Washington anti-extremism conference: Signal to IS or unnecessary political ploy?

Washington anti-extremism conference: Signal to IS or unnecessary political ploy?

By Gero Schliess

The US anti-extremism summit tried to offer ways to combat violent ideology that sparked attacks in France, Denmark, and Egypt. But not everyone thinks such meetings are necessary.


Government representatives from countries particularly affected by violent extremism spoke in superlatives during three days of talks in Washington. Representatives like Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh who called the anti-terror campaign "World War III."


However, terrorism expert said such martial rhetoric can be worse that attacks themselves, as it can provoke exaggerated reactions.


"The problem that terrorism presents is not that terrorism can do a lot of damage to our society. It can't. It can kill some people and that's a tragedy and a horror…but it's not a threat to the society," Shapiro told DW. "Overreactions are really a threat, too, like when we restrict civil liberties, or invade countries we probably shouldn't."


Obama under pressure


Following the recent spate of terror attacks, US President Barack Obama has been under considerable domestic pressure to show determination in fighting terrorism. He spoke not once but twice during the three-day conference, strongly condemned the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) and called on the representatives from 60 countries to come together to break the "cycle of violence."


Obama said the Muslim community must play an active role in ending this cycle, although he was very careful to warn against equating Islam with extremism and made it clear that the US was not fighting a war with Islam.


"We must be careful that we don't split up the community," warned Islam expert Claudia Dantschke of the , who was present at the conference as part of the German delegation.


"Islamist radicalization is not a Muslim problem," she added. "We see it even in Germany. There is no kind of family that could not possibly be affected by a child running away to Syria. Whether they are Muslim or not doesn't play a role."


Shapiro said he believes the summit in Washington has the capability to increase this divide between Muslims and the rest of society: "It's not about a community. It's not about the Muslim community. It's about individuals, some of whom happen to live in those communities."


If the president and others let their speeches resonate with the implication that those communities are responsible, "we risk exacerbating the tensions…in Europe but also in the United States, between the Muslim community and the broader community. That is very damaging. Not on a terrorism level necessarily, but just on an integration level."


For Emily Haber, deputy secretary at the German Ministry of the Interior and leader of the German delegation, it is neither ethic nor religious groups who should be in focus, but rather the individual. "One of the speakers said that terrorism begins at home," she said, "and because of this, the paths to radicalization have very different starting points."


Trust and surveillance


Michael Downing, who is responsible for fighting violent extremism for the Los Angeles Police (LAPD), admitted to DW that some Muslims in the US feel stigmatized.


But he stressed that in addition to work in the community, some spying by the intelligence community was necessary.


"There is a necessity for both," he said. "It's a necessity to target the people that are already engaged in operations and diminish their operational capability. And there's a need for outreach to communities so we build more partnerships and trust. "


"Islamic State" in focus


Obama encouraged the delegates to do more to counter the ideology of IS. Shapiro, however, was skeptical of this strategy, saying people who want to rebel against society will resort to the language of rebellion in their milieu.


People should not assume that problems can be solved by overcoming IS ideology, he added, saying, "Does anyone believe that if the 'Islamic State' would cease to exist tomorrow, that terrorism would end?"


Radicalization "not such a big problem"


Following the brutal behavior of IS and the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, the summit was organized for domestic political purposes, according to Shapiro, and "in that sense maybe it is effective."


But it was neither effective nor appropriate for combating terrorism, Shapiro said, adding that the personal nature of radicalization does not lend itself well to a global solution and that radicalization "is not such a big problem that we need to have a global summit" to deal with it.


The LAPD's Downing had the opposite opinion. Attacks carried out by a so-called "lone wolf" are always a problem, and "right now people inside our country are being inspired by this [IS] ideology." The summit was a good way to hear news ideas and arguments and in Washington "possibly loosen a few extra dollars in the budget" for the fight against radicalization.


For Claudia Dantschke, the conference was "a signal" and "a call to the fight." And, of course, IS will be concerned and give a corresponding response. But in a time of globalized media, it was always going to be this way: "One side attempts to shock the world with bestiality and the other has joined forces to defend against it."









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