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Why countering violent extremism programs are failing

30th June 2017

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Dr Clarke Jones holds a PhD from the University of New South Wales, which examined the burring roles of the military and police in response to non-traditional security threats.

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This article first appeared in APPS Policy Forum on 1 June 2017

Many young Muslims are growing up feeling pressured that they need to justify they are safe members of the community, writes Clarke Jones. They want to be treated as equal citizens rather than members of ‘suspect communities’. We need better-designed programs that properly engage communities and acknowledge the underlying issues if we really want to counter violent extremism.

As governments continue to roll out counter violent extremism (CVE) programs in Australia, it is important to do a reality check as to whether communities or individuals voluntarily engage in those programs, and whether the programs have sound evidence bases. Because without adequate community consultation, CVE programs in Australia will continue to be problematic or even fail. This is particularly the case when they may not be reaching the right target audience or contain the necessary elements of best practice for youth interventions.

If governments are serious about CVE in Australia and stopping the types of attacks witnessed recently in the United Kingdom, then more effective alternative approaches are urgently required – ones that are co-designed from the ground up and led by communities.

This week a puff of fresh air was breathed into the sector when the NSW Counter Terrorism Minister, David Elliott, launched the new helpline ‘Step Together’. After consultation with 240 community organisations, the helpline is a well-consulted and well-designed program. There are also a couple of other community-focused programs run by the Victorian Government, but I am unaware of any evaluation of those initiatives.

However, unlike the Minister’s claims that “attitudes within the Muslim community towards engaging with the government have shifted 180 degrees“, I would argue quite the opposite.

The rise of reactionary politics and politicians, and the moves towards a ‘security first’ (at all costs) approach by the federal and state governments, will continue to mean that communities will be cautious when cooperating with them or involving themselves in any CVE-focused program. Having said that, Muslim community relationships do vary between states and some groups or individuals have more substantial government relationships, mostly by way of funding opportunities.

These observations may appear critical, but they are largely based on two years of ethnographic research conducted with Muslim community groups in Melbourne and Sydney. In that period, I have spent time developing trusted friendships and partnerships with some community groups – and there are many – and participated in events like youth camps, sporting activities, religious lectures, family events, and council (or Shura) meetings. Where necessary, I have also conducted semi-structured and unstructured interviews with some community leaders, Sheikhs, Imams and community representatives. Along with community engagement, I have also consulted with domestic and international governments in an attempt to better understand their policies and strategies surrounding countering terrorism and CVE.

What I have discovered in that time is that governments are struggling to make headway in addressing violent extremism, largely due to a lack of genuine grassroots consultation in the development and application of policy, strategies and responses.

This struggle has led to responses that are risk-based and police-led rather than community developed and driven. Many interventions, so far, have lacked the right cultural, ethnic, and religious nuances to adequately address a young person’s needs. Instead, programs have been developed with limited ecological validity, little evidence, or few reliable evaluation measures to test the efficacy of those initiatives.

Current government policies to counter radicalisation and violent extremism are often criticised by Muslim communities because they lack any real connection to what is happening on the ground, such as the actual problems experienced by young Muslims and their families. On the ground, these communities – like most others in Australia – are more concerned about their kids’ potential involvement in drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and youth crimes, rather than radicalisation or violent extremism.

Instead, government responses have tended to be CVE-focused rather than working with communities to develop grassroots solutions that also address a range of more pressing issues. This top-down approach has resulted in very little ‘buy-in’ by young people or their families and communities. Also, if an approach is wrong or focused on the wrong issues, misdirected programs can potentially exacerbate the underlying problems that led young people to offend in the first place.

Within the communities themselves, finding the right solutions or support for parents to help their children out of these difficult situations can be a traumatic experience, particularly when they are uncertain about where to go for help. In many cases, they lack trust in government agencies or even in the social service providers external to their communities. This is where a well-constructed and community-connected helpline can be beneficial.

For most young people, the journey from adolescence to adulthood is complex and challenging. Piled on top of the stresses of everyday life, problems like racism, discrimination and being constantly under suspicion create additional difficulties for young Muslims growing up in an unaccepting Australian society. While most will grow in positive directions (with help or without), some of the more vulnerable can end up being influenced by harmful social media and/or negative social circles. Added to this, the rise of far-right conservative politics and the media’s habitual scrutiny of Islamic affairs is placing Muslim families under increasing pressure, with many feeling that they must constantly justify their place in society and prove that they are safe members of that society.

As a result, many young Muslims are today growing up in stressful family and community environments, making the already difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood even more challenging. This can result in several outcomes, including gang membership, drug and alcohol offending or other harmful associations and behaviours – in most cases, not radicalisation as government discourse would have us believe.

With co-designed interventions, grassroots programs are more likely to be trusted by participants and more likely to be culturally and religiously appropriate to the needs of the young person. Those requiring support can be placed into a ‘community of care’, which is co-designed with qualified specialists to stand a better chance of preventing the kinds of situations that have typically led to a police response and/or a criminal justice system outcome. While the latter may well be an outcome favoured by some, it is not socially – or economically – sustainable, nor will it keep us safe in the long run.

You may be interested in this seminar by Clarke Jones on 11 July 2017 - Re-examining security-based approaches to CVE.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet