Why we need more communities-focused and gender-sensitive approaches

There has been increasing awareness of the need for communities-focused and gender-sensitive approaches in counterextremism measures recently. In this blog post, Dr Jennifer Philippa Eggert (University of Warwick) explains why working with communities and taking gender into account should be at the heart of our counterextremism work.

One of the “most successful” counterextremism strategies in the world?

In recent years, the notion that violent extremism and terrorism cannot be countered with so-called “hard” (coercive, military) measures alone has become increasingly popular. There is a growing awareness of the importance of “soft” measures – which focus on non-coercive approaches such as dialogue, reconciliation and cooperation. An important aspect of these soft measures is the work with communities. Recent UK counterterrorism efforts, which have employed soft measures, have been comparatively successful. In March last year, Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary at the time, announced that the UK had successfully foiled more than twelve attacks in the previous year. Indeed, the country’s counterterrorism agenda has been described as “one of the most successful soft-focus strategies in the world”.

The importance of working with communities

Whilst twelve foiled attacks in one year is indeed an impressive track record, this has come at a heavy price. The government’s Prevent strategy, which aims to prevent violent extremism, has been criticised for its tendency to spread feelings of fear, mistrust and marginalisation amongst members of the Muslim community. Critics include the Open Society Justice Initiative, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly, and the UK’s terror watchdog, amongst others. Singling out and marginalising entire societal groups is unethical. Any democratic state accused of such practice should carefully reconsider their approach and assess how things can be improved. In the fight against violent extremism, the (perceived) marginalisation of entire societal groups is also potentially harmful on another level, as feelings of alienation and marginalisation have been described as a key driver of radicalisation. Terrorist and extremist organisations of all kinds exploit such grievances and use them to create further divisions between different societal groups. It is thus imperative that we counter this narrative by working with communities and stressing (both in narrative and practice) that counterextremism efforts are not targeted at any particular subgroup of society (other than the terrorists and their supporters).

Gender continues to be overlooked and underestimated

Apart from working with communities, another area of focus we need to take more into account is gender. Despite increasing calls for gender-sensitive approaches to counterextremism, gender continues to be overlooked and underestimated – both by counterextremism practitioners and academics working on the topic, as well as by the wider public. Simplified gender stereotypes (according to which men are perpetrators and supporters of violence and women are either victims of extremism or peacemakers) continue to dominate in large parts of our societies. These biased views of the roles of men and women in (violent) extremism are highly problematic, as they prevent us from seeing how violent extremist movements really work. Terrorists have often been known to strategically deploy female operatives. They know that the women’s gender (and the stereotypes and clichés related to it) often help female terrorists to avoid detection, as they are simply not perceived as posing a threat. In many cases, this helps female extremists navigate security controls more easily and avoid arrests, prosecution and convictions. Violent extremists also strategically use women in their public relations and reputation management, to portray a non-threatening and innocent image of their group – again exploiting a range of gender clichés linked to the relation between women and extremism. Lastly, once they leave an extremist group, former female extremists might be in need of gender-specific support – which we cannot provide if we do not take gender into account in our counterextremism approaches.

Gender stereotypes are often at the heart of extremist ideologies

The increasing number of female extremists is one reason why gender-sensitive approaches to counterextremism are crucial. A second factor is the fact that gender ideologies are often at the heart of extremist ideologies. This is the case in both Islamist and right-wing extremist organisations (and beyond), who target potential recruits for their cause in highly gendered ways. Dominating masculinities and femininities (or expectations of what a man and a woman are supposed to be like) in extremist movements often promote ideas of ‘male’ violence and ‘female’ subordination. If we want to encourage (former) extremists to not only disengage from extremist behaviour, but also support them in critically assessing the ideologies that often go hand in hand with such behaviour, we need to promote a critical engagement with extremist ideologies. This is because in a lot of the cases, it was these ideologies that played an essential part in people’s involvement in violent extremist groups in the first place. Addressing problematic masculinities and femininities therefore, is part of such an approach.

My six key take away points

  •  The UK’s counterextremism strategy has been comparatively successful in preventing terrorist attacks on British soil.
  • However, this success on the operative level has come at a price: increasing feelings of fear, mistrust and marginalisation of many British Muslims, as pointed out by the UN and other national and international institutions.
  • In order not to cause further divisions, it is important to work with communities and to stress (both in narrative and practice) that counterextremism efforts are not targeted at any particular subgroup of society (other than the terrorists and their supporters).
  • In addition to being communities-focused, counterextremism efforts should also be gender-sensitive. This is important for two reasons.
  • Firstly, an increasing number of women are involved in extremist activities. The fact that this trend often remains overlooked and underestimated is being exploited by terrorists and extremists of all types.
  • Secondly, gender is at the heart of many extremist ideologies and must thus also be integrated into counterextremism efforts.

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