Adonis Diaries

The Challenge of Defining Violent Extremism 

Posted on: January 12, 2019

The Challenge of Defining Violent Extremism

Omar Nashabe, Criminal Justice and Human Rights analyst

January 2019

This article is part of a series published by LCPS with the support of the Embassy of Switzerland on Preventing Violent Extremism in Lebanon. In this piece, Dr. Omar Nashabe examines and details concerns with defining violent extremism broadly and offers a definition best suited to the Lebanese context. In response to the United Nations’ call to member states to develop a Preventive Violent Extremism (PVE) strategy in 2016, the Lebanese government swiftly moved to do so. (Nothing in Lebanon is as swift as talking and armchair babbling)

A key element of such a strategy is precisely defining violent extremism in order Not to conflate it with concepts like radicalization, fundamentalism, and intolerance, particularly as it could also be erroneously associated with a specific religion (Islam) or ideology (anarchy, white supremacy, the radical left, etc.).

While the Lebanese government definition seems promising, it needs to be elaborated on in order to avoid confusion and guide policy-making. (This is a first:  guide policy-making?)

Any serious and credible attempt to address VE requires a more sober definition, one which goes beyond reducing to terrorism that which is, in fact, the outcome of a participatory process and consultation.

There are two concerns regarding efforts to define VE.

The first concern centers on how the UN associated VE with terrorism by adding “as and when conducive to terrorism” to the concept of violent extremism in its Global Counter Terrorism Strategy.

This association is problematic in that not all VE acts are conducive to terrorism. For instance, while violent extremists may act collectively, be ideologically motivated, and have well-defined objectives and methods—hence in such cases extremist violence is probably conducive to terrorism—violent extremism may also be the product of individual acts driven by circumstantial facts and less affected by ideology.

In such cases, violent extremism may not be conducive to terrorism. This is an important distinction to make, namely, that actions associated with VE and terrorism may in some cases overlap but not in all cases.

The second concern centers on how the Lebanese government has defined VE in its strategy.

According to the National Strategy for the Prevention of Violent Extremism, “VE is the propagation of individual and social hatred that may lead to societal violence, namely the rejection of diversity and disobedience, the use of violence as a means of expression and influence, and behavior that threatens societal values that govern social stability.” (Does this include civil disobedience? And what social values should be retained after generation living under pseudo-governments?)

While this definition has sound elements, it requires further elaboration and clarity. For example, it is not clear what “rejection of diversity and disobedience” means. More precisely, does “rejection” pertain to both “diversity” and “disobedience” and does the latter refer to civil disobedience as well?

Two, it should be noted that the use of violence as a means of expression may not always amount to violent extremism (for example using violence to express rejection of foreign occupation).

Third, there is a need to identify specific “Societal values that govern social stability”.

Although Lebanon developed its legal definition of terrorism in 1958, like most other UN member states, it has formulated a seemingly inadequate working definition of violent extremism.

The term inherently refers to the degree of a certain action but does not precisely qualify it. This point is well illustrated by the fact that PVE measures in many states are poorly defined, often with the intent of using PVE measures to suppress political opposition or ideological dissent.

In many of these states, legislation against violent extremism has been used to target journalists, religious groups, or critics of state policy.

To this end, I suggest adopting the following definition of violent extremism in the Lebanese context:

Intolerant and aggressive persons or groups, thriving on conflicts and wars, and engaging, or planning to engage, in offenses involving brutal armed aggression aimed at hurting, degrading, or exterminating others and, in some cases, motivated by interpretations of religious or political ideology.”(How this definition has Lebanon in context?)

This definition should be understood within the context of violent extremism existing along a spectrum, one which spans from encompassing individuals or groups of people engaging in the aforementioned behaviors to a range of motivations for these individuals or groups exhibiting violent extremist characteristics, spanning from circumstantial to ideological convictions.

Effective PVE strategies must be based on proper diagnosis and precise understandings of violent extremism that take into account cultural, political, and socio-economic contexts.

