Anthropology, Activism, and the Problem of Countering Violent Extremism in Africa


Anthropology has an ambivalent history of being involved in social justice activism, and much anthropological work circulates around issues of conflict resolution in cultures throughout the world. After unethically supporting the colonial mandate, in more recent years anthropologists involved themselves in the Civil Rights movement, Native American social justice issues, and most recently social movements for environmental justice and women’s rights. And yet, regarding Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), there has been relatively little anthropological input, and rarely do our efforts affect policy decisions. This article examines issues of conflict management, technology, and cultural awareness in terms of the core themes of cultural and activist anthropology, and some of the ethical conundrums anthropologists create and must face. My argument is that anthropology is uniquely positioned to provide a critical counter-narrative to CVE’s inherent problems and a conceptual anchor to diplomatic approaches for combatting violence and terrorism in Africa. Drawing on both anthropological literature and ethnographic research, I introduce the idea of a Culture and Peace Lab (CPL) to combat violence, with special attention to Togo in Western Africa, and Tanzania in Eastern Africa. The goal is to encourage ongoing dialogues, and spark new ones, about how to best deal with violent extremism.


Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and the Role of Anthropology

Violent extremism, often equated with terrorism, is defined by the FBI as “encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.” Despite this definition being vague and arbitrary, it is the working definition most used when framing American counter-terrorism efforts and home and throughout the globe. Countering violent extremism is an anti-terrorism initiative of the United States government, including the military arm of the USDOD called AFRICOM. Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter condemns violent extremism which is conducive to terrorism, sectarian violence, and acts of terrorism while demanding that all terrorists cease participation in armed conflict and violence. Disturbingly, the growing acts of white nationalism and violent extremism in the US, are not labelled terrorism, weakening the credibility of counter-terrorism efforts in place like Africa and the Middle East. The UN call for member states to work collectively to combat the threat of terrorist fighters while avoiding the profiling based on stereotypes founded in discrimination and prohibited by international law. The problem is that these programs, which are not new, have often yielded dubious results, while claiming to root out all violent extremism they have focused almost explicitly on Muslims, stigmatizing them, and promoting fear, discrimination, as well as a rise in so-called “radicalization”, which is rarely applied to home-grown hate groups. A pervasive lack of cultural awareness, coupled with pronounced preferences toward militarization, as opposed to “soft-power” and diplomatic approaches, has helped to turn a brush fire into a forest fire, particularly in Africa. This paper calls for a greater role for education and cultural awareness via a culture and technology program—to create new relationships based on trust and educational development to deter violent extremism.

Despite ethical dilemmas within the discipline of anthropology, such as knowledge production, post-colonial hegemonies, and our role in engaged activism more generally, I believe that it would be fruitful for anthropologists to assist at the local level to connect different ethnic and religious groups and respective youths via digital story-telling, intercultural dialogues, cooperative activities, to combat extremism. There is i a vast array of debate internal to the discipline about security/counter-terrorism and the dilemma of the ‘culture expert,’ which this article evaluates by engaging the literature and opening the forum for other anthropologists to participate in a discourse (Atran 2010, 2016; Besteman 2008; Price 2011). Ethnography also has a role to play here, but ethics surrounding human subjects makes addressing violent extremism both difficult and often amoral. The approach confronts the rise in Islamophobia and its negative outcomes. As my Muslim friend Jalil Mgawe said when asked about Tanzanian radicalization, “When has a Tanzanian or African ever blown up or killed an American? Other than the Nigerian underwear bomber who was thwarted, we have no interest in killing anyone, and especially not Americans thousands of miles away. Americans do many great things here in Tanzania, they work on social justice issues by way of thousands of NGO’s, you are our friends” (personal conversation November 9, 2017).

A central issue to CVE has been a working definition and consensus, as to what exactly it means. The US Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) approach is built on the British “anti-radicalization” program which is equally problematic. According to McCants and Watts, “US documents frequently employ the term CVE, (but) there is not a shared view of what CVE is or how it should be done (2012, 1). The definitions are wide-ranging from acceptance of extreme beliefs to a propensity for violence in the name of distorted religious ideas. This ambiguity of language leads to conflicting approaches and the impossibility of evaluating the effectiveness of CVE programs. McCants and Watts propose the following goal for CVE, “reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means.” Exactly what terrorism and coercion mean is also ambiguous. However, such a broad definition does weed out some of the biases and Islamophobic intimations inherent in other definitions, opening the door for a more productive debate about the efficacy of programs. The UN talks about “counter-radicalization” even more broadly to the point that distinguishing between insurgent groups, gangs, criminal enterprises, and terrorists, is all but impossible. The word “countering” itself can be strongarm, and a justification for law enforcement and militaries to violate basic human rights.

