It was inevitable that the release of the Obama administration's new counter-radicalization strategy document, "Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism," would garner heavy criticism from the usual quarters. At this point, the White House couldn't release a Christmas card without setting off a virulent national debate.
Some critics of the strategy document argue that by not explicitly naming "radical Jihadism" or "Islamic fundamentalism" as the chief threat to US security, the White House is endangering the lives of Americans in an attempt to be politically correct. Others claim that the administration's focus on community development and grass-roots mobilization efforts is ineffectual because it seems to equate radical extremism with more localized problems like gang violence.
Yet the strategy document that these critics decry as weak and "politically correct" may in fact be the most enlightened, most effective plan that the United States has ever put forth in dealing with the problem of domestic terror.
First of all, while the new strategy document specifically cites al-Qaeda as the biggest threat to the United States, it no longer uses the term "Islamic fundamentalism" for the same reason the Bush Administration stopped using it, because it is counter-productive to a policy that relies on the assistance of Muslims to be effective. Ever since the attacks on September 11, 2001, American Muslims have faced increasing levels of discrimination as pundits and politicians repeatedly claim "Islam" - not terrorism, not al-Qaeda, not the Taliban - is the biggest threat to our national security. Never mind that the latest Gallup poll showed that American Muslims are far more likely than any other religious group in the United States to say there is never any justification for the killing of civilians (that's a staggering 78% of Muslims, compared to 38% of Protestants, 39% of Catholics, and 43% of Jews). Continuing to use rhetoric that explicitly ties Islam to terrorism not only further alienates the very community the government is desperate to reach out to, it ignores the very real danger of domestic terror attacks from radical right-wing groups, which analysts warn are on the rise in the US.
Secondly, as every counter-radicalization expert will tell you, the most effective way to fight domestic extremism is through community outreach. Contrary to what the President's critics claim, extremist groups function exactly like gangs. Both attract recruits who feel socially isolated, who struggle with a lack of economic opportunities, and who long for a strong sense of identity (Shameless plug: I wrote an entire book on this subject called Beyond Fundamentalism). Why shouldn't the same efforts that have proven successful in dealing with gang violence not be used to deter other forms ideological violence, be they religiously motivated or not?
The White House's new strategy document does not ignore the importance of law enforcement in countering violent extremism. It simply focuses an equal amount of energy on using community outreach tools to prevent people from joining extremist groups in the first place.
By focusing on a wider range of domestic threats beyond just "radical Islam," and by moving more government resources toward preventive measures, the Obama White House is being neither politically correct nor weak on terrorism. It is making Americans safer.
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