Strategizing prevention of violent extremism
BEIRUT: After two years of consultations and meetings, Lebanon’s Cabinet approved a national strategy to prevent violent extremism – an initiative pushed forward by now caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri under a United Nations global action plan.
The strategy, approved late March, is currently developing into a definitive action plan.
The process is estimated to take another eight months before the members of the public will see it implemented in their communities.
Along with Tunisia and Morocco, Lebanon is one of the pioneers in the region to take on such a task. The fruits of its labor are intended to serve as a useful PVE framework for neighboring countries in the future.
Facing both insurgent militants such as the 2014 Daesh (ISIS) attack on Arsal as well as dormant ones like sleeper cells hidden in south Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh, the country is no stranger to extremist activity.
Recognizing these vulnerabilities, the prime minister prioritized Lebanon’s creation of a PVE plan, the strategy’s national coordinator Rubina Abu Zeinab said.
Providing details of the plan to the media for the first time, Abu Zeinab spoke with The Daily Star.
COUNTERTERRORISM VS. PREVENTING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
In December 2015, the United Nations’ then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on member states to supplement counterterrorism plans with preventative strategies. Citing the growth of extremist groups including Daesh, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, Ban stressed the need to focus on pre-emptive action.
Abu Zeinab said the first obstacle in creating a preventative strategy was differentiating it from counterterrorism. The task has proved difficult, as no definition for violent extremism is globally accepted.
Choosing not to provide a definition, the U.N. instead gave member states the option to come up with their own, based on each local context, or not at all.
Unlike other countries that opted not to take on the task, Lebanese officials chose to define violent extremism with three key points. Abu Zeinab said these points include the spreading of hatred, the rejection of diversity and threats to social values, all of which foster violent extremism.
“First is the spread of individual or collective hatred that may lead to social violence. Second is the rejection of diversity and nonacceptance of the other, particularly the use of violence to express such rejection.
“Lastly, any behavior threatening societal values ensuring social stability is a defining character of violent extremism,” Abu Zeinab said.
However, she said the best way to understand a PVE strategy is to separate it from counterterrorism’s reactive, security-heavy nature.
“Counterterrorism is more of a security approach, so when it comes to CT and PVE, the Lebanese government has taken dual routes,” Abu Zeinab said.
“When we started building our PVE plan, four ministries had already been working for two years on CT: Justice, Defense, Foreign Affairs and Interior [ministries]. PVE is more comprehensive.”
Abu Zeinab told The Daily Star that “high-level” representatives of all the ministers have committed to working on the PVE plan, collaborating with one another in small interministerial working groups.
Tackling how violent extremism can be prevented from different angles reflects the multidisciplinary nature of a PVE strategy – one that also requires participation from civil society and the greater public.
FROM THE GRASS ROOTS TO THE GOVT
Hariri’s vision, Abu Zeinab said, was to develop a strategy that includes both the government and local communities, based on internationally recognized standards formalized by the U.N.’s global action plan. Stakeholders both public and private will also be included.
“It’s a long-term development strategy aimed at building the immunity of the whole community, with the participation of all relevant governmental, non-governmental, private sector and academic actors,” the national coordinator said.
From the ministerial representatives to local municipalities and the general public itself, all actors are expected work on an aspect of nine pillars – objectives agreed upon by ministerial representatives to prevent violent extremism.
The pillars, which are broad in nature, include urban and rural development, youth empowerment, economic development and job creation. Under each pillar are a series of objectives laid out by the interministerial groups. In eight months’ time, the public will be able to judge the national commitment.
AN ALL-INCLUSIVE APPROACH
Perhaps the most important aspect of Lebanon’s PVE strategy is its commitment to working in all areas of the country, Abu Zeinab said.
Extremist activity in the country has long been associated with tumultuous areas such as north Lebanon’s Tripoli, east Lebanon’s Baalbeck and any of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps across the country.
To tackle this stigma and create a more effective strategy, Abu Zeinab said all ministerial representatives decided not to single out “any region or sect.”
“That is the first thing we all agreed on,” she said.
The initiative seems bold for a country like Lebanon, which still hasn’t mended its sectarian wounds following a 15-year Civil War.
Factoring in the behavior of ruling leaders who are often criticized for fearmongering between religious sects and fueling tensions for their own benefits, a PVE strategy may seem implausible.
Abu Zeinab said she was undeterred by such criticisms.
“If you look at the definition Lebanon created for violent extremism, it has been endorsed by 29 [ministerial offices] from different political backgrounds,” she said.
“The definition rejects sectarianism. It rejects hatred of diversity and this is telling.
“It is not easy to implement a national strategy but we have worked very hard.” –
A fighter fires a rocket propelled grenade during clashes in Ain al-Hilweh. Lebanon is no stranger to extremist activity.