By Salam Al-Marayati
Attorney General Eric Holder announced three pilot cities in September 2014 for a federal countering violent extremism (CVE) program – Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles — leading many to believe that funding and implementation were taking place. On the one hand, some thought those cities were chosen because they were positive examples of community-led initiatives to empower communities. On the other hand, some thought those cities were chosen because of local cases of violent extremism. The case was neither.
Instead, the Obama administration was attempting to jump-start conversations on CVE as a response to the threat of ISIS.As this federal government initiative is discussed in our communities, one must keep in mind that surveillance powers and profiling programs predated CVE. The White House’s Strategic Implementation Plan for CVE was first announced in 2011, while law enforcement was granted expansive powers by the Congress in the Patriot Act (2002), Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (2004) and Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act (2007).
The widespread use of surveillance, undercover agents and sting operations predated the announcement of the CVE framework. Four years later, the question remains whether the administration’s CVE campaign will reinforce heavy-handed law enforcement tactics in communities or preserve aspects of civil liberties that have been lost since 9/11.
Another major problem in CVE is that there is no coherent federal government strategy among all the agencies — the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, National Security Council and the National Counterterrorism Center each has its own approach and engagement. That vagueness resulted in filling the vacuum with various conjectures, from the U.S. increasing surveillance and profiling with CVE, to Imams becoming homeland security agents in mosques. Whether there is any truth to that fear or not, the U.S. government has failed in assuaging those concerns.
CVE is not getting support for its name, neither by those in the nonprofit sector nor even some within the federal government. Should the U.S. call it Countering Islamic State? Or, Countering Transnational Threats of Islamic Terrorists? A debate over nomenclature is understandable, but unless you have a good alternative, be careful for what you wish.
Then there is the issue of trust, or mistrust, of law enforcement. The U.S. government cannot expect to win hearts or minds on on its current counter terrorism policy, and President Obama admitted that weakness in his White House CVE Summit address.
At the same time, there is an ISIS threat directed at our communities, and we must therefore deal with this danger, whether you call it CVE or countering ISIS. There are repeated cases of young American Muslims leaving the U.S. to join ISIS, including 25 arrests this year alone. Last month, two young men in Anaheim, CA, were arrested after supporting ISIS online and allegedly making plans to provide material support for ISIS and join the group. An ISIS recruiter pleaded guilty to terrorism charges this week in Virginia. Parents are concerned about young Muslims being lured to join ISIS or Al-Shabab. Communities are discussing means of preventing radicalization and asking Imams to intervene with young people who are thinking about joining ISIS. Many forums on “The Crisis of ISIS” have taken place throughout the U.S.
Communities are concerned about youth who suffer from an identity crisis. Many mosques are anemic in programming that is relevant to contemporary issues. Imams and youth counselors are not supported in dealing with the increasing challenges. There is a major demand for mental health support as well. We are, therefore, congruent with the federal government’s goal dealing with the ISIS threat, but vary on tactics and areas of government jurisdiction.Aspects of the White House plan on CVE are, therefore, important to consider and probably congruous with current practices and goals within communities:
- Countering the ISIS narrative on social media
- Supporting community-led initiatives
- Building community resilience
We absolutely need initiatives, whether they are independent from or supported by the government, to prevent young people from being lured into such destruction. Parents, Imams and community leaders want to know how to protect their youth. ISIS and it’s supporters tweet 25,000-50,000 times a day on social media. In an effort to develop tools to help communities, MPAC interviewed more than a dozen imams, mental health professionals, legal experts and counter-extremism experts to develop the Safe Spaces Initiative, a proposed model for increasing capacity for open discussion and debate on social, political and identity issues and providing additional support for individual who may be troubled or misguided.
It is a community-led initiative, which will evolve with input and experience in pilot cities. It is one answer to the question of what can we do to promote healthy communities, but it is certainly not the only answer. It is also independent from the government CVE initiative. Safe Spaces is actually an alternative to heavy-handed law enforcement tactics in our mosques.
The bottom line is we must work together to countering the ISIS narrative and social media machine that exploit Islam to recruit young people to support them in their nefarious schemes.
Efforts in countering the ISIS threat are being undertaken throughout the world. Saudi Arabia had its own CVE Summit, which was attended by some American Muslim leaders. It is disingenuous then to criticize American Muslims who attended their own government’s White House Summit on CVE while promoting the Saudi version, particularly since the Saudi royal family and religious establishment own a lion share in the problem, wherein they globally sponsored the ideology of compulsion and takfirism that helped spawn the formation and financing of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Defining the issue merely through the lens of “pro-CVE” or “anti-CVE” misses the point. There are far too many dimensions to the issue to draw such a simplistic line in the sand.
Wholesale opposition is easy to do with the government and deny that any kind of problem exists. It is likely necessary to litigate to suspend certain counterproductive policies. For the good of the future of our faith and our children, we choose to engage the government directly on these complex issues in order to push for real policy changes. So real unity in our community requires for these different modes of dealing with government policies to operate simultaneously, independently and in collaboration as needed. Infighting and dogmatism will not help us deal with our challenges and complex realities effectively
And pay heed unto God and His Apostle, and do not [allow yourselves to] be at variance with one another, lest you lose heart and your moral strength desert you. And be patient in adversity: for, verily, God is with those who are patient in adversity. Quran 8:46
Salam Al-Marayati is the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.