Countering Violent Extremism at Home: Treating Communities as Partners, Not Targets

A superior strategy for countering of violent extremism demands an overhaul of the Federal Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) approach. The US government can better mitigate extremist violence by supporting local and communal initiatives with financing and resources, de-policing CVE strategy, and divorcing violent extremism from the notion that it’s solely a “Muslim” issue.

President Obama’s Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States argued that “protecting American communities from al-Qa’ida’s hateful ideology is not the work of government alone. Communities—especially Muslim American…are often best positioned to take the lead because they know their communities best”. Current Federal CVE strategy includes (1) enhancing federal engagement with ‘at-risk’ local communities, (2) continuing to build up government and policing expertise for preventing violent extremism, and (3) countering violent extremism propaganda while promoting our own ideals.

The President’s CVE strategy had some solid elements, but it fell short of the commitment required to address violent extremism at home. CVE strategy continues to fight violent extremism through a limited security-first lens. The concurrent strategy also continues to ignore that the targeting of Muslim communities as the main source of domestic terrorism does more harm than good.

Current CVE may prevent some extremist violence. However, CVE has failed to address the larger problems and issues that negatively impact Muslim-American communities. In a 2011 study, Bartlett, Birdwell, and King found that terrorists, non-violent radicals, and young Muslims had all experienced a degree of societal exclusion. These same groups held a distrust of government, hatred for foreign policy, and a high level of distrust for policing and intelligence agencies. Additionally, radicals and young Muslims felt “genuine affection for Western values: tolerance, pluralism, system of government, and culture”. Additionally, the study found that many Muslim communities are already “undertaking self-policing within their own communities”. The key takeaway from this study is that a police-first approach that targets Muslims in America is an incomplete and flawed strategy. Such an approach fails to see the concerns of young Muslims and the complexity of their experiences in the U.S.

Caring about security demands a Federal strategy that prioritizes the well-being of all communities. A community’s concerns first approach may foster greater trust and encourage Muslim-Americans to become greater stakeholders of public concerns.

Enhancing federal engagement with local communities. This strategy isn’t effective if it catches the “bad guys,” at the cost of alienating young Muslims. This approach ignores the levels of discrimination and harassment faced by American Muslims. The distrust for policing and security agencies won’t change by asking Muslims to “police” their own, which they may already be doing. Such a paternalistic request may foster even greater distrust within those communities. A better and healthier CVE approach should be led by agencies under the DHHS, which plays a similar role preventing and identifying domestic human trafficking. DHHS-led efforts can help alleviate the feeling that Muslim-American communities are “under siege” by policing agencies.

Continuing to build up government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism. While this is important, the well-being of Muslim communities demands a holistic approach. CVE must also involve trauma-informed counselors, youth activists, faith leaders, school officials, and health and social services agencies, an approach undertaken in Montgomery County, MD. Federal agencies can finance local government initiatives to train health and mental health providers, social workers, teachers, and community leaders in identifying vulnerable individuals on the path to violence—regardless of religion. The same training can equip local stakeholders on how to alleviate the concerns of not just Muslim communities, but all communities in the locality.

Countering violent extremism propaganda while promoting our own ideals. This is also critically important, but it is primarily a function of Muslim communities. The Federal government could do more harm in promoting specific beliefs. However, the government, at all levels, has a role in promoting the ideal that all communities are to be respected and treated with dignity. Efforts in discrediting al-Qa’ida and other groups becomes exponentially harder if Muslims face violence and harassment in daily life. Government has a role in promoting democratic and humanitarian ideals, but leave religious discussions to community leaders.

We are dealing with two problems: young people turning to violence and Muslim-American communities facing violence, harassment, and alienation. Both of these problems are security concerns, but no community in America wants to be treated as a security problem. Even though we don’t fully grasp President Trump’s approach to CVE, we must continue to push for a strategy that treats Muslim-American communities as partners in this endeavor, and not as targets. Federal CVE strategy must prioritize the well-being of communities by financing and supporting local initiatives that are holistic, that aren’t police-centric or led, and that promote dignity and respect of all.

Quauhtli Olivieri Herrera is a public policy graduate student at Duke University, with focuses on national security and human trafficking.

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