White House Announces Countering Violent Extremism Program: Is It Pretext for Spying on Muslims?

While the threat of ISIL is real, Muslims in America should not collectively pay the price every time an individual or group engages in political violence in the name of Islam. Overtly targeting Muslims only corroborates what many Americans have suspected for decades -- systemic bias against minorities infects law enforcement.
10/01/2014 05:48 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured international attention as the world witnesses in horror its brutality. Notwithstanding that most of ISIL's victims are Muslim, its atrocities are reinforcing false stereotypes that something is inherently violent about Islam. As a result, the Obama administration is under pressure to scrutinize Muslim communities across the country. Hence the DOJ's recent announcement of a pilot program to counter violent extremists (CVE) may be the latest effort at targeted surveillance and counterterrorism enforcement of Muslim Americans.

ISIL arose out of the political chaos that ensued after the U.S. invaded Iraq with no cogent exit strategy or understanding of the complex ethnic and religious tensions in Iraq. Indeed, ISIL fighters are primarily disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis abused by U.S.-supported former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's sectarian politics. Some fighters, the precise number is unknown, hold Western passports and use their English fluency to recruit Muslims living in the West. This phenomenon has understandably rattled the American government as it scrambles to identify who is susceptible to ISIL recruitment and whether those individuals will return to the U.S. to engage in terrorism.

To address these concerns, the U.S. Department of Justice's CVE program purports to bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and U.S. Attorneys to improve local engagement and counter violent extremism. The stated objective is to keep the nation safe by developing more effective and inclusive ways to build a more just, secure, and free society for all Americans.

Notwithstanding the lofty rhetoric and neutral language, America's CVE strategy is flawed for four reasons. First, it racially and religiously profiles Muslims. Indeed, most if not all of the governments "community engagement" CVE activities target Arab and South Asian Muslim communities. This is despite recent cases of terrorist groups in the Middle East recruiting individuals from various racial and ethnic backgrounds to avoid scrutiny by Western governments who profile Muslims in counterterrorism. Meanwhile, domestic right wing extremist groups are excluded altogether from such programs.

Second, CVE policies punish law abiding citizens and residents who openly and legally express their political oppositional views against American hegemony or orthodox religious practices by making them targets of surveillance, investigation, and prosecution. Muslim communities, therefore, suspect CVE programs are not so much about public safety as they are about religious and racial profiling. In turn, members of these communities become less willing to cooperate with law enforcement because they view CVE as merely political scapegoating at the expense of their liberty and livelihoods. When contextualized with America's aggressive police tactics in the 1960s and 1970s against civil rights, Black Nationalist, and anti-war groups and the disproportionate focus on African Americans in the War on Drugs, such suspicions are not far-fetched.

Third, no law prohibits CVE meetings from serving as intelligence gathering operations for law enforcement to identify potential informants, target individuals for FBI voluntary interviews, and catalogue who's who in Muslim communities. Nor are there any policies or oversight mechanisms ensuring the government delivers on its promises to reform rights-infringing policies. Indeed, tangible policy reforms arising from the community engagements are the anomaly rather than the norm.

Finally, CVE programs that purport to empower communities as stakeholders may perpetuate existing gender and class hierarchies within Muslim communities. The experiences of new immigrants are starkly different than third or fourth generation Americans notwithstanding a shared religious or ethnic background. Because many Muslim communities are lead by males, insensitivity to these circumstances risks making the government an unwitting enabler of gender bias, intra-community ethnic conflicts, and political disputes.

While the threat of ISIL is real, Muslims in America should not collectively pay the price every time an individual or group engages in political violence in the name of Islam. At a time when racialized over-policing of African Americans has gained national attention, overtly targeting Muslims only corroborates what many Americans have suspected for decades -- systemic bias against minorities infects law enforcement.

Absent meaningful reforms, the latest round of CVE programs is likely to be no more than pretext for invidious discrimination to scapegoat politically vulnerable minorities for the failings of the state to protect the nation from the real terrorists.

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Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A&M School of Law where she teaches national security and civil rights. She is the author of "Policing Terrorists in the Community".