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Waqas Mirza

Manufacturing an American Islam in the age of Trump

The Trump administration hopes to rebrand the counter-extremism programme to target only 'Islamic Extremism' [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 April, 2017

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Comment: Government funding and assistance empowers those Muslim American organisations which are broadly supportive of US national security priorities, at the expense of more critical actors, writes Waqas Mirza.

Advocates and critics of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives in the United States are finding they have less and less common ground.

While civil rights and community groups see the programme as causing the unnecessary stigmatisation and erroneous identification of Muslim Americans as potential "terrorists", its advocates - consisting primarily of government officials and counter-terrorism experts - see it as indispensable to the security of the country.

One issue on which the two sides do however seem to agree, is their opposition to the Trump administration's plans to re-brand CVE initiatives to focus exclusively and explicitly on "Islamic Extremism".

Hostility to the move was to be expected from Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, who called it "a terrible idea on so many levels" and a "short-sighted, dangerous decision". Less expected was the reaction of J.M. Berger - a member of the much-vaunted clique of counter-terrorism experts, who criticized it for sending "a message of religious and racial exclusion".

Professor John Horgan of Georgia State University, who previously advised the Greater Boston CVE Working Group, went further and tweeted that if the re-branding took place, he would not "hesitate to boycott all such efforts". The Brookings Institution's Quinta Jurecic wrote that there was "plenty to be unsettled about" regarding the administration's planned change.

The news certainly was unsettling and led to at least four nonprofits rejecting CVE grants they had been awarded in the final days of the Obama administration. While such belated opposition is largely driven by the overt anti-Muslim animus of the Trump administration, Islamophobia has in fact long been an integral component of CVE.

Islamophobia has in fact long been an integral component of CVE

As a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice shows, these initiatives have long focused exclusively on Muslims - stigmatising already vulnerable communities - and are based on a dangerous and discredited methodology which takes innocuous behaviors to be "risk factors" of radicalisation.

There are two "shaky premises" of CVE initiatives, according to the report. The first is a belief that "extremist ideology is a precursor to, and driver of, terrorism". The report cites numerous experts and refers to "a multitude of empirical studies" which suggest otherwise. People who carry out violent attacks do not necessarily hold extremist ideas and the vast majority of people who hold extremist ideas never actually carry out violence.

Demonstrators at a protest challenging the New Yrok police
department's surveillance of businesses frequented by Muslim
residents [Getty]

The second premise of CVE is that "there is a predictable path toward terrorism with clear markers that can be used to identify potential terrorists". Again, the empirical research points in the other direction. The report cites the FBI's own Strategic Plan to Curb Violent Extremism which states that there is "neither one path or personality type, which is prone to adopting extremist views of exhibiting violent tendencies".

Despite admitting that there is no way to identify who may become a violent extremist, CVE initiatives proceed on the assumption that "there must be ways to identify people who might become terrorists". These ways are commonly referred to as "risk factors" of radicalisation and include "subjective personality assessments and evaluations of political beliefs".

Such an approach effectively establishes sites of surveillance for groups that are considered "at risk". School teachers, social workers, religious figures, and even family and community members are deputised to constantly be on the look out for vague and discredited "risk factors" of radicalisation. Meanwhile, the necessary "social compacts and trusting relationships" required to serve communities are undermined. 

People who carry out violent attacks do not necessarily hold extremist ideas and the vast majority of people who hold extremist ideas never actually carry out violence

This is all the more troubling given the central role law enforcement agencies play in CVE initiatives, and the possibility of intelligence gathering operations being carried out under the pretext of community engagement and empowerment.

Internal FBI documents cited in the report, for example, describe CVE as a way to "strengthen our investigative, intelligence gathering, and collaborative abilities to be proactive in countering violent extremism". In Montgomery County, Maryland, the assistant police chief has been refreshingly forthcoming about using CVE "to gather information on security threats and share it with state and federal officials".

Read more: Banning the Brotherhood

The report concludes by calling on government agencies and nonprofits to "dismantle" CVE initiatives or - in case they are not willing to do so - ensure the initiatives are transparent and incorporate proper safeguards. It also calls for educational and social programs under CVE to be "de-linked" from "counter-terrorism", calling them "broadly beneficial".

The report effectively highlights the manifold dangers of CVE initiatives and their tendency to produce "false positives" - identify individuals as "potential terrorists" without any basis - but it suffers from its own shortcomings that are typical of policy-oriented approaches. 

It is no accident that criticism of US foreign policy is so frequently identified as an 'extremist narrative' under CVE

While it recognizes that government agencies are developing and implementing CVE initiatives with the knowledge that they lack any basis in evidence, it does not go on to ask why this is so. Without asking this question we are left to believe that the intended objectives of these initiatives are those that its proponents claim. Needless to say, such an assumption requires extraordinary trust in the good intentions of government agencies which are thoroughly undeserving of it.

There are at least two major effects of CVE initiatives that are worth considering.

Government funding and assistance empowers Muslim American individuals and organisations which are broadly supportive of the national security priorities of the United States at the expense of other, more independent or critical, actors.

This is an attempt to manufacture an American Islam that both reflects and reinforces the hegemonic ideology of the state

This is an attempt to manufacture an American Islam that both reflects and reinforces the hegemonic ideology of the state. It is no accident that criticism of US foreign policy is so frequently identified as an "extremist narrative" under CVE.

Secondly, as a number of intelligence assessments and government reports have concluded, US policies toward, and its countless military operations in Muslim-majority countries have continually fortified the ranks of "terrorist" groups, and lend credence to their claims that the United States is at war with Islam.

CVE initiatives usefully deflect attention away from all such concerns, and putting the onus on Muslim communities as incubators of extremist ideologies, even helps to justify these policies. Indeed, the entire raison d'être of CVE seems to be to dissociate "violent extremism" from the policies which continually empower it.

There is no amount of safeguards and no level of transparency that can make such a strategy beneficial for Muslim American communities.

Understanding the rationale for CVE and the effects the strategy has on targeted communities is indispensable to forming any coherent opposition to the initiatives as they are developed and implemented at the local, state, and federal level.

Ultimately, any effective opposition to the initiatives will need to focus not only on the adverse impact on civil liberties, but also on the ways that they help justify the carceral state at home, and wars abroad.


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.

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