no universally accepted definition of violent extremism. International organisations such as the UN, the EU and NATO do not follow a single definition. The USAID qualifies violent extremism as “advocating, engaging in, preparing or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic or political objectives”, whereas violent extremism is considered to be a broader term even if the two may be used interchangeably. Simply put, terrorism is the “use of violence to create fear for political, religious or ideological reasons”. Terror is intentionally aimed at civilians to achieve the greatest attainable publicity for a group, cause or individual.

The phenomena of violent extremism and terrorism have been permeating the world over. The use of violence has a very profound and direct impact on humanity, which means it knows no border, nationality, or religion. It has devastating consequences for its victims whose right to life, liberty, security, and personal integrity has been compromised. This makes it a human rights issue which not only has individual cost, but can also jeopardise international community, peace, and security and threaten socio-economic development. The work to counter and combat the threat of violent extremism and terrorism, therefore, should be based on how to integrate all segments of society.

In order to devise counterterrorism strategies, it is important to consider the push and pull factors of violent extremism and terrorism to administer more focused and meaningful preventive efforts. Push factors are structural within the society whilst pull factors are psychological that may render individuals to become more vulnerable to adopting violent extremist behaviour. Push factors are conditions conducive to violent extremism and terrorism and the structural context from which it emerges such as socio-economic disparities, marginalisation and discrimination, poor governance, violations of human rights and delays in conflict resolution, and radicalisation in prisons. Whereas, pull factors are individual motivations and processes, which transform ideas and grievances into violent extremist action such as individual backgrounds, collective grievances and victimisation stemming from domination, oppression, subjugation or foreign intervention, distortion and misuse of beliefs, political ideologies, ethnic and cultural differences, and leadership and social networks. It is important to note that none of these drivers can be considered in isolation since multiple factors are involved. Understanding the root causes of terrorism can lead to better prevention policies.

The most important aspect of preventing extremism is integration and inclusivity of all segments. In the US, for instance, many social rituals like Halloween are celebrated throughout the year. Owing to prevailing cultural norms, economic opportunities and equality under law, the US seems to achieve integration of people belonging to different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. It doesn’t mean that there is complete harmony because social disparities do exist. As far as immigrants are concerned, within a generation or two, Mexican Americans, Italian Americans, and Iranian Americans are just Americans with a single national identity card and the same rights and obligations. This is in stark contrast to immigrants in Europe who may feel like second-class citizens, which may inflame feelings of hatred and are misguided in their search for a sense of belonging, triggering religious, ethnic, and ideological differences.  

In Pakistan’s context, issues of ethnic diversity unfortunately caused division instead of creating harmony. Pakistan is a country with a unique ethnic and religious diversity. Though all citizens are equal under the law, not all ethnic and religious identities are given adequate representation according to the Constitution which means that they come into conflict and feel an imbalance in the society. Ethnicity has emerged as the most significant issue in Pakistan and in creating a national identity out of diverse regional, religious, and linguistic loyalties. Pakistan’s security landscape thus remains volatile and complex due to ethnic tensions coupled with the web of terrorist and militant groups present in the country. These have repercussions not only for internal linkages but also give rise to external conflict with powerful forces in the region.

Pakistan needs programmes to address the underlying violence in communities by moving beyond the labeling of youths as victims or perpetrators of violence to engage them in peace-building efforts, giving them ownership of their efforts, and providing them opportunities to encourage the use of music, sport, media and IT for peace projects that promote tolerance, conflict resolution, reconciliation and interfaith harmony.

Social integration through targeted educational programmes is key in the fight against terrorism. In Pakistan, the education system is not on a par with the international system – a matter of grave concern. There is a lack of access to quality education making young Pakistanis targets of extremist groups. Net primary enrollment rates remain low; there are three parallel educational systems (private, public, and madrassas), resulting in a lack of equal opportunities for all students. The education system suffers due to inadequate investment from government, corruption, lack of institutional capacity, inadequate number of trained teachers and poor curriculum. To counter violent extremism and terrorism, the government needs to allocate sufficient budgets for education, increase private-public partnerships, introduce modern subjects in madrassas, build capacity of teachers, reform curriculum, improve teaching aid materials and give incentives to improve enrollment and retention. 

Another group to consider for integration is perhaps the disenfranchised, poor and unemployed. This is because those out of jobs and in need of financial assistance may get recruited and form potential militias of political violence. Poverty can cause resentment and force many to turn to violence to express their outrage towards social inequality. In the Middle East, many citizens do not have jobs, which causes a lower standard of living. This forces people to become angry as they lose the ability to achieve what others may, creating internal conflict within certain areas or groups, making it more likely for terrorism to occur. When people are dissatisfied with the state of their lives and living standards, they are more likely to turn to extreme measures or become ideal candidates for terrorist organisations to recruit.       

Other factors, which may marginalise or cause lack of integration and assimilation in society can be political factors such as government repression. Undemocratic societies cause people to suffer repression. Studies show that terrorism has a strong link with social injustice propagated at the hands of governments and people may resort to violence to fight against political wrongdoings. It appears that terrorism is a global phenomenon, which transcends national boundaries and does not occur in a social vacuum, that it is caused by interaction between an individual, society and the state. Social disintegration can alienate individuals and groups so they may resort to terrorism to satisfy their grievances. Social cohesion is required to combat violent extremism and terrorism to perpetuate a sense of ownership in deterring people from exploring options and resorting to violent extremism and terrorism. This, however, needs to be practised globally where international cooperation is sustained and a universal rights-based approach is incorporated in building capacities to leave no one behind in efforts to counter terrorism and to promote peaceful and inclusive societies.