Last Wednesday, the FBI announced that it had arrested a 29-year-old white supremacist who was planning to attack a South Carolina synagogue “in the spirit of Dylann Roof.” The next day, Robert Doggart, a Tennessee native, was found guilty for plotting in 2015 to organize a militia to commit a massacre of Muslims in New York. The following Sunday, the Birmingham Islamic Society received an email promising the deaths of Muslims, Mexicans, and African-Americans in the United States, and the next day saw yet another wave of bomb threats called in to Jewish Community Centers, including the Birmingham JCC.
In the midst of a rise in harassment and violence carried out against Muslims, immigrants, and other minorities, the Trump administration is reportedly considering retasking a government program that works to prevent extremism to hereafter focus solely on Islamic radicalism.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was considering reconfiguring the “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) program to focus exclusively on Islamic extremism. The program awards grants to community groups to “build and sustain local prevention and promote the use of counter-narratives to confront violent extremist messaging online,” according to the program’s webpage on the Department of Homeland Security website. According to Reuters, which cited several unnamed individuals who were “briefed on the matter,” the Trump administration proposed renaming the program “Countering Islamic Extremism” and would no longer have the program target any other violent groups or ideologies.
Arie Perliger, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and former director of terrorism studies at West Point, argued that this is the wrong time to be turning attention away from violent right-wing ideological groups. Perliger’s research has found that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of violent attacks initiated by far-right groups or individuals since the 1990s, and he noted that there has been a spike in hate crimes since the election.
“This kind of violent activity is not on the decline. I think that the natural conclusion is that this is still a significant policy problem that we need to think about — how we can counter effectively, how we can create the right conditions that will help us to fight or to handle more effectively this existing threat,” Perliger said.
In a report published in 2013 by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point entitled “Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right,” Perliger found that “in general, far-right groups and individuals are more inclined to engage in violence in a contentious political climate.”
The highly polarized atmosphere that characterizes contemporary American politics could well result in more acts of violence from these kind of groups, Perliger warned. “Increased political polarization and political fragmentation provide more space to militant radical groups to operate. It makes their work easier,” he said. “It’s crucial that we find ways to create a more calm political discourse and to increase tolerance.”
In addition, focusing exclusively on Islamic radicalism could erode trust between Muslim communities and law enforcement, said David Schanzer, the director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.
“There was a lot of division within Muslim American communities before the Trump administration as to whether these programs, or cooperating with these programs, was a good idea. A chunk of the community here [in North Carolina] said that the programs were not necessarily well-intentioned, but were another avenue to potentially spy on Muslim American communities for counterterrorism purposes,” Schanzer explained. “For the programs to work, you have to be able to gain the trust of the community, and therefore you have to show that there’s an evenhanded approach and this is being applied to all different types of extremism. If the focus is exclusively on Muslims, then those in the community who argue that this is really all about gaining intelligence and spying, they’ll argue that this shows that their fears are justified.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Community Partnerships, which oversees the CVE program, declined to comment.
Even before Reuters reported on the proposed changes, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group that works to protect the civil rights of Muslims and encourage dialogue and understanding between Muslim communities and other groups, was critical of the Countering Violent Extremism program. Last September, CAIR and a coalition of other civil liberties organizations sent a letter to then-Secretary Jeh Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security expressing serious concerns about the CVE grants, arguing that they could result in a loss of autonomy and independence for the recipients. The letter also argued that CVE guidelines were so broad in their definitions of “radicalization” and “indicators” of violence that they were likely to result in individuals’ being targeted by law enforcement for political activity and religious worship protected by the First Amendment.
CAIR did not respond to requests for further information on their opposition to the CVE program.
Schanzer argued that while he supports governmental grants to community organizations that help prevent radicalization, a perception of unfairness would be enough to hamstring the program’s intended effects.
“The programs aren’t going to work if people don’t believe that they’re fair, if they’re targeted at one particular population,” he said. “These programs have a lot of potential to work, but they have to be structured properly and they have to have the right message, and any program that is labeled exclusively as a means of tracking down radical Islam is not one that is going to garner broad-based acceptance.”