Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 08/2008

Countering Violent Extremism: Beyond Words

Amy Zalman

May 2008

EastWest Institute


The last seven years have seen leading Americans falter in their communications about violent extremists and the communities believed to be fostering them. Policymakers, journalists, and community leaders have reached an impasse in crafting a common understanding of how to describe the link between religion and violent extremism, both from a factual point of view and in terms of what might be effective in undermining the appeal of extremist movements. This paper begins at this impasse. It reviews the choices to be made about language and rhetoric in U.S. public discourse as elements of a necessarily broader communications strategy to counter violent extremism. It takes account of how these choices flow through the global media, especially Arabic outlets. It concludes with a call to go beyond debates about the words themselves and to implement a holistic approach to communication that comprehends both the contemporary media environment and the cultural and political landscape of conflict. Communication cannot be composed merely of canny use of media, nor only of a well-crafted message. In the 21st century media environment, words shape actions, actions beget words, and both are in perpetual, dynamic relationship.

Good communicators reveal, in speech and action, that they understand the motivations and aspirations of their audiences—and it is via this understanding that they gain their sympathies. A review of U.S. rhetoric shows a persistent failure to demonstrate this understanding which in turn can fan rather than dampen extremist sentiment. This paper recommends correctives in three terminology areas that have driven U.S. statements on religious extremism:

1. Religious Terminology: Religious ideology is not the sole source of contemporary violent extremism and terrorism. No amount of expertise and knowledge will make it possible to target in a communications strategy the precise school of religious thought driving terrorism.

2. Geopolitical Generalizing: Islam and "the West" are not uniform concepts. Despite U.S. representations to the contrary, the attackers of September 11, 2001, did not represent a unified global movement guided by a coherent ideology with the sole aim of destroying or defeating "the West."

3. Extremism Lexicon: The use of the term "extremism" in place of “terrorism” will not be sufficient to solve the problems posed by the indiscriminate use of terms such as "terrorism."

There are no neat solutions and it is not realistic to aim for full consensus or
authoritative control over terminology. This type of approach would inevitably
be undermined, not only by a vocal, multifarious, globalized media, but also by
language itself, which is shaped by a variety of histories, viewpoints, and
political objectives. Opinion makers should instead focus on creating a
communication strategy that harmonizes words, policies, and actions, and on
bringing all three to bear to create conditions in which not only friendly
dialogue, but also conflicting viewpoints, are evident.