America’s new plan against extremism has Muslims sitting on the fence

SHAFAQNA – On a recent Friday in a mosque on the edge of an office park here, congregants filled rows of plastic chairs to hear community leaders discuss the role the White House hopes they will play in a new government effort to fight terrorism.

Instead, what they got was a debate over the proposed law-enforcement outreach to Muslim groups through community events, mentoring and youth programs, which are intended to prevent radicalization and identify extremists. Some Muslim leaders argued the government’s plan unfairly casts suspicion on the entire Muslim community, while others urged involvement as a way for Muslims to have a voice and safeguard their communities.

“We’re being pushed into this law-enforcement framework that’s inappropriate,” said Todd Gallinger, a representative of the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, in the mosque discussion. “This is something we need to avoid.”

But Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, encouraged participation, saying, “CVE is a tool.” He added that the community should think about how to “leverage CVE so that our community is seen for what it is—that it is part of the solution and has nothing to do with the problem.”

The rift playing out in the Orange County mosque and elsewhere demonstrates the challenge the Obama administration faces as it attempts to sell its plan, called Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, to the communities crucial to its success. The issue has gained potency with the rise of Islamic State, or ISIS, a violent Islamist group aggressively recruiting young Westerners.

On Monday, the U.S. charged six Minnesota men in connection with attempts to join ISIS, in a case involving one of the largest groups of potential foreign fighters. Minneapolis, with the country’s largest Somali immigrant population, is one of three pilot cities meant to test CVE programs before they are rolled out on a larger scale. Federal officials said the test cities, which include Boston and Los Angeles, were chosen because of strong existing relationships between the Muslim communities and law enforcement.

Government officials and supporters of the program say it isn’t a spy or intelligence-gathering mission. They note it was developed with the input of Muslim leaders from across the country, with an emphasis on mental health, social services and community-style policing, according to an administration official.

The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, an umbrella group, said earlier this year that the CVE singles out Muslims for law-enforcement scrutiny, which it called “constitutionally questionable and morally problematic.”

“We have concerns about any program that might violate civil rights, and on the other side, we are very much concerned about individuals falling into the trap of the wrong argument ISIS is putting out there to recruit innocent young people,” said Oussama Jammal, secretary-general of the group. “We’re in a tough position.”

The CVE programs are tailored to specific community needs, administration officials say. For example, many of the Somali immigrant Muslims in Minneapolis struggle with unemployment. Muslim communities in Los Angeles are more economically and ethnically diverse, and new immigrants often have trouble finding social and health services. In Boston, a college town that draws a diverse Muslim student population, the program could include psychologists to work with young people.

Federal officials are meeting with Muslims groups across the country to discuss the program, the administration official said.

Already, more than two dozen religious and civil-rights groups have publicly opposed or criticized CVE, including the American Civil Liberties Union, CAIR, Muslim Advocates and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, as well as some Muslim student associations and Muslim religious leaders. Some say they fear that the plan may include surveillance of Muslims.

Despite such criticism, government officials say many Muslim communities have embraced the program, such as in Denver and Detroit, especially in the wake of more high-profile prosecutions of young people from the U.S. attempting to join Islamic State.

“People are really worried about” ISIS recruitment, said an administration official. “So if Muslim American groups are concerned, that’s not the government singling them out. That’s the government responding to their needs.”

Another administration official recalled that in meetings with Muslim leaders at the White House earlier this year, President Barack Obama said that “there have been cases in the past that made the community more mistrustful, and said that’s why it’s so important for the community to be more involved.”

“The core of this program is building healthy and resilient communities, promoting civic participation,” said Joumana Silyan-Saba of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, who worked on L.A.’s CVE. Law enforcement has a role, she said, but the program also calls for beefing up social services for immigrant families.

That hasn’t been enough for some Muslims, who point to high-profile instances of surveillance in the past decade, including a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant in Orange County, Calif.

In the latter case, Craig Monteilh, a convicted check forger, said in court documents that the FBI hired him to pose as a Muslim and spy on mosques in the area. The FBI said it used him as a “confidential human source,” but didn’t detail his actions in court documents. An FBI spokeswoman said the FBI doesn’t target any individual or group based on religion.

Metra Salem, a 36-year-old mother of three and the daughter of Afghan immigrants, said she supports the Obama plan. “I want my kids to be part of this country. I’m tired of this victim-minority-group, marginalization narrative,” she said.

Mohannad Malas, a member of the mosque’s board, said he hadn’t heard enough to come to conclusions. His mosque regularly hosts visits from local law enforcement and city officials, he said, adding, “We have nothing to hide.” Recently, he said local police quickly removed offensive posters mocking the Prophet Muhammad that appeared around the mosque.

But Mr. Malas cited the visit years ago by an official from the FBI’s Los Angeles office. “He told us that he thinks of our community as the solution, and after that visit, we felt part of the solution,” Mr. Malas said. “Turns out, they were planting an informant [Mr. Monteilh].”

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