Civil Resistance: A Powerful Force in Countering Violent Extremism

By: Hillary Maduka, ICNC-SI Class of 2016

Over the centuries, the desire of a people pursued through resilient, calculated, but nonviolent struggle has countless times triumphed over the will of their oppressors. Many people don’t know that nonviolent struggle can also be an effective tool to combat violent extremism.

The concept of countering violent extremism (CVE) emerged from US-led counter-terrorism policies. It has overtime drawn ideas from different periods of history and cultures, thereby evolving. A controversial topic due to association with the US government and military strategies, those working in “CVE” may opt to use an alternative term for CVE, such as civil resistance against violent extremism.

Civil resistance against violent extremism aims to eliminate factors that lead to radicalization, and to disarm, disintegrate and overcome violent non-state actors. As with a nonviolent campaign against any type of oppressor, it is pertinent for those waging a nonviolent campaign against violent extremism to consider how to sustain violent reprisals. For example, during the US civil rights movement, activists who participated in the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville were attacked by white teenagers and arrested by the police. To address the sustainability issue, it was planned ahead of time that the arrested students would be quickly replaced by another set of students to keep the campaign going. In the case of countering violent extremism, the risk of experiencing violence is perhaps greater, making this type of planning all the more important.Civil resistance tactics usually employed in countering violent extremism require a clear sense of objectives and mobilization of public solidarity. They also require preliminary preparations such as identifying structural issues inherent in the society, which engineer social mechanisms that fuel extremism. This means undertaking an in-depth analysis of the violent actors, their tactics, ideology, objectives, composition, funding, cohesion and the overall standing of their members in the society.

A relevant case study of organizing against violent extremism is the civic mobilization by Liberian women in 2002 to end the second Liberian civil war. This mobilization successfully saw an end to attendant violence and death, thus reiterating the efficacy of nonviolent struggles. Another example is the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, a small village of campesinoswho engage in noncooperation and other forms of nonviolent resistance to undermine armed violent groups in Colombia’s civil war.

One interesting observation from the ICNC-SI session on CVE is that “extremist” is a relative term. Governments often misuse the label “extremist”, applying it to nonviolent campaigns with an agenda the government considers “extreme.” In fact, the defining problem is when groups use violence.

A final example discussed during the session was the Christian and Muslim village, primarily led by women, in Nigeria, which organizes nonviolently to press the government to provide greater security against Boko Haram. The group is known for forming a human chain to protect each other, sending a strong message to Boko Haram that the community cannot be divided despite religious differences.

For more on the nexus between violence and nonviolent action, see Veronique Dudouet’s Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation: Transitions from Armed to Nonviolent Struggle (Routledge 2014) examines groups that gave up using arms in favor of nonviolent conflict, including Mexico’s Zapatista Army of National Liberation, often referred to by its Spanish acronym, EZLN.