How America Is Fueling Radicalization of Muslims and How to Reverse It

Whether it be drone strikes, Quran burnings, machine-gunning Afghan villagers, or spying on Muslim students in East Coast colleges, we seem to be quite ingenious in fueling the radicalization of Muslims. Unfortunately, we are interested in the opposite. As an American with an international background, hoping to serve my country in the Foreign Service, it is beyond frustrating that we can't get radicalization right.

Our government's strategy remains primarily military driven, perhaps best captured through this administration's beloved drone strike program. Although we have taken out key militants, drone strikes also kill innocent civilians -- something that violent extremists always highlight in their recruiting propaganda. Even when it comes to providing "development aid," a disproportionate amount goes to corrupt militaries that hinder the progress of democracy and civilian rule. We see this in the examples of Pakistan, Yemen, and more famously today, Egypt.

Fortunately, this is not all there is to America's strategy. In Sept. 2010, USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) launched the Eastleigh Youth Engagement (EYE) program. EYE seeks to address the risk factors that lead youth in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya to join violent extremist groups. In particular, EYE seeks to preempt radicalization of youth that join the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabaab. Eastleigh has a high population of Somali immigrants with 60 percent being youth between 17-30 years old. Some of the challenges youth face in Eastleigh include: limited access to education, high unemployment, poor health services, crime, gang violence, police harassment and corruption. These challenges, coupled with the highly radicalized environment in the form of unqualified, extremist preachers greatly weaken these youth's resilience and strengthen their susceptibility to extremist ideologies.

To counter this threat, EYE seeks to build moderation, foster identity and self-confidence in at-risk youth so that they can reject violent extremist ideologies. This focus on identity and self-confidence was the result of rigorous fieldwork during the program design. My own research, which included extensive interviews with former al-Shabaab members in Eastleigh, finds that the interaction of various forms of identity -- personal, cultural, and social -- is at the heart of youth radicalization, and thus, validates EYE's rationale. In addition to the meticulous analysis conducted before implementation, EYE is most impressive in its flexible, multi-faceted, and innovative implementation strategy. The program works entirely with local community-based organizations, youth groups, and NGOs that operate in Eastleigh. It strictly offers in-kind grants to these partners, which militates against corruption as it ensures that funds are used for the intended purpose. Its implementation team is composed of experienced Kenyans familiar with youth dynamics in Eastleigh. Thus far, it has sponsored job training for several youth, a movie series on tolerance and the rule of law, interfaith lectures on extremism, soccer tournaments for men and basketball tournaments for women. Although only a year and a half old, and certainly with improvements to make, EYE has already meliorated the capacity of several youth groups, provided useful training in leadership and jobs, and is quickly establishing a strong network of youth groups. And yes, you guessed right, not one civilian is getting killed.

These are the programs we need to replicate. Instead of drone strikes that dehumanize civilians -- as evinced in the fact that debates on their effectiveness are largely about the number of deaths --programs such as EYE actually bridge the divide between "us" and "them". I am reminded of an encounter I had with a youth leader in Eastleigh. Upon entering his office, I noticed three flags on his desk: Somalia's, Kenya's, and America's. I was shocked that he was not afraid to display his cooperation with the much-vilified America. When I asked him about this, he simply replied that it is no secret that we are helping his people and because of that, he had no qualms displaying the American flag on his desk. Given that most of my conversations in Kenya (and whenever I'm outside America) entailed defending our foreign policy in heated debates, it was a relief to see someone who knew this side of America. The side of America that I also knew -- one that considers its people, and not its military, to be its greatest strength.

This emphasis on the civilian component of our government and partnerships with local communities is not a novel. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and the National Security Strategy echo this sentiment verbatim, as they stress the role of our diplomats, NGOs, and private sector in achieving our national security goals. A quick perusal of these documents highlights the brilliance and innovation of the American minds that composed these documents. But what does it say when our government largely ignores these ideas and sticks to the same old tactics? EYE and programs like it need to be the norm and not the exception. Drones and militarized aid, which come with various forms of "collateral damage" have no place in today's globalized world, especially if we want to expose the America that you and I know to the rest of the globe. Where do we want to see our flag: displayed on humble office desks or being burned in the streets? The choice is ours.