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Journal of America Team:

 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

 Managing Editor:
Mertze Dahlin   

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March 1, 2015

The Federal CVE program remains a cause
of concern for civil advocacy groups

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Civil advocacy organizations and Muslim groups have expressed grave  concern about the Federal Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program that was a focus of Feb 17-19 White House summit on terrorism. Many organizations are concerned that countering extremism programs that only focus on Muslim communities ignore the real threat of extremists in other communities while increasing negative public sentiment toward American Muslims as a whole.

According to The Intercept, “are you, your family or your community at risk of turning to violent extremism?” is the premise behind a rating system devised by the National Counter Terrorism Center to identify any potential terrorist.

The Intercept  has acquired a copy of the NCTC 36-page document titled “Countering Violent Extremism: A Guide for Practitioners and Analysts.” The NCTC document dated May 2014 suggests that police, social workers and educators rate individuals on a scale of one to five in categories such as: “Expressions of Hopelessness, Futility,” “Talk of Harming Self or Others,” and “Connection to Group Identity (Race, Nationality, Religion, Ethnicity).” 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.

Families are judged on factors such as “Aware[ness] of Each Other’s Activities,” as well as levels of “Parent-Child Bonding,” and communities are rated by access to health care and social services, in addition to “presence of ideologues or recruiters” as potential risk factors.

A low score in any of these categories would indicate a high risk of “susceptibility to engage in violent extremism,” according to the document. It encourages users of the guide to plot the scores on a graph to determine what “interventions” could halt the process of radicalization before it happens.

Though the White House has insisted that Countering Violent Extremism is not directed at any specific group, however, the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) guide only cites examples drawn from Muslim communities.

“The idea that the federal government would encourage local police, teachers, medical and social service employees to rate the communities, individuals and families they serve for their potential to become terrorists is abhorrent on its face,” The Intercept quoted Mike German, a former FBI agent as saying. German is now with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. German called the criteria used for the ratings “subjective and specious.”

Arun Kundnani, a professor at New York University, told The Intercept that enlisting communities in the way the administration suggests in the guide, “leads a range of non-policing professionals to cast particular suspicion on Muslim populations and profile them for behaviors that have no real connection to criminality.” Kundnani also questioned the science behind the rating system. “There’s no evidence to support the idea that terrorism can be substantively correlated with such factors to do with family, identity and emotional well-being,” he said.

The Muslim Student Associations (MSAs)

The Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) across California have expressed grave concern over the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) framework.  In a joint statement on Feb 21, 24 MSAs, said they oppose the creation of pilot programs that are planned to be launched in various cities across the nation, including Los Angeles, Boston and Minneapolis.  “As MSA leaders, we are concerned about the reinforcement that CVE provides to the stereotypes that Muslims are security threats, as well as the climate of fear the surveillance program will create, especially amongst Muslim youth,” the MSA statement said adding:

“CVE solely targets and stigmatizes the Muslim community; with the entire focus of Countering Violent Extremism programs being on the Muslim community, the federal government is conflating extremist violence with Islam and feeding into the prejudiced and false portrayal that the majority of violent threats are coming from the American Muslim community, when in reality, most incidents of violent extremism in the United States are from non-Muslim sources.”

According to Pew’s population estimate of 2.6 million Muslims living in the United States in 2010, and further data on the number of individuals that have been arrested for potential acts of terrorism linked to Al-Qaeda, these individuals only represent 0.0002% of the Muslim population in the United States, the MSA pointed out. “By creating programs and initiatives that are targeting the average Muslim in America based on the 0.0002% of the radicalized population is creating an unjust and false assumption that this radicalization is widespread within the community and should be countered on a national level.”

The MSA statement also said:

“Furthermore, the CVE framework is rooted in the flawed “radicalization theory” which claims that there is a fixed trajectory to radicalization with indicators that, if detected early on, can be interrupted through intervention. Examples of  indicators used in this theory as signs of radicalization include growing beards, increasing involvement in social activism and community issues, and “wearing traditional Islamic clothing.” These so-called signs of radicalization discourage Muslims from practicing their faith, creates a sense of paranoia in the community by eroding trust amongst community members, and threatens our constitutionally protected first-amendment rights to freedom of religion, expression and assembly. This theory has been debunked by a multitude of studies on radicalization, yet is still being used in the Department of Homeland Security’s approach to working with the Muslim community in the United States and as a model for CVE programs.

“Currently, we are facing a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and bigotry across the nation as Muslims in America are being targeted in hate crimes. Last week, the nation witnessed the murder of three young, Muslim students, Yusor Abu-Salha, Razan Abu-Salha, and Deah Barakat in what appears to be a religiously-motivated hate crime. The sentiments of fear and feeling unsafe are reverberating throughout the Muslim community already, and through CVE, the federal government is undermining the concerns of Muslims in America and further perpetuating tensions and a hostile environment for Muslims.

“As leaders of our MSAs, and advocates for social equity and protection of civil liberties for all Americans, we firmly stand in opposition to the Countering Violent Extremism programs to ensure that our American Muslim community is not mistreated and that our youth are able to live their lives free from fear of surveillance, racial and religious profiling, and as strong, active members of their communities.”

