Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

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All Americans want to be kept safe from acts of violence, whatever their source. The federal government’s current initiatives to counter violent extremism (CVE) in the United States however, focus mainly on Muslim communities, even though the overwhelming majority of extremist violence in the United States is carried out by non-Muslims.

Focusing the bulk of CVE efforts on American Muslim communities at the expense of addressing the larger and truly diverse threat of extremist violence makes us less safe and perpetuates the false perception that Muslims pose a special threat to America. As a result of this false perception, many members of the public have come to regard their own Muslim neighbors with suspicion, often voicing bigoted, anti-Muslim views and, sometimes, carrying out anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Muslim Advocates supports effective government efforts that focus on all threats of extremist violence so long as they do not equate religious or political activity with a propensity to commit acts of violence.

What are CVE Programs?

Representatives from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, FBI, and United States Attorneys’ offices—often in partnership with state and local law enforcement—organize meetings across the country with Muslim community representatives, religious leaders, and others, with the ostensible goal of improving community engagement and helping “counter violent extremism.” The initiatives also include trainings and websites with the stated goal of identifying signs of burgeoning extremist violence. These activities target Muslim communities almost exclusively, though, again, the overwhelming majority of domestic acts of extremist violence do not involve Muslims. Also, as explained more fully below, the CVE programs rely on a debunked theory of “radicalization” and interfere with American Muslims’ ability to practice their faith freely and their exercise of other basic constitutional rights.

CVE Programs Based Upon Inaccurate Portrayal of Muslim Threat

In addition to the nationwide meetings described above, the federal government has conducted CVE “pilot programs” in three designated cities and has expanded these efforts to other cities throughout 2015. In February 2015, the White House held a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism and in June 2015, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) introduced a CVE bill, the Countering Violent Extremism Act of 2015, in Congress. The CVE bill seeks to codify CVE’s focus on American Muslims, though not expressly. For example, it refers to “communities” at risk for violent extremism. Only Muslim communities have ever been referenced in such a way. White communities are not targeted for CVE to reach violent White supremacists, environmentalist communities are not targeted to reach so-called eco-terrorists, and Catholics are not targeted to reach violent anti-abortion activists. Only Muslim communities are seen as appropriate targets of CVE. A broad coalition of civil rights and religious organizations has opposed the bill.

The pilot programs, the Summit, and the CVE bill—like the broader CVE programs that came before—have treated extremist violence as though it were an almost exclusively Muslim problem. Chairman McCaul, in fact, has focused solely on the threat posed by ISIS when discussing the CVE bill, as though the violent extremist threat facing our country begins and ends there. Similarly, former the Justice Department’s announcement of the White House Summit referred only to Muslim threats, noting “the emergence of groups like ISIL,” “travel to [predominantly Muslim] countries like Iraq and Syria,” and “the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

The government has maintained this focus on Muslims even though incidents of extremist violence in the United States attributable to them comprise only a small fraction of those carried out. Our recent history is rife with examples of non-Muslim extremist violence. For instance, in June 2015, a white supremacist killed nine congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, one of the nation’s oldest and most revered African-American churches. This attack was one of the most lethal attacks on an American house of worship since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2014, a neo-Nazi killed three individuals at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and Village Shalom, a Jewish retirement community, both located in Overland Park, Kansas. In 2012, in one of the deadliest hate crimes in our nation’s history, a gunman with neo­-Nazi ties stormed into a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire on what he thought was a congregation of Muslims, killing six Sikh worshippers and injuring three others.  More recently, an armed anti-government militia has occupied a federal building in Oregon for several weeks. Nevertheless, incidents like the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, capture a grossly disproportionate amount of the country’s attention, so CVE programs continue to focus on Muslim communities.

Another of the many examples of federal law enforcement’s conflation of extremist violence and Islam can be seen in an October 2014 FBI Bulletin titled “A New Approach to Countering Violent Extremism: Sharing Expertise and Empowering Local Communities.” When describing threats and touting its work with local communities, the FBI Bulletin uses only Muslims as references: the Boston marathon bombing, the Somali community in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and an interagency coordination group that met with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Muslim Community Affairs Unit. The bulletin also makes passing reference to an FBI-concocted plot in Wichita, in which Terry Lee Loewen purportedly believed he was working with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to detonate a bomb at Mid-Continent Airport.

The Government’s Portrayal of Violent Extremist Neglects the Overwhelming Majority of Actual Threats

That the Holder announcement and FBI Bulletin would focus on threats involving Muslim perpetrators and wholly ignore the roughly 94% of other threats of extremist violence is at the core of the problem with CVE programs. According to data collected by the National Counterterrorism Center, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, and the Southern Poverty Law Center show that the vast majority of terrorist incidents in the United States between 1995 and 2011 were committed by right-wing extremist groups.  The FBI’s “Terrorism 2002-2005” report, which tracked every “terrorist incident” from 1980 through 2005, some 6% was attributable to Muslims. Numerous other studies identify right-wing extremists as the leading threat of ideological violence in the United States

Thus, the government’s portrayal of the violent extremist threat in America neglects the overwhelming majority of actual threats, making us less safe and sending a dangerous message to other Americans about their Muslim neighbors.

False Assumptions Underlying CVE Programs

The government’s misguided CVE programming is a product of many false assumptions. The “radicalization theory” is perhaps the best known. Although it has been debunked as junk science many times, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies continue to use its rhetoric and rely upon its faulty premises. The theory suggests that there is a “path” down which individuals can go that leads to the point of being willing to commit acts of violence. Indicators of so-called radicalization include being part of “Muslim enclaves,” wearing “Islamic clothing,” growing a beard, abstaining from alcohol and joining advocacy organizations or community groups. By using identifiably Islamic practices and Muslim community involvement as supposed indications of radicalization, the government stigmatizes Muslims and discourages them from all aspects of practicing their faith, threatening bedrock values of our democracy: freedom of expression, religion, and assembly.

[Image: Graphic from White House CVE Summit depicting the so-called path to radicalization in a farcically simplistic manner]

Biased Law Enforcement Programs Undermine Community Trust

Anytime law enforcement targets members of a community based upon who they are—instead of behavior indicative of crime—those practices become ineffective and damage the relationships with the communities themselves—communities law enforcement is supposed to be serving. In this sense, CVE programs are tantamount to racial and religious profiling. Further undermining community trust is the fact that many of these programs have served as intelligence gathering operations. In the past CVE-style programs have been used to surveil unsuspecting community participants and to cull information to further target American Muslims without evidence of wrongdoing. Thankfully, President Obama made clear at the February 2014 White House Summit his disapproval of using engagement with communities as a cover for surveillance, but it remains to be seen what safeguards are in place to ensure these practices do not continue.

Ironically, government CVE efforts to “build partnerships and build trust” with Muslim communities often reveal the underlying biases of such efforts and further alienate fellow Americans. Even Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, when meeting with Muslim leaders in Southern California in September 2014, actually told them: “This is as much your homeland, your country, your public safety as anybody else’s,” as if they needed to be reminded that they are Americans and should be concerned about public safety.

We encourage the federal government to pursue policy rooted in American principles of religious freedom, as detailed by President Obama in a December 2015 nationally televised address: “It is our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose…We were founded upon a belief in human dignity – that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.”