Another important theme in the anthropological and social science literature has been the advent of AFRICOM, and the billions of dollars the US spends in Africa to combat terrorism. For Catherine Besteman (2008), AFRICOM (The United States African Command) offers humanitarian and development functions along with defense initiatives, but those on the ground view US engagement in Africa as a promotion of militarism, and the desire to extract African resources (20-21). In what Bakari (2017) dubs “the next American crusade”, he advocates for the use of more lethal measures by Sahelian security forces, to make them even more effective. Not everybody agrees. As Stuart Price notes in the Afro Barometer Project, prioritizing security in Africa is important since 36 countries consider security-related issues as a top three of concerns on the national level across the continent ( However, more insecurity is perpetuated by dictatorial regimes and “foreigners” than homegrown extremists, and meanwhile security falls behind unemployment, health, education, infrastructure, water supply, and poverty as political issue in Africa (Bentley and Southall 2005). The amount the US spends on CVE to combat violent extremist organizations (VEO’s) compared to poverty and infrastructure is alarming. Even military scholars like Lisa Palmieri (2015) have pointed out the problems with the lack of a unified US strategy for addressing “Violent Salafi Jihadism” (VSJ), calling our approach “counterproductive” because of imprecise language and disaggregation, and Muslims in Africa and Asia are far more victimized by “VSJ” than Europeans and Americans. A key issue has been Saudi Arabia’s massive funding of “Salafist sects”, plus, America’s preoccupation with Iran, ignoring its own protracted wars, and the acts of its Middle Eastern allies in places such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and throughout Africa.

This article combines some ethnographic research from West Africa with archival research from Eastern Africa to evaluate and assess the role of anthropology in these contexts. Second, I will attempt to engage the ways of seeing in anthropology of cultural awareness through anthropology training where youths from African share stories about their ancestry, religion, family, and business ideas learned through interviewing and participant observation. Today, at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University, we are developing peace education and digital story-telling programming which brings youths of different cultural, religious, and regional backgrounds to create video projects like life-history analysis, police and student dialogues, learning Islam 101, mindfulness and meditation exercises, and activities like “cross the line” which elicits common bonding experiences. Students also share ideas about how to resolve conflict and build sustainable environmental and business projects, this direct action via a “Culture and Peace Lab” (CPL )idea is a platform for various video and online projects aimed at building on existing resiliencies of interfaith and interethnic camaraderie on the ground. As part of this direct action, pointing out the profound failures of both CVE programs and neoliberalism in the Global South is necessary. This past month in Togo, where interfaith and interethnic cooperation is resilient, many now young adults who participated in my Culture and Peace Lab in 2014-15 have  now been recognized by the Togolese government as ambassadors of peace. There graduation ceremony included followers of Vodun, Islam, and Christianity all celebrating together.

Violent Extremism and violence begin as human ideas, with most youths feeling lonely or alienated. Kids flock to terrorism for the same reason they join gangs, because they feel helpless, and violent recruiters pray on these vulnerabilities. One example includes some groups which have embraced “violent Jihad”. And yet, most Salafists, and adherents of “Wahhabi” principles, like other Muslims, see “Jihad” as “inner struggle”, elements ignored by westerners, and also a part of Christianity and Judaism. Anthropologists know that in Africa, Muslims and Christians have had a long history of inter-marriage, cooperation, and working together. The Association of Applied Anthropologists were particularly interested in carving out a bigger role for ethnographers in Africa during my invited session at a 2017 conference in Montreal, especially ideas building on pre-existing resiliencies on the ground, namely, local indigenous law, inclusion, inter-marriage, pluralism, and intercultural and interfaith dialog and exchange.

Ethical Conundrums of Anthropologists and CVE 

Within the discipline of anthropology, contemporary frameworks and debates proliferate regarding the ethical conundrums in anthropology and its players regarding security, terrorism, counter-terrorism, and international conflict resolution in general (Nyamjoh 2012). Despite anthropology’s unabated call for diversity and inclusion, there is implicit racism and sexism throughout the discipline, shrouded in the rhetoric and talk of cultural diversity are policy actions of post-colonial actors which “beyond the masks” work to “enslave the soul of the other” through racialized subjectivities and the suppression of black femininity (Mama 2002). For Achille Mbembe (2000), the African post-colony has wrongly been framed as the “edge of the world”, with its resources and economic benefits being placed before its very people. This is the case concerning the recent American agenda which spends more money and resources on “securitization” than combatting structural poverty. The United States, despite President Trump doubling the $30 billion US government investment to $60 billion, is almost entirely focused on combatting “radicalization” with troops dispersed throughout the continent, often funneling money to autocratic leaders who do more to adhere to the colonial pact than to ensure democracy. The aim is to stamp out terrorists with the potential to harm the United States, and not improve the lives of everyday African citizens. Even China’s massive BRI (Belt and Roads Initiative), a trillion dollar investment, is disproportionately helping government elites and foreign companies, and doing little to contend with growing economic disparities.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, there has been a marked escalation in “Salafist Islam” and the mystification surrounding this movement has been biased and short-sighted, leading to even more violence. The surge in extremism after the Arab Spring has engendered substantial research informed by the need to understand these new actors and account for their mobilization in places such as Syria and Iraq. However, current research suffers from two distinctive elitist and social media biases detrimental to current understandings of this phenomenon. The first bias pertains to the study of Salafi jihadi groups’ strategies and political agendas through the sole writings of their leaders and ideologues, while the social media bias refers to the inflated attention given to the role of the Internet in inciting jihadi recruitment. These two biases overlook the micro-level foundations of violent extremism, their pre-2011 roots in the Arab world, and the role of off-line social networks. The political ethnography by Drevon (2016) underlines these points, and encourages new hypotheses for Egypt. In fact, these same elitist and social-media biases are dangerous not because governments such as the US and Europe subscribe to them, but because they do nothing to understand nor eradicate the situation on the ground. There is a lack of data and contextualization of the data which leads to serious bias.

