Countering Violent Extremism: #ChapelHillShootings, #MuslimLivesMatter, #CVESummit, and #We_Are_Coming_O_Rome

With the events of the last couple of weeks, I have taken another hiatus from blogging, just so that I could process it all. For a week or so, it seemed that my posts were taking on a life of their own, from fearsome neighbors to religious terrorism.

On February 10, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the peace of the affluent and educated community was shattered by the murder, in their own home, of three young Muslim students with commitments to humanitarian service and bright futures ahead of them. The murderer was a self-proclaimed anti-theist, who was said to have brandished weapons before his neighbors and to to have disputed with them over a parking spot. On Friday, February 13, in Houston, Texas, a building on the property of an Islamic center was burned in what quickly became an arson investigation. The arsonist turned out to be a homeless man seeking shelter, but who was also said to have uttered anti-Islamic words while patronizing area businesses. On February 14 and 15, in Copenhagen, Denmark, three people were killed in separate shootings at a symposium on freedom of expression and a Jewish synagogue. The incidents were eerily similar to the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market massacres in Paris in January.

On February 15, members of an ISIS group in Libya marched twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christian migrant workers down to a beach on the Mediterranean Sea, and then executed them by decapitation in a massacre that is said to have turned the waves red with blood. In the video of the incident that was released, the ISIS spokesperson, whom some have described as having a North American English accent, noted that they were just “south of Rome” and threatened to make good on an earlier promise to the West “conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.”

It was a week in which the “clash of civilizations” seemed to be coming to life, and was followed this week in the U.S. by a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. It was also a busy week for Twitter hashtags, with important discussions of all of these events happening at #ChapelHillShootings, #MuslimLivesMatter, #CVESummit, and, most hilariously, at #We_Are_Coming_O Rome. It was a week in which the U.S., in particular, was challenged to recognize the problem, not only of Islamist terrorism, but also the problem of home-grown terrorism within its own borders. Herewith some reflections on these incidents and their significance.

#ChapelHillShootings and #MuslimLivesMatter

My first thoughts on the Chapel Hill shootings and the Houston mosque arson took me back to an earlier post on fear and freedom of expression. In that post as in this one, my mind was drawn to the memorable observations about the “message” of hate speech articulated by the philosopher Jeremy Waldron in book The Harm in Hate Speech. Therein, he argued that the message of such speech, particularly to minority groups within societies is:

Don’t be fooled into thinking you are welcome here. The society around you may seem hospitable and nondiscriminatory, but the truth is that you are not wanted, and you and your families will be shunned, excluded, beaten, and driven out, whenever we can get away with it. We may have to keep a low profile right now. But don’t get too comfortable. Remember what has happened to you and your kind in the past. Be afraid. (p. 2)

The corresponding message to potential purveyors of hate is:

We know some of you agree that these people are not wanted here. We know that some of you feel that they are dirty (or dangerous or criminal or terrorist). Know now that you are not alone. Whatever the government says, there are enough of us around to make sure these people are not welcome. There are enough of us around to draw attention to what these people are really like. Talk to your neighbors, talk to your customers. And above all, don’t let any more of them in. (pp.2-3)

In the case of the Chapel Hill shootings, we know that there was a history of hatred toward religious groups by the perpetrator. Less directly, but in some ways more significantly, we know that the Muslim community in the area had in the preceding weeks already been the focus of a controversy at neighboring Duke University over whether to allow Muslim prayer calls to be issued from the campus chapel. A key figure in that controversy was Franklin Graham, Christian leader and the son of noted Christian pastor Billy Graham.

Did the Chapel Hill shooter know of the Duke prayer call controversy? Could the climate of prejudice created by the controversy have shaped his views toward his victims in any way? At this point, we don’t know. We may find out at trial, but it would likely be far too attenuated a link to make any connection to the killer’s state of mind or the effects of the controversy stirred up by Franklin Graham and others in connection with the Duke controversy. It will be interesting as the trial proceeds to see what role, if any, religious hatred may ultimately be determined to have played in the events. In his defense, the shooter’s second wife (yes, this sterling specimen of masculinity actually convinced two women to marry him, though the first apparently fled in fear) has said that her husband is actually a defender of religious freedom, on the strength of a Facebook posting in which he proclaimed, ““I hate Islam just as much as christianity, but they have the right to worship in this country just as much as any others do.”

