MPAC, Countering Violent Extremism and American Muslim Astroturf – A Critical Review

From Flickr common images: A clump of astroturf in the middle of grass

From Flickr common images

By Ahmed Shaikh

In the Los Angeles area, one of three “pilot program cities” for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), advocacy for it inside the Muslim community has failed. It is likely to fail elsewhere.

This result should have been self-evident. Anyone who believes Muslims will simply accept becoming second-class citizens more prone to violence than other faith groups is living in an orientalist dream world.

Opposition to the program was overwhelming from the get-go. The Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, representing almost all significant Muslim organizations in the Los Angeles region, voted unanimously against CVE in February, citing fears of surveillance, racial and religious profiling.

To the extent community “buy-in” was needed, the program was dead in Los Angeles. But, as a brand for the anti-terrorism industry in Washington D.C. and international capitals (living off the government trough), it is alive and well.

Many individual Muslims were eager to promote the program. CVE promoters do not exist in other faith communities or demographic groups, since there is no ecosystem of governments and no think tanks interested in amplifying the voices of such promoters.

Distinguishing themselves from other community organizations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) supports CVE (MPAC is a leading member of the Islamic Shura Council but did not participate in the vote on the program).

It is unlikely anyone at MPAC truly believes Muslims should be second-class citizens and are uniquely scary. So, how could they get this so wrong?

A Confusing Message

Looking back, MPAC was conflicted in a way that made its advocacy incomprehensible. In February of 2015 at the White House summit on CVE, MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati, in justifying the program, stated, “Perception is reality, and the American public is afraid right now, there is hysteria.”

The word “hysteria” is typically defined as an uncontrollable emotion historically regarded as a psychiatric disorder. It is now known as conversion disorder, where neurological symptoms, such as blindness, could occur without any organic cause.

Without question the focus on Muslims is disproportionate. MPAC seemed to be saying the hysteria of the American public demands it. Therefore, we must comply.

To the news media, Al-Marayati disabused anyone of the notion that his organization’s work in promoting CVE had anything to do with actual facts. He told the Associated Press:

The threat is ISIS, whether we like it or not; ISIS is front and center on the news in the media cycle. How many stories are there on sovereign citizens, white supremacists, and how many on ISIS and al-Qaeda? Whether it’s fair or not, it doesn’t matter. That’s the reality. We have to accept it.

While it was unfortunate a Muslim leader was willing to say fairness did not matter, it appeared to be only a begrudging endorsement of CVE.

In contrast, Haris Tarin, MPAC’s Washington D.C. director at the time, provided full-throated CVE support. For example, his lesson from the White House summit was that CVE would be “community led” and “community driven.”

MPAC’s arguments had this “Alice in Wonderland” logic to it. The organization was admittedly pushing an unfair narrative of the government’s and media’s making (that made the U.S. public hysterical), while simultaneously claiming this was actually led and driven by the Muslim community. Both cannot be true.

This may explain MPAC’s incomprehensibility: Around the time of the summit, Tarin was seeking a position with the Department of Homeland Security, one of the agencies charged with developing the CVE program. During this time, Tarin aggressively promoted CVE inside the community. Soon after the White House CVE summit, Tarin then accepted a government position with the agency charged with working on CVE.

While there is nothing wrong with seeking government employment, it could appear Tarin used his position to further the agenda of his future employer while working as a Muslim community leader. If Tarin had worked for the federal government and engaged in the same kind of behavior for a future employer, he could be guilty of a federal criminal statute. Of course, he worked for a Muslim organization. So, no crime was committed.

Tarin’s career path is not the only factor. In April of 2014, MPAC released its Safe Spaces initiative, written by Alejandro Beutel, a former MPAC Washington D.C. staffer. The Safe Spaces initiative included a rehashing of older, discredited anti-terrorism junk science concerning American Muslims re-packaged as an alleged grassroots effort, but with a little twist: Instead of calling the boogeyman “radicals” — they were to be called takfiris.

