In 2011, the Obama administration developed an anti-terrorism program called Countering Violent Extremism, more commonly known as CVE. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, this program aims to deter “violent extremism” by directing federal dollars to community-based organizations and people — such as health professionals, teachers and law enforcement agencies — to identify individuals who are “at risk” of joining terrorist groups. My hometown of Minneapolis was selected as one of the three pilot cities in 2014, alongside Boston and Los Angeles.
While its goals are entirely laudable, CVE is based on a misguided assumption positing that ideology is an obvious predictor of joining terrorist organizations and that there are clear-cut pathways to radicalization. This premise has been thoroughly debunked by empirical findings of the Obama White House and law enforcement agencies themselves, which reveal that there are no conspicuous markers leading someone to terrorism. Civil rights and civil liberties organizations have expressed fierce skepticism of CVE, arguing that this initiative is merely a smokescreen for government surveillance of Muslim communities.
The Somali community in Minnesota, which is directly impacted by CVE policies, has voiced similar concerns. I’ve heard numerous complaints from parents who fear that their children are being spied on in school. In fact, some of the biggest recipients of CVE grants are Minneapolis Public Schools, which now monitor kids as young as 6 for supposedly “suspicious” behavior.
Radicalization is very much a serious problem that needs to be addressed. There have been a number of times where young Somali men were either accused of or charged with joining Islamic extremist groups overseas. However, government surveillance projects do not solve this issue. They essentially rely on a narrow and xenophobic definition of terrorism that doesn’t account for the majority of actual terror-related incidents in this country, which are overwhelmingly committed by traditional right wing extremists. To further prove my point, Trump wants to modify counterterrorism efforts so that it focuses exclusively on Islam.
CVE creates needless suspicion, fear and stigmatization of Muslim communities. This federal pilot program should instead focus on building a trustful relationship with American Muslims and actually addressing community needs. Perhaps these steps will inevitably require that CVE do away with the counterterrorism and law enforcement umbrella. Put differently, CVE should focus on the integration and success of Muslim communities rather than their ability to identify terrorists.