The debate surrounding the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Summit reflects schisms in the Muslim community. In Southern California, the fault lines became tangible last month as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) presented its CVE program, Safe Spaces, to the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California for approval. In discussing the debate, Jihad Saafir, Imam of Masjid Ibaadillah said in an interview, “They are throwing each other under the bus and accusing each other.” The CVE as a framework for government engagement is causing further fragmentation within the American Muslim community along racial, class, and ideological lines. But should that come as a surprise given the history of these types of programs?
By internalizing the security framework, some Muslims are undermining their own empowerment and overlooking important lessons from our past. Kameelah Mu’min Rashad, founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation and chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania pointed out the black American Muslims’ distrust of these types of programs. She said: “We come with more skepticism born of historical reality. We come to these programs asking how do these programs do damage to our community? There are people who are watching and reporting back to the government. We are very ambivalent about the stated goals of these types of programs.”
For many black American Muslims, CVE programs remind them of the actions of COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program), a program conducted by the FBI against civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party. In essence, NAACP, Martin Luther King, NOI, and the Black Panther Party challenged the status quo system of white supremacy. As Rashad points out, organizations aligning with CVE might not “recognize how programs just like this have been used to undermine self determination and self identity of a community.” This has led to ambivalent feelings about the government and law enforcement agencies. Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X’s FBI files provide some insight into the extent of surveillance. It should be remembered that Malcolm X did not grow up in a vacuum. His father, who was a follower of Marcus Garvey, met an untimely death. This in the context of the U.S. government working to undermine black self determination from the time of Marcus Garvey to the Black Panther Party. With this historical knowledge then, many in the Muslim community have good reasons for looking at CVE programs not as partnerships between government and Muslim communities, but mechanisms of control. For them, CVE can be considered as consensual COINTELPRO.
While the security framework of government engagement with the Muslim community is often discussed in terms of Islamophobia, few are beginning to look at the issue within a racial lens. When MPAC announced that it would give Michael Downing, Deputy Chief of the LAPD, an award at the MPAC 2014 conferences, the disconnect with the black and Latino community, who were still reeling from police killing of Ezzel Ford, became apparent. A petition that circulated before the event prompted MPAC to hold a “Let’s Be Honest” panel at the MPAC 2014 conference moderated by Jihad Turk, and featuring Jihad Saafir, Hind Makki, Marwa Aly, Rami Nashashibi, and Khalid Latif which discussed dissent and structural racism.
But, the now Muslim led CVE programs have the potential to further marginalize black American and Latino Muslims as well as other marginalized groups. Critics have pointed to MPAC’s choice, considering it as tone deaf, naming its CVE “Safe Spaces.” Literally, safe space is a term where a marginalized group does not “face standard mainstream stereotypes and marginalization” or people with shared political and ideological stances can express themselves openly. By being asked to report “suspicious activities,” Muslims are supposed to internalize the CVE.
CVE programs arise from the 2007 Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States (SIP.) According to the Homeland Security, the department’s efforts are categorized into three broad objectives:
- Understanding Violent Extremism: support and coordinate efforts to better understand the phenomenon of violent extremism, including assessing the threat it poses to the nation as a whole and within specific communities;
- Supporting Local Communities: bolster efforts to catalyze and support non- governmental, community-based programs, and strengthen relationships with communities that may be targeted for recruitment by violent extremists; and
- Supporting Local Law Enforcement: disrupt and deter recruitment or individual mobilization through support for local law enforcement programs, including information-driven, community-oriented policing efforts that for decades have proven effective in preventing violent crime.
According to Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post, “The president’s budget for the next fiscal year includes $15 million for the Justice Department to support community-led efforts to counter radicalization.” CVE programs account for less than four percent of counterterrorism spending ($390 million). Even before 9/11 there were homeland security entrepreneurs (including but not limited to language teachers, translators, and contractors), but now CVE programs offer new opportunities. CVE funding can support certain programs, such as gender based violence or community outreach programs, or youth programming. In contrast to defense contractors, some organizations utilizing CVE funding are also claiming to represent the Muslim community. A case can be made that these are conflicting interests.
