In his 2016 State of the Nation Address to Parliament, President Uhuru Kenyatta pointed out that as much the government had made significant gains in the war on terror over the past year, the radicalisation of youth into violent extremism continues to present an imminent threat to national security, hence the need for Kenyans to remain vigilant and united.
With this revelation, the President essentially challenged both government and non-governmental actors engaged in countering violent extremism.
I agree with the President’s observation that radicalisation is becoming more sophisticated. Extremist groups win the hearts and minds of their targets because their message is packed around very practical issues that affect their communities across the world.
Unfortunately, when those of us engaged in CVE respond to the extremist narrative, we fail to advance a counter-narrative strategy that addresses the real grievances the violent extremists put forward. Instead, we spend more energy churning out counter-messages based purely on interpretation of religious scriptures. Hence, we hardly address the socio-economic, political and historical grievances, and politics of identity that violent extremist groups have so well packaged and put forward to justify their radical position.
The counter-violent extremism narrative ends up being dwarfed by the well-packaged, powerful and very pragmatic message advanced by the extremists. For example, a number of militant groups that cause mayhem in the name of Islam have always lamented over what they refer to as the ‘double standards’ displayed by the international community when dealing with governance issues in the Muslim world.
A case in point is the unwavering support that Western governments continue to give to a number of despotic regimes in the Muslim world in exchange for a free hand to exploit the resources. The question that violent extremist groups usually pose is: Is democracy and respect for human rights only good for non-Muslim countries and not for Muslim countries? Despite the fact that this question is asked by groups that do not value democracy and human rights. Another accusation of double standards that extremist groups level against the international community has to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Here in Kenya, concerns over double standards include lack of clear and unifying policies governing issuance of national identity cards; passports; the unresolved land question; skewed distribution of national resources; employment especially in the civil service; historical injustices meted out against Muslim communities; and most recently the resettling of IDPs that has failed to benefit affected Muslims.
By advancing grievances that touch on international and contextualised politics, militant groups have virtually taken the extremist narrative to a higher level and are no longer just talking about defending their faith against “non-believers”.
Hence, if the militants’ narrative has moved a notch higher, then the government and those of us pushing the CVE agenda must also acquire the requisite sophistication to respond to the new violent extremist narrative.