Obama's parting gift targets Muslim American communities
After numerous delays and much anticipation, the Department of Homeland Security finally announced the recipients of its $10 million-worth of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) grants last Friday.
In a statement accompanying the grants, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote that "domestic-based efforts to counter violent extremism have become a homeland security imperative" in an age of "self-radicalisation and terrorist-inspired acts of violence".
The best efforts, continued the statement, are local and "tailored to a particular community". The funding will support activities which include "intervention, developing resilience, challenging the narrative, and building capacity".
Among the recipients are law enforcement agencies, non-profit organisations, universities, and several Muslim American organisations.
CVE initiatives have now been developed and implemented in various localities of the United States for half a decade. Despite claims that such initiatives are community-led, focused on a broad spectrum of extremism ideologies, promote law enforcement engagement with communities, and do not undermine civil liberties, their record has been less than impressive. The recent grants only further underscore all that is wrong with such programmes.
Eight organisations have received funding to develop community resilience to violent extremism. The government is certainly responsible for prioritising social service provisions to underserved communities, but the rationale for such grants under CVE stigmatises these communities and distorts their needs.
Minnesota's CVE framework, for example, identifies disaffected youth, disconnect between youth and religious leaders, internal identity crisis, community isolation, and lack of opportunity as "root causes" of violent extremism.
One DHS-supported study went so far as to identify "unobserved spaces" for Somali youth as a risk factor.
These attempts to provide social services for Muslim communities are not in fact efforts to support these communities but to achieve national security objectives. In doing so, Muslims are treated not as citizens with social and economic needs but as threats to be contained. This inevitably perpetuates the Islamophobic myths of Muslims as unique purveyors of extremism and contributes to the hate-filled atmosphere conducive to violence against them.
|The trouble with such pre-criminal investigations is that the government takes it upon itself, or deputises to others, the task of policing thoughts and behaviours not to its liking|
As Sahar Aziz, professor of law at Texas A&M University, pointed out in her testimony to the US House Committee on Homeland Security, social services should be funded and managed by "institutions whose missions are to develop communities, not prosecute and incarcerate individuals based on racial and ethnic stereotypes". Needless to say, the Department of Homeland Security hardly qualifies as such an institution.
Several organisations and local government agencies have also received grants to identify individuals vulnerable to violent extremism and intervene before they carry out violence. The trouble with such pre-criminal investigations is that the government takes it upon itself, or deputises to others, the task of policing thoughts and behaviours not to its liking.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that there are no predictive indicators which can help identify individuals susceptible to violent extremism. Reliance on a shoddy and discredited science is a recurring feature of CVE initiatives.
Any attempt to locate "risk factors" or "root causes" ends up, as seen in Minnesota's CVE framework, identifying behaviours and attitudes common to millions of people. Government policing of individuals' beliefs and behaviours also leads to the development of networks of informants ever ready to report their suspicions about their community members.
These fears are being realised in the FBI's Shared Responsibility Committees and "local intervention teams" outlined in the White House's revised Strategic Implementation Plan.
The grants concerned with Training and Engagement are also worrying, given the frequency with which law enforcement agencies have pursued intelligence-gathering operations under the guise of community engagement. The Montgomery County Police Department is refreshingly honest about considering the local CVE program "as a way to gather information on security threats and share it with state and federal officials".
Other law enforcement agencies have not been as forthcoming, hiding their intelligence gathering operations in Muslim communities under the cover of community outreach.
Given these concerns, the participation of Muslim American organisations in CVE initiatives has rightly become a cause for controversy. Many are claiming that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Masjid Muhammad Inc, the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA), and other organisations are "selling out" their communities in return for government funding. Unfortunately, such allegations rest on a complete misunderstanding of CVE and the participation of Muslim organisations.
Take the case of MPAC. In 2014, the Council released its Safe Spaces initiative. Like other CVE initiatives, Safe Spaces relies on discredited theories of radicalisation, believing that "desiring 'coolness', an inclination to work against injustice, [and] reading a book by Syed Qutb" are signs of individuals' susceptibility to violent extremism. It seemed to have no concerns regarding the consequences innocent Muslims may face due to such poorly thought out counter-terror programmes.
The author of the initiative would later go on to work as a Department of Homeland Security contractor. Haris Tarin, MPAC's DC director, would also go on to join his colleague at DHS.
In 2015, MPAC honoured Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson with an Empowering Voices award, lauding "his dedication to and personal investment in engagement with Muslim American communities". The organisation elected to ignore that such engagement rested on community members acting as extensions of law enforcement agencies.
The Council has long demonstrated its eagerness to uphold the national security imperatives of the United States, regardless of their consequences.
In a 2014 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, for example, the organisation's president and senior adviser decried the "rampant authoritarianism in the Muslim world". They failed to similarly decry the critical US support and funding which kept many of these autocratic governments in power.
The authors also took aim at "religious policing", "the regression of Muslim religious establishments funded by … autocratic governments", and compulsory alignment "with the ideology of the ruling power".
MPAC is now doing much of the same in the United States, an irony that will unfortunately be missed by those working for the organisation.
|It is only by demonstrating that they were willing to do the dirty work of law enforcement agencies... that they have now become recipients of the DHS grant|
This necessarily brief overview of MPAC should dispel any notions that the organisation - and other Muslim recipients of the DHS grant - have now decided to "sell out" their communities in exchange for Homeland Security funding.
These organisations sold out long ago.
It is only by demonstrating that they were willing to do the dirty work of law enforcement agencies - and police the thoughts and behaviours of their communities that they have now become recipients of the DHS grant.
The entire raison d'etre of CVE is to shift the focus away from the continual reproduction of terrorism as a result of US policies and towards the constant surveillance of Muslim American communities, who can be conveniently scapegoated as sources of such violent extremism.
That some Muslim organisations are all too keen to participate in such efforts speaks volumes about their priorities.
Waqas Mirza is a writer and activist based in Massachusetts. His work focuses on US foreign policy, War on Terror, Islamophobia, surveillance, policing and development.
Follow him on Twitter: @waqasahmi
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.