I spoke with Garrison Doreck, a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine, who has worked on Muslim rights mapping programs and civic engagement, and attended a series of law enforcement outreach meetings as a participant observer. He explained that there are a series of public forums where the LAPD visits different mosques to address various issues or themes. These meetings are powerful junctures where the community can voice their concerns, all the while, as some have pointed out, feeling the watchful eye of the government. In an October 2014 article in the Huffington Post, for example, Sahar Aziz argued that these meetings may in fact become intelligence gathering opportunities. But Doreck makes an important note of comparison between CVE programs and LAPD’s Community Relations Section. “Why is federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security funding this program, when they don’t fund African Americans and members of the LGTB community?” Doreck asks. “What reps of the LAPD say is: ‘that’s where the funding is.’”
From a civil liberties perspective, CVE programs and the security framework is deeply troubling. The unease is especially tangible as Muslim Americans are still waiting for the decision on the appeals case regarding the constitutionality of NYPD’s spying program. Evan Perez of CNN notes, “Absent from the White House conference is any focus on the domestic terror threat posed by sovereign citizens, militias and other anti-government terrorists that have carried out multiple attacks in recent years.” On February 17, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Arab American Association of New York, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Project at CUNY School of Law (CUNY CLEAR), DRUM – South Asian Organizing Center, Muslim Advocates, National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) released a Joint Statement against the CVE. To summarize, they expressed the following concerns:
- CVE programs stigmatize American Muslim communities
- CVE programs rely on on flawed models for predicting extremism
- Extension of government surveillance in CVE programs has a negative impact on religious experience and political expression in Muslim communities
- Law enforcement leading outreach programs, given the FBI’s history of informants and entrapment taking a lead on outreach, undermines trust
- Funding of private individual’s and organization’s CVE programs advances one ideology or set of beliefs over others
Others have also come out addressing the larger picture. Linda Sarsour wrote an article with Deepa Iyer on the CVE summit and appeared on Rachel Maddow Show to talk about the discussion around Islam and terrorism in politics. Haroon Manjlai, Public Affairs Coordinator of Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA), explains to me, “Given the potential of CVE programs to impact first amendment freedoms and protected activities and its potential of criminalizing the Muslim community, [there] is a cause for concern and it is something that CAIR does not agree to and sign off [on].” In an op-ed in AlJazeera, Abdul Sattar Ghazali recounts how Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American representative in congress explained how the, “targeting and prosecution of Muslims only reinforces extremist behavior.”
CVE criminalizes Muslims, which is exemplified by the infamous questionnaire which asks Muslims to rate families at risk of raising extremists. Murtaza Hussain, Cora Currier, and Jana Winter explain in their article at The Intercept, that “the ranking system is supposed to alert government officials to individuals at risk of turning to radical violence, and to families or communities at risk of incubating extremist ideologies.” In essence, typical teenage patterns of disaffection and alienation become risk factors for radical violence. This invites government surveillance and intervention, something that might make it unlikely for families to turn to Muslim social services. For this reason, Manjlai said that CAIR is “going to be proactive with masjid boards and community leaders to educate them on what CVE is and its potential impact on our community.”
According to The White House Summit Fact Sheet: “due to the successes in Los Angeles, DHS on-the-ground engagement staff will be expanded in 2015 to Boston and other municipalities across the country.” The plans include a CVE hub, which is “a non-governmental organization to connect, network, organize, and drive community groups, funders, academics, and the tech sector towards long-term, sustainable, creative, and nimble solutions for domestic CVE.”
