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Anti-extremism program won’t stop hate, say Muslims who’ve seen its flaws

Protesters with the Muslim Justice League canvass against Countering Violent Extremism in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood on Sept. 15, 2018. Photo courtesy Muslim Justice League

BOSTON (RNS) — As white nationalist movements experience a resurgence across the U.S. leading to violence — from a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas — political leaders are searching for answers.

For some, the solution lies in reviving the federal Countering Violent Extremism program.

Developed under the Department of Homeland Security in 2011, CVE aims to prevent all forms of violent extremism through community partnerships. But its primary motive was to prevent homegrown radicalization “that is inspired by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents.”

After the Trump administration largely gutted the initiative’s funding and focused the remaining programming even more intently on Muslim communities, some on the left are now arguing for reviving CVE, this time homing in on white supremacy.

Democratic presidential candidates Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris have both pledged to reinvest in the program, the latter promising to put $2 billion into the office overseeing CVE over the next decade.

Some commentators have suggested that CVE programming could have prevented the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. And a report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, recommends rebuilding the office as a first step to combatting white nationalist violence.

As progressive leaders advocate for the resurrection of the federally funded anti-extremism initiative, some Muslim and civil rights activists are pushing back. They argue CVE programming relies on discredited science, disproportionately targets Muslims and has led to police surveillance under the guise of outreach.

All of which, they say, ultimately undermines the program’s counter-terrorism goals.

“Repurposing this failed, discriminatory program to address white nationalist violence is building a new house on a shaky foundation,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates. “Whether under the purview of President Obama or President Trump, CVE programs have almost always been used to target, stereotype and criminalize American Muslims.”

Meanwhile, the question of engagement in the government’s CVE programs continues to divide Muslim communities across the country — including in the blue state of Massachusetts, where a half-million-dollar police mentorship program has targeted Boston’s Somali Muslim youth for the past two years.

Disagreements in Boston

Framed as a community partnership with the government, CVE funds local stakeholders — religious leaders, social service organizations, teachers, mental health professionals — to deter community members at risk of radicalization.

CVE critics and practitioners alike note that there is no reliable checklist of behavioral indicators to predict radicalization. That has led, critics argue, to anti-Muslim profiling and stigmatization of innocent behaviors, such as growing a beard, traveling to Muslim-majority countries or criticizing U.S. foreign policy.

Yusuf Vali, former executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, was once a key community partner in helping craft early CVE efforts in the city.

But as his attempts to re-orient Boston’s original framework for its local CVE efforts bore no fruit, he rapidly became disillusioned with the program entirely.

Vali detailed his concerns in a strongly worded dissent to the framework, published in 2015.

“It clearly appears that the CVE initiative is exclusively targeting the American-Muslim community, in spite of the best efforts of the local US attorney to redefine it expansively,” Vali wrote. “For the government to offer us services based on concerns of violent extremism in our community — as implied by this framework — seems to reinforce the same stereotype that society holds of American-Muslims: that they or Islam are inherently violent.”

That, Vali wrote, is “unacceptable” to Boston’s Muslims.

Shannon Al-Wakeel, executive director of the Muslim Justice League in Boston. Photo by Aysha Khan

A local group of Muslim lawyers and community organizers, known as the Muslim Justice League, have similar concerns. They have spent the past five years revealing details of CVE programs through a constant stream of public records requests; leading civil rights workshops and warning local Muslims about what they see as the dangers of CVE; and educating Muslim community leaders, lawyers, health professionals and educators about the ways in which CVE programs are expanding into the social service sector.

“It can be very attractive, when you’re an underfunded non-profit,” said Shannon Al-Wakeel, MJL’s co-founder and executive director. “But when federal officials tell you, ‘Here’s some money, now just keep going with your mission of helping serve this population that we view as likely terrorists,’ that’s not a gift without strings attached.”

Some community leaders disagree, however.

In 2015, the Islamic Council of New England published a statement noting civil rights violations against Muslims and the comparatively higher rate of terrorist attacks by non-Muslims. Still, the council argued, partnerships with the government could help mute the growing impact of Islamophobia.