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, issues with violence persist, despite the siren-call that “Africa is Rising”. While forms of violence target the physical destruction of people (massacres, genocide, contract killings), sovereignty outside of the state stemming from the confusion between public affairs and private government is only exacerbated in neoliberal modernity (Mbembe 2000, 260). These are the “counter-narratives” that ethnographers should be shedding light on, movements like “Lets Save Togo” which involves heroic women protesters calling for an end to the dictatorial regime, for term limits and fair elections. Throughout the continent, women’s rights, multi-party democracy, an end to violence, improved education, and redistribution of resources are the major grievances driving protests, anthropologists working in all these countries need to bring this to light (Ortiz et al. 2013). Even African ethnographers grapple with ethical dimensions relating to participant observation for the more integrated they become in the host community the more human-relations problems occur (Ezeh 2003). Paul Nkwi’s work in the Cameroonian grass-fields unveils great political, economic, and gender divides that come with attempts at regional balance and national integration, birthing more ethical dilemmas for the social scientists to sort out (Nkwi and Nyamjob 2011). Anthropology’s inherent ethical conundrums and problems with knowledge production means engaged anthropology must echo and amplify the voice of the people. The idea of a Culture, Technology, and Peace Lab (CPL) would do just this, build on the anthropological skill-set for qualitative and quantitative data, allowing for Africans to share their stories and ideas about peace and sustainable development with each other, with the ethnographers role relegated to that of translation and connecting groups across different regions to work on what they see as important.

Tanzania, Togo, and AFRICOM

The idea of teaching anthropology, technology, social media, and conflict resolution through the guise of a “Culture and Peace Lab” (CPL) proved effective in Togo during a pilot study in 2014, but it was a small program. In Togo, it is not uncommon for Christians, Muslims, or “Traditionalists” to consult and adhere to local systems of divination and judgement, including Vodu, Gorovodu, and Afa. Examples proliferate throughout the continent, despite a collective misunderstanding of “tribal warfare”. AFRICOM itself has a questionable recent history, bending the American arc of influence from an economic and social one to a military one. The “rationalization of post-Cold War global military command structure”, in the words of Keelan (2008), was justified under the global war on terror in the Bush-era, but, “this has become increasingly difficult as Africa, apart from the Maghreb, and incidents in Eastern Africa have been relatively free of terrorism” (2006, 17). With recent failures in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia, perhaps we can find a role for anthropologists to assist with CVE via education? The positive trends of local courts in the post-conflict Rwandan genocide and the inter-cultural victories of Tanzania should be assessed side-by-side the protracted problems of extremism in northern Nigerian and northern Mozambique. AFRICOM in Western Africa is often viewed with concern, since the US sometimes props up dictatorial armies that suppress the local population, as has been the case in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Anthropologists may be able to assist in bringing a more culturally competent approach to deterring so-called violent extremism, by teaching necessary diversity and technological training creating fruitful counter-narratives and cooperative exchanges between different people, instead of pinning them against one-another in a “clash of civilizations”. Another reason terrorism persists in Africa is because of unnecessary and illegal wars in place like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and the spontaneous withdraw of troops create vacuums and breeding grounds for violence and “terrorism”.

My research in southern Ghana and Togo found that most southern Ewes, Guin-Mina, and Aja’s have great adoration and respect for their northern “Muslim” neighbors (even becoming them in possession trance), this despite nearly 50 years of autocratic rule in Togo by a northern army on a majority southern population (Montgomery and Vannier 2017a). Whereas in Nigeria, the Muslim population is higher, and the northern Hausa and Fulani disproportionately disempowered. African village law solved conflicts between groups, individuals, and sometimes gods themselves.

The case study of Tanzania is relevant in highlighting a situation of relative peace and tranquility in an ethnically and religiously mixed society, although Ujamaa has been overly romanticized ignoring the forced removal of some groups, and current President Magfuli shows some clearly autocratic tendencies. Ujamaa ­ (community and equality) traditions, as well as local systems of jurisprudence have been effective for decades at bringing some disparate groups together by articulating national values of understanding and tolerance, since Tanzanians were very multicultural and diverse before colonization. European colonization and trade, mainly German and British, perpetuated the spread of Islam in Kenya and Tanzania; Christian schools were entwined with the modern nation building reversing decades of power relations, with Christians taking over Muslims’ positions in the state bureaucracy, leading to the gradual socioeconomic decline for many Muslims. This perception of historical power loss has led to an “Islamic-centric” interpretation of history that highlights discrimination and difference while complicating sustained and inclusive peace. Anthropology’s methods of holism, relativism, and its concept of culture can generate powerful tropes based on cultural and religious relativity to deter the “gradual hardening” of an externally derived extremist response, including those of revivalist Salafist groups (Glickman 2011). These counter-narratives come in the form of microfinancing of sustainable businesses and curriculums set up through a CPL where video projects offer an array of matters related to peace, embedding the core themes of anthropology, technology, and peace and conflict studies, with accompanying lesson plans.

