Fighting Islamic Extremism: Making Muslims Partners and Not Enemies

A new Administration that came to office with clearly defined intentions to change many key aspects of U.S. policy, and to do so as soon as possible, can be expected to try to act as quickly as possible. There are times, however, when quick action can do more harm than good. The way in which the United States deals with violent Islamic extremism and terrorism is a case in point.

A recent study by the Burke Chair at CSIS addressed these issues in detail, examining the recent trends in violent Islamic extremist terrorism and violence, the causes of such violence, and the critical role played by America's strategic partners in the Muslim world. This study is entitled Rethinking the Threat of Islamic Extremism: The Changes Needed in U.S. Strategy and is available on the CSIS web site at

It shows that a successful U.S. strategy—and U.S global posture in dealing with such threats —cannot be dependent on singling out Muslims. Instead, it critically depends on working with moderate Muslim governments as partners in both counterterrorism and regional security. It is also dependent on winning the support of Muslims living in the United States and the West—rather than alienating them and pushing some into the hands of extremists as a result.

Focusing on given Muslim countries may be better than adopting truly dangerous concepts like banning all Muslims. Improving the vetting for entry and visas may be better than barring entry on the basis of religion and national origin. At the same time, all of the Muslim countries the United States can single out because of unrest and extremist threats are also countries where the U.S. needs partners and allies. It is also far too easy to turn "extreme vetting" into entry impossible.

There also are many countries where getting the necessary data is almost impossible, it is often easier to stall or say no than to act. The end result may be to deny entry to people who have taken the risk of actively supporting the United States; while people with dual nationality, U.S. or Europe nationality, that trained in extremist camps, have no known profile, and/or the support of extremist groups in getting false papers and travel support make it through.

More broadly, a detailed examination of the data on Islamic extremism does support the new Administration in saying that it is a major threat and one where ignoring the links between terrorism and the most extreme versions of Islam is misleading and dangerous. At the same time, it shows just how critical having Muslim states as strategic partners now is, how important it is to take the demographic of Islamic into account, and how dangerous it is to focus on ISIL/ISIS/Daesh rather than the overall threat.

It is also all too clear that neither military solutions nor counterterrorism can lead to the rapid defeat of violent Islamic extremism within the current decade. It may be too much to call the struggle against violent Islamic extremism a long war, but it will be a long fight at best. It will also be driven by the deep problems in authoritarianism, governance, corruption, population pressure, economic development in largely Muslim states—as well as by the sectarian, ethnic, and tribal divisions.

If the United States is careless in dealing with Islam and the Muslim world, it can also transform a struggle against a small extremist minority—where most violence is a clash within a civilization—into a far more serious actual clash between the West and the Muslim world. It can also play into the hands of threats like Iran's very different kinds of extremists and states like Russia.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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