“Muslims are in a sinking ship caught between the competing forces of erosion of civil rights and the destructiveness of Islamophobia,” Mazen Duwaji, then the mosque’s executive director, wrote. “If they attempt to jump ship by refusing to cooperate with the government for the common good of all … Muslims will rightly or wrongly be held accountable for any terror wrought by a Muslim terrorist.”

Abdirahman Yusuf, executive director of the Somali Development Center in Boston. Photo by Aysha Khan

Abdirahman Yusuf, director of Boston’s Somali Development Center, was one of three local non-profits that received Department of Justice funds through a 2017 CVE initiative dubbed the PEACE Project. When MJL sent a letter to his non-profit urging him not to accept the CVE funds, Yusuf ignored it.

“I was like, who is this woman I never even met telling me what to do?” Yusuf said. “People like (Al-Wakeel) who are saying that it’s a surveillance program, that it’s spying — that’s all lies.”

He dismissed the idea that there was disagreement among local Somalis over the issue of engaging with CVE.

“There are the traditional divisions of tribalism and things like that,” said Yusuf, who emphasized his organization’s holistic approach to countering violent extremism as part of a wider social safety net. “But the Somali community is not against anybody who’s going to educate them and enlighten them.”

The Youth and Police Initiative Plus

For the past several years, the Muslim Justice League has led a city-wide campaign in Boston to shut down a CVE-funded police-youth mentorship program, which Al-Wakeel says assumes that Somali youth are “inherently violent” and fears could soon be entering local schools.

About 85 local youth have graduated from the Youth and Police Initiative Plus, a two-year program in which Boston Police Department officers mentor cohorts of Somali teens in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood with the stated aim of preventing radicalization.

The program was funded by a $484,835 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Police Foundation in 2017. The grant expires next month.

YPIP aimed to create mentoring programs between Boston police and Somali youth to “enhance the resiliency” and “enhance understanding of the violent extremist threat within the Boston Somali community.” The program focused on “ISIS, Al-Shabaab and other Islamist terrorist movements most often targeting Somali-American youth,” according to the original grant proposal.

When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, a large population of refugees escaped the turmoil by fleeing to the Boston area. Somalis now make up Boston’s largest ethnic community of Muslims, with one of the largest concentrations in the neighborhood of Roxbury, where the ISBCC mosque is located.

YPIP’s grant proposal listed three main “risk factors” for Somali boys’ potential for violent extremism: “unaccountable times and unobserved spaces,” “perceived social legitimacy for violent radicalization and terrorist recruitment,” and “the presence of recruiters and associates,” citing a 2012 study by the START Center on building resilience to violence in Minnesota’s young Somali men. The proposal also references “unsafe neighborhoods,” “lack of opportunities,” “mistrust of law enforcement,” and “direct and indirect traumas” as potential risk factors.

“Here’s a refugee diaspora community that has suffered immense trauma and is suffering from socioeconomic challenges here in the U.S.,” Al-Wakeel said. “To have those challenges portrayed as putting them at risk of being a threat to the U.S. is extremely dangerous and discriminatory.”

A “logic model” for the Youth and Police Initiative Plus, included in a grant proposal submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by the Police Foundation in 2016.

Two years ago, community leaders from MJL, the ISBCC, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other organizations met with then-Boston Police Department Commissioner William Evans to share their concerns about the department’s involvement with CVE.

The commissioner told critics that the department intended to pursue the YPIP project regardless of federal funding. That led to more than 30 community organizations signing on to a follow-up letter to the commissioner urging the BPD to end its “involvement in community outreach programs … that credit false and stigmatizing theories about predispositions toward violence.”

Critics point to drafts of YPIP surveys, which included multiple-choice questions about Islam’s relationship to violence, extremism and anti-American attitudes.

“Would you agree that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths?” one question asked youth. Other questions asked participants if they visit religious websites, how strongly they identify as Muslim and whether they think Muslims are treated fairly. Yet another asked youth to estimate the level of support for extremism among U.S. Muslims.

After reading those draft surveys, YPIP’s original community liaison withdrew from all CVE initiatives, saying she had grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with YPIP’s intentions.