By showing films such as “Pray the Devil back to Hell” (Disney 2008) and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (Reid and Hoffman 2000)—then, Africa’s youth can see efficacious African models for invoking peace on the national level. I also share my own work about inclusivity and inter-faith dialogue in Togo through the lens of “African Traditional Religion” with my film “Chasing the Spirit” (see Baier 2016). Students work collaboratively across ethnic and gender lines to create their own short-films about social justice issues of their choice, uploading them to the “peace labs” website, and screened at a youth film festival.

For Muslims and Christians to co-exist and thrive peacefully, as they have for generations throughout the African continent, the CPL builds on “progress” and “brother/sisterhood” on the model of Ujamaa ideas enshrined by former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, a philosophy of equality, pluralistic unity, and tolerance. The marginalization that comes with global capitalism ignores the importance of reciprocity and relationships, by privileging objective measures and market principles alone. Tanzania boasts more than 100 ethnic groups and a nearly 50/50 split between Christians and Muslims. Tiny Togo has around 40 ethnic groups, and has maintained the highest percentage of “traditional religion” in all of Africa. In both contexts, violent extremism has been almost nonexistent. Many perceive the seeds of conflict to be present in Tanzania, and especially Togo (where the pro-democracy movement “Lets Save Togo”) fights the 50-year dictatorial regime of Eyadema (father and son).

The CPL itself involves cooperative businesses, sustainable agriculture, inter-ethnic and inter-faith activities and economic ventures. US military influence is deep in both countries, and yet AFRICOM opts to spend millions on training government troops “to take back their country” instead of empowering local people with jobs and the tools to understand one another. The Department of Defense and CVE program would ensure more stability and peace by building on existing cultures of tolerance and diversity through dialog and exchange programs, as opposed to militarization that perpetuates hate and violence. Many Africans see the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as both illegal and the real reason for the rise of terrorist groups, finding reconciliation for these wars would help bring securitization to the region. The CPL addresses these failures of CVE and contends with socio-economic disparities between individuals and groups fueling desperation and violence.

 CVE and Tanzania

Although I have done a pilot study of the CPL in Togo, and Detroit, I think it has “legs” in Eastern Africa as well. Tanzania is a country of enormous diversity (more than 100 languages), and has had relative peace since Independence. Although post-Socialist Tanzania has seen its share of ethno-religious politics, especially in Zanzibar. There is sky-rocketing GDP and foreign direct investment (Atkinson and Lugo 2010) but most of the gains are going to the richest members of the population. And this too has a racial component, with Asian Muslims owning many firms and gaining upward mobility, while African Muslims continue to be among the poorest in all of Tanzania, especially pastoral groups living a nomadic lifestyle and not obtaining education.

Tanzania has a long history of inter-marriage and inclusivity in government and business circles. However, there have been an array of “Muslim complaints”. Anthropology has been underrepresented in curtailing violent extremism. For Azinade (2013) “Race, ethnicity, and nationality have marked African post-colonial efforts, such as those in Tanzania, to establish national political communities. Colonial agencies have deeply colored postcolonial struggles over who should belong to the nation and who should be excluded” (1). Just as this strong diverse nationalism has created love and civic engagement, it can also foster bloodshed, violence, and genocide targeting ethnic minorities and foreigners perceived as threats to the security of Tanzania. Teaching anthropology and technology in mass allows youth to create their own short films videos and share their voices with fellow children who remain optimistic as they fight against the conventional hierarchy of Tanzanian (or Togolese) politics dominated by the older generation.

As Mamdani (2001) reminds us, terrorism and violent extremism are more “political” than religious. And people in Tanzania engage in violence for the same reasons as most societies, with structural poverty and access to resources being at the forefront. My friend Timo at the Canadian World Education Fund, surveyed “at-risk” secondary students about why they think people engage in violence. Violence in Tanzania is related to the following: land issues, farmers and pastoralists disputes, water issues, political issues, identity issues, and violence from neighboring countries. My call for greater cultural and technological training facilitates understanding and employment. Video, social media, technology, cultural understanding, and basic skills in conflict resolution are all necessary and helpful for both curbing violence and sparking upward mobility. As the GDP and FDI (foreign direct investment) continue to rise exponentially, it is evident that the national government needs to do more to include all Tanzanians, especially African Muslims from poorer ethnic groups.

Ujamaa, the traditional system of empowerment and civic engagement in Tanzania has been sometimes effective. Such community traditions can be operative for conflict settlement (e.g. Gacaca courts), but they can also be discriminatory and monopolistic. When coupled with useful approaches from the UN and other regional approaches they can work, the reasons they have sometimes failed in the past is because of an “all or nothing” application, as opposed to a hybrid approaches from many sources.

Discussion: Teaching Peace and the need for Anthropology

For the past year, I have been working locally in Detroit through the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (Peace in the Streets), at Wayne State University, to build curricula for peace education in a variety of local contexts. The chance to expand this diversity, conflict resolution, and cultural understanding training via digital story-telling in various parts of Africa, is a more effective mechanism for CVE than current approaches. The CPL has free online content with corresponding group video projects in the following areas: peace education, anthropology of religion, cultural anthropology, conflict mapping, video editing, and entrepreneurship. Activities around life-history, interviews, participant-observation, and inner/outer peace are designed to get kids from different backgrounds working together. In Detroit, during our annual Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, this approach has yielded long-term bonds between working class and suburban students crossing ethnic, religious, and gender boundaries. Once students engage with “others” for an extended period, fear and hate disappears because they realize they have a lot in common, and work cooperatively on their social justice themed videos. When they interview each other, and do videos on topics that interest them, cultural awareness and empathy are improved.

