THE BLOG

Will the White House's Violent Extremism Summit Address Pressing Civil Rights Concerns?

02/17/2015 06:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

Should the federal government task teachers, religious leaders, and mental health professionals with rating and reporting to law enforcement about the strength of a family's parent-child bond? A child's involvement in religious activities or his connection to a group identity? Whether there are "ideologues" within an American community or what its level of "cohesiveness" is? These and other deeply invasive and problematic questions are being considered as part of the government's strategy for "countering violent extremism." That strategy has been targeted at Muslims, at home and abroad.

From conceptualization to implementation, the CVE strategy raises significant constitutional and privacy concerns. It is not based on empirical evidence of effectiveness. It threatens to do more harm than good. We have raised these concerns repeatedly with officials across the government. Tomorrow, at a White House-convened summit on CVE, we expect to learn whether our concerns have been taken into account.

As the White House has articulated it so far, its CVE strategy seeks to prevent people from joining or supporting terrorist groups and engaging in ideologically-driven violence. The strategy calls on law enforcement, social service providers, and members of religious communities to identify individuals who might be susceptible to violence and to implement programs to stop them from committing it. Preventing acts of violence is a laudable goal, but the CVE strategy risks being counterproductive, alienating the very communities it is meant to engage.

As an initial matter, it's not at all clear that the kind of expansive thought-monitoring and prevention program the White House proposes is even called for. The number of people domestically who have engaged in or threaten to engage in violent attacks is minuscule -- in the low hundreds at most -- compared to the 14,000 murders the FBI reported in each of the last five years, for example. A traditional law enforcement approach can adequately address a small number of actual terrorism-related cases. That's especially true if the perceived threat is inflated by cases like one in California, in which a 20-year-old college student with mental health problems says he was only persuaded to travel to Syria to join ISIS after an FBI informant encouraged him to fulfill "idle boasts" made online.

And while attacks in Europe like the one on Charlie Hebdo are appalling, experts say that right-wing extremist violence presents more of a threat. In the words of one national security expert, "Europe's bigger problem is the divide between its Muslim and non-Muslim communities. This is less about counterterrorism and more about the need for better political and economic integration."

More fundamentally, the CVE strategy appears to be based on the same misguided theories and crude religious stereotypes that have proven not only ineffective, but also could violate the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. CVE is the most recent incarnation of a widely debunked theory that an individual's path to terrorism follows standardized, identifiable stages. In fact, the forces that result in acts of violence and terrorism are complex, highly individualized, and virtually impossible to predict. What evidence-based studies do show is that a person's ethnicity, national origin, or religious beliefs and practices are not good predictors of violence.

Yet, our government persists in singling out American Muslims; in viewing them through a security-based lens, it stigmatizes them as inherently suspect. It sends the wrong message that without a factual basis to suspect criminal conduct, American Muslims nevertheless need to be monitored and reported to law enforcement as potential sources of threat. At a time of widespread Islamophobia in this country, this may have the effect of aggravating societal prejudices and reinforcing intolerance. It also improperly shifts the task of crime prevention from law enforcement to communities, implicitly holding communities responsible if law enforcement fails to prevent a crime.

Our concerns about this CVE approach are magnified by documented abuses against American-Muslim communities by law enforcement--particularly the FBI and the NYPD. The FBI, for example, has pressured law-abiding American Muslims to become informants against their own communities, often in coercive circumstances. It has used community outreach programs (similar to what's proposed under the CVE strategy) to gather intelligence. The FBI and local law enforcement have deployed undercover agents and informants to infiltrate mosques and community centers without suspicion of wrongdoing. Terrorism sting operations by the FBI and US Attorneys' Offices often target vulnerable American Muslims who appear to have little or no propensity to commit crimes without the encouragement or assistance of government agents.

All these abusive practices are corrosive: they fuel suspicion and mistrust within American Muslim communities and at the same time increase distrust of law enforcement, even as top law enforcement officials say that CVE requires mutual trust and respect for rights. Government actions speak louder than words to American Muslim communities--like any other American communities--and without policies and practices that demonstrate a commitment to civil liberties and religious freedom in implementing CVE, the government risks making familiar mistakes all over again.

Targeting any American on the basis of political activism or religious observance or extreme views--as opposed to unlawful action--violates our Constitution. This is equally true when the government conducts the surveillance or when the government recruits community partners to monitor and report back to law enforcement. What results is a climate of fear and self-censorship, in which people must watch what they say and with whom they speak, lest they be reported for engaging in lawful behavior that the government vaguely defines as suspicious.

Such monitoring directly harms religious exercise and political expression, as individuals may abandon discussions about religion and politics--or stop attending worship services and community gatherings--to avoid being tracked into CVE programs that brand them as "at risk" or potential "terrorists." CVE programs also risk harming religious freedom if they have the effect, directly or indirectly, of selecting which views within Islam or particular imams and community leaders are worthy of support and which are not.

We asked the White House in December to address our concerns through concrete policy guidance and other safeguards. We're looking forward to seeing if it did so.