First, violent extremism seems to be motivated by hate; religious, social, and cultural intolerance; and in some cases, by an ideology that accepts or encourages extreme violence against others who do not share the same thoughts, identity, or culture.

Second, the connection between violence and extremism appears static, and violent extremists are radical in the sense that they are inflexible, non-negotiable, and do not accept peaceful conflict resolution. (Is Lebanon political structure based on peaceful conflict resolution?)

Third, violent extremism is frequent in conflict zones, where it is heavily motivated by ideologies based on non-mainstream interpretations of religion and culture and where people have lost hope in the ability of democratic governments to provide basic needs. Violent extremists are not necessarily members of an organization, however, they most likely have had direct or indirect contact with other extremists or with a specific extremist group that advocates for extreme violence.

Lastly, although violent extremist action may be conducive to encouraging or perpetuating acts of terrorism and may itself be a “terrorist” crime, this may not be the case for all violent extremists.

Based on the profile of violent extremists, they seem to share certain characteristics: They are intolerant, aggressive, and thrive on conflicts and wars. They are characterized by their willingness to engage in or plan actions entailing brutal armed aggression and are often motivated by religious or political ideology. (These are Not characteristics: they are consequences)

In fact, violent extremists can be classified into three types.

The first type is closely associated with ideology, comprising those connected to known terrorist organizations, making them easier to define on account of their objectives, ideology, and methods being apparent. This type is more collective and encompasses violent extremists who, for instance, adhere to the ideology of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, and rely on Al-Qaeda as a reference for “religious” guidance. (Does that include Zionism ideology and Wahhabi sect doctrine?)

Both the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Osbat al-Ansar group’s objectives are based on the establishment of an Islamic state and the extermination of “disbelievers.” Violent extremist groups of this type leave no room for moderate positions. Their radicalized narrative is centered on violent conflict with all those who disagree with their ideology, including state and religious institutions and supporters of secularism in the Arab region and in the West.

The second type of violent extremists in Lebanon is less associated with ideology as they are primarily members of offshoots of Lebanese militias and political parties. They are not as clearly defined as the first type and do not strictly follow the instructions of their political leaders. Rather, they represent an extremist trend within their communities. Offshoots of militias and political parties show signs of religious, social, and cultural intolerance, as well as aspirations to brutally exterminate rivals.

Supporters of such violent extremism are either former combatants who participated in the civil war and were pardoned by the 1990 Amnesty Law, or young individuals motivated by religious and political propaganda.

Recent examples of this type of violent extremism include violent attacks against Al-Jadeed television for criticizing a political leader; sectarian/religious tension in Jbeil (Lassa); and hate speech and vicious language used by supporters of political/sectarian groups on social media. (Particularly in university student elections?)

The third type of violent extremism is not connected to an ideology and is based on individual and circumstantial initiatives. It comprises sporadic perpetrators of violence and is the least well defined. In fact, the perpetrators seem unstable and do not refer to a specific political movement and may belong to any religious group.

The perpetrators of this type of violence are, however, instigators of social panic. The influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon six years ago led to the escalation of racist, xenophobic, and violent reactions in various parts of the country.

These violent reactions were mostly verbal and economic in nature, however, since the Lebanese Army began engaging militant groups on the border with Syria, incidents of violent extremism targeting Syrian refugees and Syrian workers have become more frequent, and some Lebanese have started to show support for such violent extremism.

Based on the types of VE, there is need to develop a more dynamic understanding of the causes and circumstances that exacerbate religious, social, and cultural intolerance as well as the use of brutal and violent means of expression.

These points highlight that clarity is vital when conceptualizing violent extremism in the Lebanese context, particularly as these definitions will be referenced when formulating or implementing future policies on matters involving the threat of extremism.

Note: I can understand that an individual terrorist enters a house and assassinate every member. When every Daesh member does this in every instance when occupying a town, it is far beyond brainwashing or religious zeal: it is colonial powers testing drugs that render an individual totally insensitive to human life.

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