Anthropology had a disturbing colonial history in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aligning the discipline aided imperialist and expansionist goals of the western world, the CPL is a chance to mend such past injustices. Similar reconciliatory approaches have worked in Detroit with programs we have run at the Peace Center such as “Understanding your Muslim Neighbors”, “Peace in the Streets”, and “Beyond Fear and Hate”. Africa is the youngest and fastest-growing continent on earth. Anthropologists know first-hand from their ethnographic research that youths are agents of positive peace and change, and when viewed as such, they can be empowered to fight their underrepresentation and repression in systems with poor governance and extreme poverty. Doing so early on and including children in the decision-making process can address the economic and political grievances that drive violent extremism by improving their relationships within their respective communities and states.

Too often ethnocentrism and lack of cultural awareness has led to the failure of various international funding projects; with nuanced cultural relativity, effective programs should build on historical resiliencies and promises shown in the films I mentioned. Since independence, Tanzania has remained an open, inclusive, pluralistic, and democratic society. My argument is that anthropology can invoke understanding between differing factions, and thus encourage positive outcomes by erecting educational video projects into local curriculum with focus on: 1) Unified national identity, 2) Religious and Ethnic tolerance, and 3) Sustained Cultures of Peace. Curriculums are extensive, with several 90-minute lecture/workshops complete with video projects across the six segments. Recent research suggests that “promoting online voices” may be highly effective in “countering violent extremism” (Helmus, York, and Chalk, 2013). The online approach proposed here is embedded in anthropological method and theory, including a nuanced understanding African culture, history, and society, and a critical eye for conflict management and resolution, once digitized it is shared widely at little cost.

Submissions proliferate from across the social sciences and humanities pertaining to CVE, but, anthropology seems to be underrepresented, and the literature lacks primary research– with a holistic perspective, such media and communication programs can be successful at combatting “radicalization” (Ferguson 2016, 28-29). There are some promising signs of an “anthropology and peace” revival including The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence by Leslie Sponsel (2006) who builds on the concepts of Glenn Paige’s innovative ideas about a paradigm shift from killing to non-killing throughout human cultures, while highlighting the ideological and systematic cultural bias which privileges war over peace. Currently I am co-authoring a submission with Professor Elizabeth Drexler from Michigan State University on anthropology, peace, and conflict studies for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology (OREA). Scott Atran’s work includes extensive field interviews with terrorists, enriching our understanding of the “roots” of modern terrorism. The difference here is an ideology that appeals to them, extremism is something very attractive to more people than you might think. In France, a poll by showed that 27% of young French people, not just Muslims, between 18 and 24 had a favorable attitude toward the Islamic State.

One way to empower disadvantaged youth is through free tutoring and mentoring on conducting ethnographic research, developing interview, coding, and critical writing skills. Not just for learning about themselves, but for studying “us” as well, my work on “photo-voice” in Togo allowed Ewe-villagers to do just this and they were good at it (Montgomery 2017b). Students also learn about youth violence, diversity, domestic violence, non-violence, and many other peace themes, sometimes for the first time. When they return to their respective schools and neighborhoods, with self-created video projects, they become advocates for peace, possessing stronger leadership skills. In Detroit, students reported they are 120% more likely to speak up against injustice and to do so with the skills to diffuse violence. The literature and more recent work by Ferguson (2016) have concluded that one huge problem for CVE and terrorism is the absence of a unified academic “field” through which tougher academic standards could be enforced; bridging anthropology, peace and conflict studies, communication and conflict studies, and other related fields together in the CPL accomplishes this.

Today, anthropology’s engagement with activism seems often ambiguous and the field continues to debate the role of anthropologists in policy. And in my Peace and Justice Anthropology courses I continue to see increased interest in social justice activism on an annual basis. The time to strike is now! Many ethnographers are in a unique space to address violent extremism through cultural and religious awareness. Where are the anthropologists? Some find the entire CVE spectrum a zone of militarization that they do not want to justify. Anthropologists need to get more involved, the CPL is a format for empowering at-risk youths. In our “Understanding our Muslim Neighbors” and “Beyond Fear and Hate” at The Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in Detroit, we co-sponsor forums with partners like The Council on Arab and Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Meta-Peace Team, we find that most Americans know little to nothing about Islam, and the majority by way of worksheets also cannot distinguish between basic excerpts from the Torah, Bible, and the Quran. Critical engagement brought about by activist research is both necessary and productive. My own research in Togo has been most effective when empowering at-risk populations by allowing them to exercise their own agency and tell their own stories (Montgomery 2017b, 287-309) Photo-voice as a method allows subjects and “targets” to create their own storylines about a range of issues (religious and ethnic difference), and violence. Ethnographic research can contribute to transforming the discipline by addressing the human rights and peace and security outcomes that need to be part of anthropological research and CVE programming. Instead of focusing on the tensions inherent in anthropological research on countering violent extremism or even human rights, activist research and anthropological programs for bringing peace, “draws them to the fore, making them a productive part of the process” (Speed 2006, 68).