“I’d like to remind those still involved in the program that extremism, radicalization and violence exists across cultures, religions and ethnicities,” Somali American entrepreneur Deeqo Jibril wrote in an email to YPIP organizers last year. “Focusing efforts specifically on one subgroup will ultimately create deeper divisions in our fractured society, doing more harm than good.”

YPIP’s coordinators soon found a replacement liaison in Said Ahmed, founder of the non-profit United Somali Youth, who had previously accepted a $107,000 CVE grant through the Department of Justice’s 2017 PEACE Project.

But Ahmed had once been a vocal critic of the CVE initiative.

In 2015, he spoke about the surveillance of Muslims on a panel alongside activists from MJL and the ACLU. That same year, he stood outside Boston City Hall with MJL and CAIR leaders to protest CVE programs as anti-Muslim.

“This is a program that is profiling all kinds of young people. This is a serious issue,” he said then, noting that meetings planning the program’s implementation are held only with select individuals from Muslim community organizations. “They want to divide and conquer the Muslim community.”

Boston police officers attend the graduation for youth participating in the Youth and Police Initiative Plus. April 20, 2018. Photo courtesy Boston Police Department

The project’s organizers — who later removed some of those questions from the surveys and told Religion News Service that Jibril left the program in order to run for local office — say critics of YPIP misunderstand its origins and aims.

YPIP is an adaptation of the Youth and Police Initiative, a broader violence prevention program developed by Boston-area social service organization North American Family Institute.

The original program was first developed to help Baltimore’s increasingly white police force learn more about black urban youth culture. It has since been implemented in 31 U.S. cities to help reduce street and gang violence.

Frank Straub, the Police Foundation’s director of strategic studies, said the only difference between that original program and the CVE-funded YPIP version is that the latter connects youth to social services through a partnership with the Roxbury non-profit United Somali Youth.

The sessions begin with the teens learning public speaking skills and discussing their aspirations and life experiences. Then, local police officers are invited in to share their own life stories. Eventually, Straub said, the officers and teens are asked to share their impressions of each other.

Through role-playing exercises and team-building activities, the officers and youth are encouraged to tackle “hot-button topics,” like drug use, race and stereotyping.

Abdullahi Faarah, a participant in the Youth and Police Initiative Plus program, meets with then-Commissioner William Evans on April 20, 2018. Photo courtesy Boston Police Department

“The idea is to build relationships, to gain an appreciation of each others’ culture and way of living,” Straub said, noting that all the YPIP sessions ended with a celebratory Somali meal. “Some of the police have never met a Somali person. Some of them have never met somebody of the Muslim faith. We believe it’s important to have those discussions to break down cultural barriers, for the young people to talk about their faith and about Somalia.”

Coordinators deny that YPIP engaged in any racial or religious discrimination. They said the program’s surveys were similar to ones that participants in the original program take.

“We really did start trying to reduce biases as much as we possibly could, treating these kids like all other teenagers who go through (the original program in other cities),” said Jay Paris, who coordinates all youth programs for North American Family Institute. “There were maybe one question or two that we decided wouldn’t be fair. They were more weighted towards assumptions that this is a population that is at risk for extremism.”

Straub said the coordinators ultimately decided some of the questions about religion were distracting and “too strong.”

MJL leaders have also expressed concerns that YPIP may expand to local schools, based on internal emails obtained through records requests. They worry this move could potentially deputize teachers and counselors to report concerns over potential signs of radicalization in children.

Paris confirmed that the broader Youth and Police Initiative will soon launch in some area high schools to build relationships between students and local law enforcement. He said funding will not come from CVE grants.

Schisms, from city to city

Under Obama, CVE grants focused almost entirely on Muslim communities, according to a new evaluation of the program by Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. The report, funded by the Department of Justice, found that the program stalled in no small part due to its failure to address all forms of violent extremism and opposition to the program by significant factions of U.S. Muslims.

That hasn’t changed since the 2016 election.

In the Trump administration’s early months, the federal CVE initiative drew headlines due to reports that the president planned to rebrand the effort “Countering Islamic Extremism.”

While the name change never panned out, 85% of CVE grants awarded under Trump explicitly targeted Muslims and other minority groups, per an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. The Trump administration has also nearly tripled the amount of CVE funding awarded to law enforcement.

