Freedom of Expression and Countering Violent Extremism

By Anita Dhanvanthari

This week Kenya is hosting a Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and invited a broad range of people and organizations to participate. The conference aims to “develop strategies to reduce both pull and push factors that promote violent extremism.”

Kenya’s conference follows a string of other CVE gatherings around the world. The goal is to address the roots of radicalization. Countries are working to understand the triggers for violent extremism and to prevent extremists from recruiting youths.

Many European countries, including France, Germany, and Denmark, have implemented CVE programs. These programs go beyond the ad hoc approach of law enforcement and criminal prosecution by creating a network of community-level support. Admittedly, calling in law enforcement when someone commits a crime is easier than addressing situations where an individual displays “concerning behavior.” Yet the theory behind CVE programs is that a network of community support can help address issues of identity, including alienation and criminality. The United States recently started implementing its own CVE programs. A federal Countering Violent Extremism program began in the pilot cities of Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, and Greater Boston.

CVE programs come with drawbacks. The administration should exercise caution when reaching out to people who might be headed down the path of violent extremism. It should also ensure that CVE programs do not devolve into “informer” programs that could breed distrust and reinforce the stigmatization of certain communities. As AP notes, “some Muslims and others fear the efforts could compromise civil liberties and religious freedoms and amount to disguised intelligence-gathering.” These efforts could cause individuals to hesitate or even avoid expressing themselves before others or on social media.

A CVE program that threatens citizens’ ability to safely explore different ideologies will neither help counter extremist ideology nor promote the advancement of human rights. The freedom of expression is fundamental to American ideals, and as Human Rights First previously noted, “Repressing peaceful dissent is ultimately self-defeating as it is likely to fuel grievance that can result in violent extremism.”

Kenya has its own problems with violent extremism. Terrorist groups such as al Shabaab are killing and injuring large numbers of people in the country. Yet the Kenyan government’s response includes targeting NGOs. To achieve its goals, this conference should emphasize respect for freedom of expression and human rights in Kenya, which is essential to countering violent extremism.


Published on June 23, 2015


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