Terrorism and Security Studies as specific disciplines are recent additions to the social sciences, and as they cope with questions relating to a proper or appropriate methodology, the utility of anthropology and ethnography is absent from deliberations. International Relations in general stands to benefit from more method and theory, since “Liberalism” and “Realism” fall short in explaining modern activities across nation-states. First, many African states do not pursue state interests but rather the interest of authoritarian individuals within the regime, and without decolonization, many governments within Africa have no control over what happens in their own sovereign territories. There is even less research by anthropologists talking to terrorists, radicals, or “at-risk” actors, even though anthropology has entered virtually every other domain of human activity: clinics, homeless shelters, prisons, shopping malls, factories, court rooms, and factories (for exception see Brannan et al. 2001).

Anthropology as a means for deterring violent extremism is envisioned with the creation of a Culture and Peace Lab (CPL) in various locations, with correlative curriculum training and online video and narrative projects. Students and religious groups create various individual, small, and large group video and artistic projects which pivot around the central themes: job skills building, family history, sustainable development, religion and ritual, human rights, conceptions of peace and conflict, sport and collaboration, and more. Our programming is extended to students grades 2 through 12, with specific content aimed at each age set. The elementary peace education takes place in area schools and afterschool problems, namely in Hamtramck, Michigan and Detroit, Michigan—in both settings more than seventy percent of the children are students of color. The middle school programming is a “Cops n’ Kids” community dialogue program where police officers and children work together to on video projects and simulations. Whereas, the high school programming is a two-week summer camp that focuses on a new topic each day, for example: domestic violence, cultural awareness, suicide prevention, and mindfulness. In Columbia, Somos Capazes and the  Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS) orchestrated a “Peace Theater” competition where students wrote their own plays on stereotyping and conflict resolution. Last year at the CPCS Ralph Bunche Institute, local Detroit high school students and Colombian University students were amazed at the similarities between the 1967 Detroit rebellion, and situation with the Colombian peace process and the problems of violence in American cities. Students also recorded their various classroom activities and performed “conflict circles” discussing differences and similarities traversing ethnicity, religion, and gender. These skills acculturate participants and create lasting bonds. During workshops in Africa, screenings of important African international film selections, as well as teaching a basic three-part script: (Problem, Conflict, Resolution) allowed groups to create some wonderful short-films. They produced and edited films on recycling, north/south cultural differences, bullying, religious holidays, and lineage histories. I am currently seeking external funding for a peace lab website so programming can be shared widely. The anthropological role is to teach, implement, and facilitate various “agency-centered” oral and visual approaches to define problems, identities and parties, to assess local community and national needs and to create concrete action plans for invoking cultural understanding and dialogue between different individuals and groups.

Activist anthropology can offer a positive and corrective approach for CVE, building on the historical resiliencies of unified national identity, religious and ethnic tolerance, and sustained cultures of peace. This is a call for anthropologists the world around to begin tackling violent extremism in all its forms, not just in Africa and The Middle East, but in Europe and North and South America. The hate we saw last summer in Charlottesville, last fall in Pittsburgh, last month in New Zeeland, and the rise of Nativism/White Nationalism throughout the Western world also needs to be addressed, violent extremism is by no means a “Muslim” enterprise. Last month we held a “Beyond Fear and Hate” panel looking at racism, Anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia side-by-side with a keynote from Dr. Cassie Miller from Southern Poverty Law Center. This is the template for speaking truth to power, and these events need widespread attention and to be available to everybody. We need to frame terrorism in all its guises, including the uptick by white nationalist groups in the US and Europe, for anti-Semitism, and anti-Immigrant groups, like Islamophobia, are also on the rise. The representations of Tanzanians, Togolese, or Nigerians, should not come from above or outside the society, but from within and from the localities themselves (Ferguson 2016), reducing the need to revert to forceful repression in CVE.

Over the last decade, the growth of Boko Haram in Western Africa, and a growing number of attacks in Eastern Africa have targeted local Christian leaders and many soft-targets such as schools, bars, and restaurants (Lopez Lucia 2015, 2), although not on the scale the media would lead one to believe. The Tanzanian case is a great case to investigate. Muslims and Christians coexist and often marry in all major Tanzanian regions except Zanzibar which is 95 percent Muslim. Among Muslims, over 85 percent belong to the Sunni Shafi sect built on Sufism; there are also some Sunni Arabs and Asians, with those from Omani origins belonging to the Ibadhi sect. Most adherents to “radicalization” are “invisible” to the international community and lack a sense of control over their environment or circumstances. While extremists are not invariably poverty stricken, they often act on real or perceived grievances against groups with a sense of justification. This anthropological approach via direct action seeks to put technology and skills in the hands of many impoverished youth who can begin making money through their skills immediately: videography, marketing, event planning, website production, social media management, and editing.