That means the ongoing debate among Muslims over whether to engage in CVE and other government-led anti-extremism initiatives is unlikely to die down any time soon.

That has left Muslims involved in CVE in difficult situations.

Take Laila Alawa, a Muslim media entrepreneur based between Washington, D.C. and Boston. She has drawn vitriolic anti-Muslim harassment for her involvement in a 2016 Homeland Security Council subcommittee on CVE. But she has also been lambasted by Muslim activists for helping inform that same subcommittee about Muslim pop culture and millennials.

Laila Alawa runs a Muslim-led feminist media company in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Laila Alawa

Sherman Jackson, a renowned scholar of Islamic studies, has also drawn criticism for his involvement in advising a committee on CVE. One Muslim commentator recently cited Jackson’s involvement as a sign of the “political impotence of the Muslim American community.”

Such schisms among Muslims over CVE programming reflect a nationwide trend.

“Some people said, ‘This is an important program for our country and we’re patriotic Americans who want to work with our government to stop violence from happening. We want to be teaching police forces what Islam is really about, we want to provide educational programs in our communities,’” noted Duke’s David Schanzer of the Muslim focus groups he interviewed around the country while compiling the CVE evaluation. “Then there were others, and I’m not suggesting they weren’t patriotic, who felt very strongly that this was a misguided route and Muslims should not participate in them.”

Schanzer recalled one young Muslim interviewee who accused community leaders who engaged with CVE of “selling out” innocent young Muslims, and another who referred to these mostly older, more established leaders as “Muslim Uncle Toms.”

Last fall, civil rights organizers in the pilot city of Los Angeles successfully forced the city’s mayor to turn down $425,000 in CVE grant funding. Other Muslim groups in the area, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, have been more willing to work with the government for CVE programs.

In 2017, the Islamic graduate school Bayan Claremont turned down an $800,000 DHS grant — which school administrators had decided to apply for, despite objections from local Muslims, because of the good they felt the money could do — because “Trump poisoned the well.”

A protester with the Muslim Justice League canvasses against Countering Violent Extremism in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood on Sept. 15, 2018. Photo courtesy Muslim Justice League

Such debates reflect the results of one report by the University of Maryland’s START Center, which found a clear divide among Los Angeles’ Muslims between “engagers” and “disengagers.”

The former group argues that CVE programs allow communities to be part of the solution to violent extremism and provide resources for important community programming. The latter views the initiative as stigmatizing, part of the government’s wider surveillance project and rooted in anti-Muslim presumptions.

In the Twin Cities, too, Carleton College professor Ahmed Ibrahim has seen such sparring play out.

“Especially under Obama, when these programs were at their height, there were divides among activists and NGOs between those willing to work with the government and those who were mobilizing against it,” said Ibrahim, who is currently researching how CVE programs among the Twin Cities’ Somalis mirrors U.S. foreign policy toward Somalia, a country listed on Trump’s travel ban.

Dozens of Muslim organizations in Minnesota have condemned CVE for treating all Somali Muslims as “suspects” and urged the federal government to separate funds used for social services from counter-terrorism and law enforcement.

Beyond the ideological divides over whether to engage with the government, CVE and other government-sponsored community outreach and intelligence gathering efforts targeting Muslims have sown distrust and paranoia among Muslims.

“People are suspicious of each other,” Ibrahim said. “They’re afraid of talking to someone they don’t know, or talking to someone they’ve never seen at the mosque before.”

The rifts over CVE are unlikely to go away soon. And they will only be exacerbated if the program is expanded to substantially address other communities, said Faiza Patel, who researches national security and counter-terrorism at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Expanding CVE might sound to presidential candidates like a helpful way to address white nationalist violence, said Patel. But she said it is unlikely to work.

“There’s a lot of interest in CVE as a solution to the rates of violence we’re seeing over the last few years, and that might create a new appetite for CVE,” Patel said. “But as difficult as it has been in the Muslim community, I can imagine that it will face more obstacles going into white communities in the United States. I think it’s unlikely to proceed down that path.”

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, curates news coverage of Muslim communities in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

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