President Obama has taken a great deal of heat lately for his reluctance to label the violence of the Islamic State and its allies as “Islamic” terrorism. It’s not without irony, then, that the greatest shortcoming of a new White House plan to prevent radicalization is its narrow focus on Muslim Americans.
“Countering Violent Extremism” is a series of programs laid out at a three-day summit convened at the White House this past week. It is primarily focused on addressing the roots of terrorism at the local level, both at home and abroad. In the United States, the federal government will take an unusually hands-off approach, instead providing funds and guidance to local community groups, religious leaders, municipalities, and law enforcement. Yet these same on-the-ground groups are now expressing concern that the initiative must be redefined more broadly. They’re right.
Terrorism, by its nature, isn’t confined to a single ethnic group or religion. ISIS or Al Qaeda are undoubtedly a serious threat, but many American communities are more at risk from gang violence, white supremacist groups, or militia movements. Indeed, according to FBI statistics cited in the summit’s report, less than 6 percent of domestic terror attacks are carried out by Muslims.
Obama is adamant that the program is not meant to target Muslim Americans. Yet nearly every element of it suggests otherwise. It is informed by the experiences of Boston, Los Angeles, and the Twin Cities, which participated in US Justice Department pilot projects last year to explore what these initiatives might look like in practice. All three of these places have direct experience with tragedies perpetrated by radicalized Muslims: An Egyptian limousine driver killed three people at the Los Angeles airport in 2002. Young men from Minnesota’s Somali community are often targeted for recruitment by the terrorist group Al-Shabab. And, of course, the Boston Marathon attack was allegedly carried out by the Tsarnaev brothers, Muslims of Chechen descent.
And therein lies the problem. The success or failure of Obama’s initiative will depend on whether or not the federal government can convince local community members to buy into the programs — and it will be very hard to do that if they feel they are being unfairly targeted. Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, raised that point in a letter he wrote protesting the report on Boston’s pilot program presented by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz during the summit. “For the government to offer us services based on concerns of violent extremism in our community . . . seems to reinforce the same stereotype that society holds of American Muslims: That they or Islam are inherently violent,” Vali wrote.
Vali recommended that the target ought to be curbing violence, rather than radicalization. And, indeed, few of the recommendations the president is now advocating have to do with extremist ideology per se. Instead they appropriately focus on partnering with trusted local groups to offer vulnerable young men and women another path to acceptance.
This wider lens on thwarting terrorism will not only help to avoid further ostracization but also strengthen this program’s chances of reducing the true threats our communities face.