Technology and Culture: Alternatives to Neoliberalism

A core components of this essay is the advocacy for the “soft power” of counterinsurgency through diversity and pluralism, something anthropologists are particularly good at. Secondly, anthropologists can establish CPL’s teaching cultural awareness across religious and ethnic lines. Violent Extremism springs from economic insecurity issues of poverty, land grabbing, displacement, and invisibility in the global sphere, thus fueling young people’s move towards jihadist groups. The role of capitalist economic relations in these kinds of the aforementioned processes is a powder-keg for the desperation that precedes extremism. It assumes what Jon Pahl (2010) in another context has called “innocent domination”, the silent hegemony that comes from neoliberalism and global capitalism, ideas contrary to local collective moral and economic values. These kinds of diplomatic policies have been tried extensively in Latin America and have failed, leading to increased insecurity in the region. Central America, American Indian reservations, and Mexico are just a few examples. So, how can we expect these same policies to work in Africa? Africa and the world cannot afford a further rise in violence, terrorism, and marginalization that are the result of these ethnocentric policies.

As Juan Cole (2018) asserts in his book “Muhammed: Prophet of Peace”, Islam has a history of tolerance, also evidenced in the film “Out of Cordoba” (2009). The Salafist interpretation of Islam is a recent phenomenon, catalyzed by hegemonic western wars in foreign lands, and according to many has more to do with interpretation and propaganda than actual Quranic teachings (Cole 2018). Most do agree that Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO’s), have been more effective with technology and the war of ideas than most government approaches to VE. Nyamjoh, Hackett, and Soares, New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa considers the importance of combining religion and media studies because Islam, Christianity, and African religions are all operating together in an era of political liberalization, media deregulation, and the proliferation of new technologies (2015, 9). If social media has been a tool to invoke “radicalization”, why not establish educational skills to counter it? In Sudan, a bizarre balance between education and popular media has occurred with the UN invoking Western style educational curriculum and media outlets being ensconced in Islamic teachings.

If the goal is to counter violent extremism, then intercultural and interreligious programming and economic empowerment workshops with curricula where students and religious leaders collaborate to launch business ideas and tell their cultural stories are surely more effective than clandestine activities in the name of intelligence and security. Family and religious history, entrepreneurial ideas, technological and social media skills, conflict management, video production and editing, interfaith dialogues, and the power of film— combine to create life-long skill sets designed to empower the local, by also building on a strong history of pre-existing African cultural legacies like Ujamaa in Tanzania, Gacaca courts in Rwanda, or Gorovodu in Togo. An anthropological approach opens new lines of communication between strangers. Providing action and making people “known” in a constructive way to each other and online make it less likely for violent extremism to flourish, especially when people from different economic, cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, including marginalized communities, build trust and work together consistently and collaboratively across these lines.

The online teaching program must do more than teach the precepts of anthropology and understanding, because research on violence shows that conflict stems from lack of access to work and the economy. Which is why coupling culture with technology is so important. Therefore, the CPL must also instill skills which allow citizens to garner the business savvy necessary for upward mobility, while also rebuilding a working and dependable justice system. Otherwise, this approach (like so many others) runs the risk of being just another top-down development experiment. The reasons this can work are because education and understanding can lead to liberation and positive peace. Building a platform for free media sharing to empower teachers, religious leaders, and young Africans to overcome their differences is essential. Anybody with access to a cell phone will be able to participate. The proposed websites provide a platform for Tanzanian and Togolese voices to be heard locally, and throughout Africa; with the permission of the creators, videos and other projects are archived and made available online. Another promising trend includes the exploration of intellectual history and agency from below, Hunter (2015) helps to empower others in her book Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania (2015). She argues that Tanzania developed its own political concern about progress and development (Ujamaa), and citizens find harmony, despite diverse ethnicity and religion (2015, 17). Our abiding fear of terrorist cells and violent extremism continues to motivate US policies throughout Africa. Past US mistakes in Somalia, ongoing mishaps in Mali and northern Nigeria, must serve as lessons; funding and supplying warlords, carrying out strikes against terrorist suspects, are sometimes counterproductive. We need new approaches, otherwise we propel local extremists and fear-mongering groups to power, only to later blame them and their religion for violence.

Throughout Africa many are struggling to meet their basic needs and find their place in society; youth are vulnerable to VEO recruiters, who offer them a strong sense of purpose, community, and much needed money. Meanwhile, cell phones and internet access, have revolutionized the ways African youths communicate and stay informed (Nyamjoh and Soares 2015). Just as surely as at-risk youth can be recruited by extremists, they can also choose a more sustained peace. Young populations are more prone to “radicalization” than their elders; religion and media need not always exacerbate violence, as they can be positive channels through which violent extremism is countered. Ferguson insists “counter narratives” can be ambiguous and unclear; this project aims to clarify alternative voices through a public digital forum and archive and with the tools of anthropology including cultural relativity and tolerance (2016, 27-28).

Hinds writes regarding Islamic “radicalization” in North Africa, “a combination of poverty, political and cultural marginalization, low educational attainment, a lack of opportunities (particularly for young people), and the collapse of traditional Islamic organizations is a potent combination” (2015, 1). She continues, “The internet is a key component of modern processes of ‘radicalization’, however, few strategies have targeted online ‘radicalization’” (2015, 2). Attempts at democratization in the Arab Spring were strengthened with social media, but extremists also flocked to these media. We must be cognizant of this trend, for “while the internet is an important tool in modern ‘radicalization’, so far, few de- and counter-radicalization programs have included an online component” (Hinds 2015, 11; Helmus, York, and Chalk 2013). Evidence suggests that a variety of complementary approaches are the best means for countering terrorism; with anthropology and ethnography we can all talk to each other from a place of inclusion—thereby, recognizing the critical role of anthropology and development for addressing social, political, and economic grievances.