Umar Hakim, executive director for ILM, a human development organization focusing on building “self-worth” through various humanitarian projects responds in an interview to me that “the actual numbers when it comes to Muslims and violent extremism doesn’t match the money invested in the programs.” Meanwhile, Charles Kurzman has shown that the terrorism cases involving Muslim Americans in 2014 accounted for 20 crimes, in comparison to 14,000 murders. The recently released Department of Homeland Security report this month also shows that there were 24 sovereign citizen-related attacks in the U.S. since 2010. But we also know that “right wing terrorism” is defined as white supremacist, anti-government, or extremist Christian groups. However, some crimes may be classified under hate crimes and fall under FBI criminal division, rather than counterterrorism. The “Terror from the Right” report by the Southern Poverty Law Center lists plots, conspiracies and racial violence since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day-care center. And yet, white American Christians are not asked to monitor their youth just in case they might join the Christian Identity movement in a way that Muslims are asked to.
Some of the debates surrounding how to engage with law enforcement and whether participating in CVE programs is harmful to the community reflect some of the historic debates in black uplift movements, such as whether to integrate or focus on self determination. Jihad Saafir says in an interview to me, “You all need to study the African community. You had this with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin and Malcolm. In the end Malcolm and Martin began to move closer to each other.” Hakim agrees. “If we start where Malcolm X left off and gain political voice, we are going to have to start dialoguing to begin understanding one another. We need to identify each others’ self interests.” Like others, Hakim stated that he would like to see Muslim advocacy groups engage in law enforcement outreach programs that address police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, which was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and when George Zimmerman was acquitted for his crime. The organization works to resist the de-humanization of black Americans. Through this, social justice groups have pointed to the criminal justice system and the mass incarceration of black Americans. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Muslims can also be a vulnerable population.
People with intellectual disabilities, the mentally ill, recent immigrants, the poor, and the young are vulnerable to this type of self imposed profiling. Darakshan Raja, program manager of the Washington Peace Center, writes, “these subgroups are marginalized within Muslim communities, and are disproportionately impacted by profiling at the hands of state agencies. Meanwhile, they are also the very groups that are in need of institutional support and community protection. CVE programs create additional barriers and further entrench fears for such subgroups of community alienation and government systems…Muslim led CVE initiatives grant power to individual groups and leaders to monitor the political activity, speech, and ideas of Muslim Americans. The definitions being utilized for monitoring such activities are set by the state, not by community members. It also grants certain leaders the right to determine what is seen as acceptable dissent, speech, thoughts, and action.” In the best case scenario, CVE turns the Muslim community into law enforcement officers and as data collectors and in the worst case, turning the Muslim community into the stasi against people with different political views and religious interpretations, much as how Islamophobes vilify any organization with alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) such as they often do to the Muslim Students Association and Muslim American Society.
While diversity is often dismissed as a politically correct catchword, the lack of diversity in representation and policy making within the Muslim community can lead to the adoption of programs that can be harmful for the community, especially the marginalized. Attorney Ahmed Shaikh stated, “Within the Muslim community, we have a lot of authoritarians that tend to be pro-law enforcement and MPAC would definitely be their champion.” Top down solutions that are not necessarily data driven or drawn from Muslim public opinion lead to this type of approach. Further, it is important to consider how some organizations that state to represent the interests of the Muslim community might instead represent the government’s needs or a small group of powerful elites. While they came out in support of BDS and defended the Irvine 11, by developing Safe Spaces in response to the government’s call for CVE programming, MPAC came on the side of supporting the government’s interests over many in the community. By allowing the government to possibly encroach on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, CVE programs may send us down the road of being complicit in our own oppression.
No other faith community is positioned within this security framework. Muslim Americans must demand to become partners with the government in improving society and making it more just, rather than accepting a framework that makes them a problem or seen as a potential threat to be thwarted. We need our Muslim stakeholders, including imams, grassroots organizers, concerned citizens, community leaders, and civil service workers, to come together, create a roadmap, build coalitions with each other and other marginalized communities, and engage our government in a meaningful way–outside the security box. They can become more inclusive, effective, and responsive to our community’s needs.
 With the controversial claims that law enforcement agencies knew of the plot to assassinate Malcolm X, but did not intervene, there is a petition to open his FBI files and remove redactions. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2000-05-14/news/0005140182_1_malcolm-x-kill-malcolm-muhammad; http://baltimoretimes-online.com/news/2014/dec/26/petition-launched-open-federal-files-malcolm-x/