The US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), a coalition of several leading national and local Muslim organizations, on February 21, reiterated its stand against the CVE taken at its earlier gathering. On February 10, around fifty U.S. Muslim leaders gathered in Washington to discuss the CVE. The forum adopted the following points on CVE: (a) The USCMO endorsed an ACLU-led letter addressing the current countering violent extremism initiative that was sent to the Obama administration. We are disappointed that the administration has not responded to the fair concerns raised in the letter. (b) Based on the shared experience of summit attendees and recent media revelations, the USCMO is very concerned that law enforcement outreach and CVE programs may be accompanied by intelligence gathering activities or other abusive law enforcement practices. The concern is particularly acute in relation to the FBI. (c) The USCMO is concerned that the Muslim community has been singled out by the administration for CVE. This singling out is Constitutionally-questionable and morally problematic.

The Muslim Advocates

While Muslim Advocates has been critical of the White House CVE summit, it was also invited to attend. It sent legal director, Glenn Katon, to share the group’s viewpoint.

“They seem to focus primarily on Muslim communities, which account for only a small fraction of terrorist activities carried out in the United States,” Farhana Khera, executive director of the group Muslim Advocates, said in an interview with Washington Post. She added that any faith community — including Christians and Jews, “would be horrified to learn that their religious leaders were asked by law enforcement to monitor their congregants’ religious views and opinions and report back to them.”

The killing of Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, (on February 10, 2015) “really underscores how dangerous it is for the US government, including the White House, to focus its countering violent extremism initiatives primarily on American Muslims”, said Farhana Khera.

Earlier in a statement the Muslim Advocates said:

“Muslim Advocates is deeply troubled by the message that the administration is sending by primarily focusing on American Muslims, particularly young American Muslims, at this week’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) summit.  While the facts show that perpetrators who are Muslim comprise a very tiny fraction of extremist violence in the US, a summit and CVE programs that focus on Muslims send the false and dangerous message to the American people that their Muslim neighbors are a threat to their safety.

“As the brutal murders in Chapel Hill tragically remind us, extremist violence cannot be predicted by any religious, ideological, ethnic, or racial profile. Furthermore, the few perpetrators of extremist violence who are Muslim generally do not have deep ties to the American Muslim community that could be addressed by CVE programs.  The Tsarnaev brothers, for example, were virtually unknown in the Boston Muslim community and were already known by the FBI and Russian intelligence.

“By primarily focusing on Muslims, this summit and government CVE programs undermine the safety of all Americans, including  American Muslims, who are living with the very real, well-founded fear that their neighbors may do them harm.  Muslim Advocates has urged the administration to broaden the focus of the summit and is extraordinarily disappointed that it has refused to do so.”

27 civil advocacy groups’ joint letter to Lisa Monaco

Not only the Muslim groups but the mainstream civil advocacy organizations have also opposed the CVE framework. On December 18, 2014, American Civil Liberties Union joined 26 other civil advocacy groups to send a letter to Lisa O. Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, expressing  concern about the targeting of American Muslim communities and communities presumed to be Muslim through activities conducted under the auspices of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

The letter said one purported method of CVE is to provide a space for community discussion of alternative political opinions and religious viewpoints, without the threat of government surveillance and monitoring. Yet CVE may also task community members to expansively monitor and report to law enforcement on the beliefs and expressive or associational activities of law-abiding Americans. “That approach to American Muslim communities—or any belief community— reproduces the same harm as government surveillance and monitoring. The result of generalized monitoring—whether conducted by the government or by community “partners”—is a climate of fear and self-censorship, where people must watch what they say and with whom they speak, lest they be reported for engaging in lawful behavior vaguely defined as suspicious.”

The joint letter in part said:

“We are concerned based on prior incidents of law enforcement overreach that law enforcement may use them as a pretext for intelligence gathering activities that treat entire communities as suspect. Indeed, in any community roundtable or event, the presence of Justice Department officials and police creates the risk that community members’ participation and statements may be recorded in intelligence databases.

“CVE’s stated goal is to “support and help empower American communities.” Yet CVE’s focus on American Muslim communities and communities presumed to be Muslim stigmatizes them as inherently suspect. It sets American Muslims apart from their neighbors and singles them out for monitoring based on faith, race and ethnicity.

“CVE’s focus on supporting local communities links it to traditional community policing initiatives. Yet federal support for community policing should focus on crime reduction in communities overall—and not succumb to a singular focus on terrorism or American Muslims. The federal government’s support for community policing should also be delinked from “radicalization” theory and related concepts. Empirical studies show that violent threats cannot be predicted by any religious, ideological, ethnic, or racial profiling. The evidence suggests that there is no direct link among religious observance, radical ideas and violent acts.

“Harmful associations with ISIS and other armed groups play into fear-mongering about American Muslim communities. They are amplified and distorted by the media and can be exploited by individuals and groups who promote anti-Muslim rhetoric. Government and law enforcement authorities have the power to significantly shape public discourse and send a strong message to the American public that fundamental rights such as equal protection and religious liberty must be defended. Singling out one community for special interventions and enhanced monitoring may have the effect of aggravating existing prejudices and reinforcing intolerance.

“Perhaps even more troubling would be CVE methods that favor one ideology over another. A government program cannot, directly or indirectly, choose which views within Islam or particular imams and community leaders are worthy of support and which are not.”

“We note the consensus of Muslim institutions and Muslim student leaders across the [California] state in expressing concerns about the narrow scope of the federal government CVE program,” said Council on American-Islamic Relations-LA (CAIR-LA) Executive Director Hussam Ayloush. “The best approach to accomplish the goals of any countering violent extremism program is to build trust and treat the community as a partner, not as a collection of potential suspects.”

CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Ayloush said that CAIR-LA, along with other local organizations serving American Muslim communities, previously issued a statement outlining their grave concerns about the proposed CVE program.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.