This paper brings to the forefront three important issues: first is the underrepresentation of anthropologists researching and involved in countering violent extremism, second, is the shift away from diplomacy and development towards “securitization” of US policies in Africa, third, how anthropologists might be involved in so-called CVE, including the use of technology and culture. The CPL is timely given contemporary trends in CVE and anthropology’s pivot toward the public sphere. An important kernel of the curriculum is learning cultural relativity, diversity, conflict resolution, and inclusion. Racism, sexism, hate, bullying, stereotyping, and exclusion can all tackled head-on through various lectures, activities, and group digital story-telling projects that work toward peacebuilding. Coming in to our programs at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies regarding youths, most students struggle to even define diversity, and its many manifestations are often misunderstood. Upon completion of the program students are equipped with many ways to promote inclusion in society and end up rating diversity as “extremely important.” Meanwhile, cultural dialogues at Michigan State University have been fruitful for students, staff, and faculty alike. Most impressive, are the outcomes related to individual, community, and social violence stemming from surveys in Detroit and Colombia, as well as small data-sets from Togo and Tanzania. Students come up with mechanisms for addressing violence and many times even “teach” their parents new skills. As their capacity to de-escalate and de-colonize violence improves, students become ambassadors of peace in their homes and communities. Leadership and civic engagement also improve because once armed with proper conflict, culture, and technological training, participants find social justice issues that matter to them most and find cooperative ways to create positive change as activists. These skills will also minimize the prospects for violent extremism in Africa.

Ethical debates surrounding the relationship of anthropology to activism goes back decades, but are once again experiencing a resurgence (Speed 2006, 67). Ethnography is a tool grounded on acute insider knowledge and based on longitudinal research and an understanding of anthropological theory. Anthropology has made great gains in such bourgeoning fields as medical and forensic anthropology, and yet its role in policy and diplomacy seems scattered at best, especially when it comes to positively impacting the CVE debate. Anthropology is concerned with who we are as people, where we are going, and what we should do. Anthropology helps us get beyond fear and hate through the portals of cultural understanding and inclusion.

This does not come without ethical problems surrounding surveillance, so the CPL’s need to be run for and by Africans. And part of the programming involves projects around colonial history and governments themselves. CVE frameworks have been criticized by many for good reason, both at home and abroad, namely for the violations of privacy, overreach of surveillance, and the numerous Islamophobic dimensions. This offers something contrary to that, cultural and historical awareness aimed at peace! I have argued for diplomacy and empowerment as counterpoints to militarized approaches to counter-terrorism—this entails constructing counternarratives and opportunities more appetizing than what VEO’s can provide. These soft-power strategies have often been critiqued for relying on false dichotomies and blurred lines between ‘security’ and ‘diplomacy’, but when people get to know the “other”, they are less likely to invoke violence toward them. Teaching conflict resolution, mediation, and peace and conflict studies helps eradicate violence; both UNESCO and UNDP have agreed. Another important issue has been the debates and frameworks surrounding the anthropologist as “culture expert”, fostering an environment encouraging African youths to provide the innovation and development of their own CPL’s helps to off-set this, so does an honest discussion about colonialism and neocolonialism.

The literature on anthropology and countering violent extremism is scant, but there is a role for us. There have been some in-roads regarding “science based field research” and some anthropological methods have made their way into the monitoring and evaluation tools for counter terrorism and VE (Atran 2010)—an ethical problem of its own. Gledhill (2008) has expressed the need for “anthropology in the age of securitization”, claiming anthropology the world around could “provide the basis for countering those ideas and beliefs that fuel violence” (32). By building on pre-existing resiliencies on the ground, tolerance and peace directly address narratives of hopelessness and protracted violence. Anthropology needs to pay much more attention to culture, religion, technology, and “radicalization” by evaluating and analyzing them holistically; offering a local, regional, and national platform for dialogue and reconciliation.

What anthropology and conflict resolution can bring to peace and security and CVE is a holistic vision of how societies operate, how power from the top smashes peace from below, how cultures are constructed and maintained, and this seems to be conspicuously absent from many people working on VE and terrorism more generally (Atran 2010; Speed 2006). Many times, government agencies, NGO’s, and academics operate in our own silos of specialization, and we fail to capture the big picture of how human agents relate to one another in society. As ethnographers, we know that to understand how a society works, we need to understand the parts of the system that nobody talks about because they are not seen as important; sometimes it is the “silence” of individuals and cultures that say the most about what makes them “radical” or “extreme”. By combining conflict management and economic empowerment with anthropology and technology, and providing training with an electronic platform that is democratic and affordable, anthropologists can accelerate the dissemination of counter narratives from the people themselves, while combatting hegemonic narratives currently dominating the debate on VE. Social science provides individuals with an understanding of what makes us similar and what makes us different, it shows that multi-culturalism is an asset, not a problem. Anthropologists should be at the forefront of ongoing frameworks and debates concerning violent extremism, not just in Africa, but throughout the world.


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