The term takfiri actually bore almost no relationship to the term takfir (declaring a Muslim to be a non-believer). Rather, it had the same elastic definition as “radical.” Among the groups that helped discredit “radicalization theory” was MPAC itself, which co-signed reports against such sweeping nonsense in the past. But now they promote something similar.

Safe Spaces included (you can read it here) dire signs of future terrorists that Muslim leaders should be looking out for when doing pre-crime detection in their communities, such as desiring “coolness,” an inclination to work against injustice, reading a book by Syed Qutb and other evidence-free assertions that were useful only because they can apply to almost anyone.

This is typical of government funded anti-terrorism “scholarship” used to justify religious or ethnic profiling, since they have little other practical use (most people have a desire for coolness). MPAC also cited as an expert on Islamic extremism a scholar at a think-tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Despite being aware of these problems (I discussed these issues with Al-Marayati privately for over a year. He assured me that changes were coming, but there were nothing more than marginal, unannounced deletions), MPAC went on to promote it in the media as a cure to address everything from ISIS recruitment in the United States to the Peshawar bombing.

What Makes Something “Grassroots?”

Despite Beutel’s residence in the Washington D.C. area and with no known community involvement (outside of MPAC), Safe Spaces was portrayed as a “grassroots” effort in the official government CVE framework for Los Angeles.  A request for an endorsement by MPAC from organizations in the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California was turned down. Yet the “grassroots” claim still exists.

The Brookings Institution, which in early June co-hosted the US-Islamic World Forum with funding from the government of Qatar, recently embraced Safe Spaces. The work of Brookings in relations to Islam and the Muslim community was funded largely by Haim Saban (it has been known as the “Saban Center”), a Los Angeles-based billionaire whose political work focuses solely on Israel.

Saban once famously said “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” This past weekend, for example, Saban helped organize a “mega-donor conference,” which included the Islamophobic Clarion Fund to fight against the student-led Pro-Palestinian rights BDS movement.

Beutel went on to work as a Department of Homeland Security contractor through an organization called START, which does anti-terrorism research.

Muslim community leaders should know the difference between grassroots and astroturfing, where moneyed interests attempt to simulate community appeal for a proposition the community may have no actual interest in or actively oppose. Despite repeated and propagandistic use of the term “grassroots” to describe Safe Spaces, both by MPAC and the government, it was actually astroturf.

So what now? How do we make more collaborative decisions? Here are a few suggestions for MPAC and other Muslim organizations to avoid such embarrassments in the future and to be more effective:

Recognize foreign and federal funds are being used to influence the US Muslim community.

The “Muslims-are-scary” narrative is a necessary one for the U.S. national security establishment and foreign government legitimacy. This is why many Muslims countries cannot have a democracy, Israel can occupy Palestine and the FBI can entrap the intellectually disabled in “stings.” The United Arab Emirates, for example, is known to be hostile to the civil rights and civil liberties of the U.S. Muslim community. They  named respected Muslim groups “terrorist organizations” and gave the NYPD one million dollars to further NYPD’s intelligence activities. The UAE is a significant White House partner in CVE.

Muslim leaders should view funds, including travel expenses and other forms of patronage, as suspect. Organizations should be transparent on funding and collaboration with governments, think tanks and groups hostile to the Muslim community. Not taking foreign government donations (MPAC’s stated policy) is not enough.

Publish conflict of interest policies for employees.

The U.S. government has such policies (indeed criminal laws). Large corporations care about these types of conflicts as well. Muslim institutions should not violate the trust of their supporters and donors and should adopt similar robust policies.

Make Decisions through a Shura.

There is a Quranic injunction about this. Southern California has an organization composed of almost all significant Muslim organizations. Other regions in the United States have similar organizations, or should. This can be used better.

When law enforcement in particular seeks out stakeholders in the Muslim community with whom to engage they prefer to hand-pick their favorites. Engagement through a Shura will reduce problems caused by self-interested individuals and organizations.

We should express honest disagreements on how to progress together and build consensus. Astroturfing and conflicts of interest compromise our collective voice and our work to build a better community and country.

Ahmed Shaikh (@bornshaikh on twitter) is an Estate Planning Attorney in Southern California.

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