Transformative Approaches to VE

Violent extremism (VE) has emerged as a new buzz word over the past few years. Its manifestations range widely: from foreign fighters via terrorist attacks to increasingly public violence-condoning ideology and rhetoric. How to deal with violent extremism, and its protagonists, also emerges as a big challenge for peacebuilders and conflict transformation practitioners.  

The violence-condoning ideologies and terrorizing violence of few should never eclipse the openness and non-violence of many. But it is undisputable that confronting violent extremism has become a central framework and priority, especially for policy makers at national and international government agencies. Still, it is a problematic term: easily applied against communities rather than with the aim of understanding root causes of violence. It often gets lost in the current political debates to clarify distinctions, be it between violent extremism and other forms of violence, political or social, or between violent and non-violent extremism.

At Berghof Foundation, we are primarily concerned with two issues: First, an open-minded and better understanding of the drivers of violent extremism; with a specific interest in the role of education, organisations and community as well as sources of resilience. Second, supporting work promoting tolerance and inclusivity which takes its starting point from concerned actors in concrete local settings and communities.

Our understanding of VE and four possible approaches

    We understand violent extremism generally as violence associated with radical ideologies or groups which strive for a complete, not gradual or incremental, change of political and social relations. We bear in mind that although violence and extremism are not bound to one specific religious or ideological setting, discussions of the concept are usually associated with a very specific empirical reality, i.e. violent Salafist ideologies and/or violence conducted by individuals or groups associated with Al Qaeda and ISIS. There are, in any context, various approaches for dealing with the phenomenon. Although most still lack conceptual, definitional and operational coherence and clarity, it is useful to keep in mind the distinctions associated with them:

      Initially a rather cosmetic improvement on blunt anti-/counter-terrorism approaches, CVE has developed into a security-focused approach to dealing with VE which uses a myriad of tools and entry points, but remains rooted in a hard power approach.

      PVE as an approach is focused more on bottom-up efforts, and the whole spectrum of root causes. It was first introduced in a 2016 action plan presented by then UN secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Emphasis is put on identifying and tackling the push and pull factors, as well as on strengthening individual and community resilience.


      TVE underscores the possibility of changing actors and means of violence rather than solely the need to step up security or resilience to protect and prevent: “Transforming violent extremism recognizes that while violent extremism exists, the reasons and motivators leading to an individual being drawn to violent extremist movements can be transformed into a different type of agency or engagement. This is distinct from countering violent extremism which is reactive to extremist violence rather than aimed at altering the dynamics that motivate it.” (SFCG, TVE report, 2017, p. 4). The term is also taken as lead concept in our forthcoming Handbook Dialogue 13, where lead author Mohammed Abu-Nimer proposes: “What is truly needed to effectively address VE is the development of … programmes that take into account the ‘human factors’ – the community context, culture and religion, building trust with the community, fostering intra-community relationships through dialogue, finding a language of peace and peace education, etc.” (Abu-Nimer, 2018, p. 3)


      An explorative term at this stage, EVE denotes a stance that attempts to analyse root causes and options for change not in an academic, securitised or Western “silos”, but together with affected communities and groups. More particularly, such a term implies that dialogue engagement with radicalised groups and individuals might be a viable option if it is conducted with the aim of reducing violence or paving the way for a peace process.