But to connect the Chapel Hill incident to the wider phenomenon of terrorism, including the sort of “lone wolf” terrorism that some have argued is a particular feature of American culture, we may need to think more about the message sent by speech and actions that are experienced as harmful by religious groups. Events like the Chapel Hill shootings and the Islamic mosque arson (more on that below) make subjective perceptions of harm and fear by religious and other minority groups seem much more objectively reasonable. Too, we need to think about the messages sent to potential perpetrators–basically anyone who might have some sort of grievance, rational or irrational, against these groups. If the Waldron interpretation of the message speech is applicable here, we could be in serious trouble as a society–but we need to make these connections. The worst-case scenario may be the scenarios playing out in France and other European countries, which have been seemingly cluelessly unwitting of the problem being created in their midst.


Admist all this chaos, the White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The summit was a long time coming, apparently having originally been scheduled to take place in the fall. In light of these recent incidents, both the domestic ones and the recent exploits of ISIS, the summit’s subject matter could not have been more relevant.

But the topical relevance was not enough to prevent a round of bureaucratic infighting among U.S. government agencies, particularly within the State Department. Controversy apparently swirled between conservative politicians who urged a focus on Islamist terrorism and the Obama State Department’s (to my mind quite valuable) approach of taking a broad approach to issues of extremism and terrorism. The broad approach to preventing violence extremism (PVE), instead of merely responding (especially militarily) in efforts to counter religious freedom (CVE), has been particularly linked to Sarah Sewall, the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, who has made PVE a special priority of her office.

But the value of this broad approach–and especially on prevention instead of reactive countering–was lost on politicians and commentators who were quick to take Sewall and others at the State Department, particularly spokesperson Marie Harf, to task for taking such a broad view. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer countered Harf’s descriptions of economic programs to prevent extremism on The Chris Matthews Show the previous evening with the query, “So you suggested that maybe if you find these young men jobs, they might not become terrorists?” Of course, we’ve got our own problems creating enough good jobs in the U.S., so there are certainly grounds for this inquiry. But it also seems noteworthy that from Sarah Sewall and Marie Harf at State to Lisa Monaco, who is currently serving as President Obama’s Homeland Security Advisor, that many of the most prominent voices in favor of the PVE approach are women. Could there be a gendered dimension to their broader perspective? Do we need more women in foreign policy?

The brouhaha over the “jobs program” for aspiring extremists was just another example of the tendency toward reductionism that has been characterizing the violent extremism debates. One hears that extremism is not just about economics, since the majority of poor people around the world do not become extremists, and many of the leading terrorist have been middle- to upper middle-class, or even wealth, as in the case of Osama bin Laden. One hears that extremism is not just about gender (or more particularly masculinity), since women are now joining the ranks of jihadis. And one continually hears (as has been explored elsewhere on this blog) that it is not just about religion, even though there is increasing attention to the religious dimensions of ISIS. One even hears that it is not a terrorist organization. The chorus of  “nots” and “not justs” in the extremism debate can be helpful in countering reductionism, but it also plays in to the tendency to want to find a definitive cause, whose effective prevention or countering can stop the apparently rising flood of extremism.

Academics can sometimes be precious in their attempts to “problematize” and “complexify” reality–but policy makers and public officials have their own versions of this tendency. Just because extremism is “not just” any one factor does not mean that it is not in some way perhaps about all of them. The time for “not justing” is over. Extremism and terrorism are complex problems, but they should not be made so big as to be unsolvable. Many Muslim groups in the U.S. and around the world are taking these issues squarely on. Now is the time for “both/and” and “all of the above” thinking in the multiple-choice quiz that the extremism debate has become. The PVE approach, perhaps in concert with the CVE approach, brings more and needed options to the table.

Of Houston and Rome Burning

Two further strategies in the extremism debate came and the end of this week in the form of a seemingly extraordinary gesture of forgiveness by the Islamic center in Houston and from a viral Twitter hashtag campaign that came out of Rome and has swept the world. In Houston, the Islamic Center received an outpouring of financial donations from people of all faiths (the first was apparently $50 from a Christian man) and has decided to oppose charges against the homeless arsonist. The imam made the announcement flanked by interfaith religious leaders from around the Houston region. In this sense, Houston is following Denmark, which has pioneered programs of rehabilitating returning jihadis thereby extending them a form of forgiveness, as well. And not to be outdone Norwegian Muslims are now forming “human shields” around Jewish temples and synagogues to protect them from Europe’s rising anti-Semitism. So countering the narrative of countering violent extremism is another narrative of rising interfaith solidarity.

From Rome, joined by voices around the world, came a campaign of humor against the ISIS threat of an invasion in the form of the #We_Are_Coming_O_Rome hashtag, where Romans posted traffic warnings, restaurant recommendations, and other travel tips to their prospective ISIS visitors. A recent Palestinian parody of ISIS is also instructive. Forgiveness and humor may be two of the best proposals yet when it comes to countering violent extremism. At the very least, the offered a way to move from fear to hope in a troubled world.