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Biden’s Plan to Roll Back Discriminatory Counterterrorism Policies

The candidate’s agenda recognizes the need to make amends to American Muslims.

September 30, 2020

Joe Biden surprised debate-watch­ers Tues­day night by sarcastic­ally using the Arabic inshal­lah (“god will­ing”) in response to Pres­id­ent Trump’s oft-repeated claim that he would soon release his tax returns. Cultural fluency is admir­able, but what do Biden and his party actu­ally intend to do to address the concerns of Muslim Amer­ic­ans?

In the nearly two decades since the 9/11 attacks, the Demo­cratic Party has been at pains to avoid accus­a­tions of being “weak” on national secur­ity. In policy terms, this has meant going along with many of the excesses of the “war on terror,” both at home and abroad. But changes are afoot, with the 2020 Demo­cratic Party plat­form signal­ing an import­ant shift in its assess­ment of the threats facing our nation, how best to deal with them, and a belated recog­ni­tion of the burdens that coun­terter­ror­ism policies have imposed on Amer­ican Muslims.

In 2016, the Demo­cratic plat­form high­lighted the threat posed by Al Qaeda and ISIS, prom­ising to invest in intel­li­gence and law enforce­ment capab­il­it­ies. While that threat remains in 2020, the plat­form stresses that “the threat land­scape has evolved dramat­ic­ally since Septem­ber 11” and high­lights the need to shift “coun­terter­ror­ism prior­it­ies, strategies, foot­print, and tools … includ­ing to respond to the grow­ing threat from white suprem­acist and other right-wing terror­ist groups.”

It’s past time for this reori­ent­a­tion. Since 9/11, U.S. policy has been single-mindedly focused on Al Qaeda and ISIS while studi­ously ignor­ing other perils. Mean­while, far-right viol­ence is a persist­ent prob­lem that regu­larly produces more U.S. fatal­it­ies than attacks carried out by indi­vidu­als asso­ci­ated with those groups.

But we must also be wary of repeat­ing the mistakes of heavy-handed coun­terter­ror­ism policies. For example, the 2020 plat­form suggests that a new admin­is­tra­tion would “if neces­sary work with Congress to pass a domestic terror­ism law that is consist­ent with the Consti­tu­tional right to free speech and civil liber­ties.” No such law is needed. As docu­mented in the Bren­nan Center’s report, Wrong Prior­it­ies on Fight­ing Terror­ism, there is ample legal author­ity to invest­ig­ate and prosec­ute perpet­rat­ors of white suprem­acist viol­ence, but there has been a lack of will to do so. A domestic terror­ism stat­ute would­n’t change that. And it would­n’t just be used against viol­ent white suprem­acists. It is more likely to be used against protest­ers, such as the Black Lives Matter move­ment for which the bureau sought to create a ficti­tious terror­ist threat of “black iden­tity extrem­ists,” as well as envir­on­mental activ­ists whom the FBI calls “ecoter­ror­ists” and Muslim Amer­ic­ans who been the focus of the bureau’s atten­tion for the last two decades.

For the first time, the 2020 Demo­cratic plat­form recog­nizes the toll that secur­ity meas­ures have taken on Muslim communit­ies, stat­ing that “to fully confront the legacy of systemic and struc­tural racism, it is time to exam­ine, confront and dismantle the govern­ment programs, policies and prac­tices that have unfairly targeted Amer­ican Muslims as secur­ity threats.”

Placing the treat­ment of Amer­ican Muslims within the frame­work of struc­tural racism and recog­niz­ing the discrim­in­at­ory role of the state is a substan­tial step. It paral­lels the devel­op­ment of the Demo­cratic party’s views on the treat­ment of African Amer­ic­ans, which have progressed from condemning indi­vidual racism to recog­niz­ing its systemic under­pin­nings.

While Demo­crats have long condemned Islamo­pho­bia, they have — until now — mostly refused to acknow­ledge how the govern­ment’s own programs harm Muslims.

For example, the 2016 party plat­form rejec­ted Trump’s “vili­fic­a­tion of Muslims,” but made no mention of the treat­ment of Amer­ican Muslims by law enforce­ment. The Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial nominee, Hillary Clin­ton, ignored these too, prefer­ring to see these diverse communit­ies through a secur­ity lens. Muslim Amer­ic­ans were mentioned just once in her plat­form docu­ments as part of her plan for “Combat­ing Terror­ism and Keep­ing the Home­land Safe.” During the pres­id­en­tial debates, Clin­ton repeated this theme, prom­ising to “work with Amer­ican Muslim communit­ies who are on the front lines to identify and prevent attacks.”

The instru­ment­al­iz­a­tion of Muslims as hand­maid­ens in the war on terror rather than as Amer­ic­ans with a range of concerns, includ­ing with law enforce­ment itself, is typical of the Demo­cratic Party’s approach to this community in the last two decades.

Of course, recog­niz­ing that the state has system­at­ic­ally targeted Muslim communit­ies as secur­ity threats is just the begin­ning of right­ing the wrongs they have suffered. The party plat­form includes some clues as to what remed­ies might entail, such as a prom­ise to “right-size” the coun­try’s coun­terter­ror­ism foot­print,” a rejec­tion of “the target­ing of Muslim, Arab, and other racial and ethnic communit­ies based on their faith and back­grounds,” and a commit­ment to “not weapon­ize coun­terter­ror­ism for anti-immig­rant purposes.”

Biden’s agen­das for Muslim Amer­ic­ans and Arab Amer­ic­ans echo his party’s emphasis on white suprem­acist viol­ence and prom­ise to rescind the Muslim ban and the slash­ing of the refugee program. Build­ing on the party’s struc­tural racism language, the agenda for Amer­ican Muslims prom­ises to “confront discrim­in­at­ory policies that single out Muslim-Amer­ic­ans and cast entire communit­ies under suspi­cion” and to “ensure that our govern­ment’s engage­ment with Muslims is not viewed through a secur­ity lens.”

That’s a big, albeit vague, prom­ise. The Arab Amer­ican agenda provides some specif­ics. Biden has commit­ted to ending the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s “Targeted Viol­ence and Terror­ism Preven­tion Program.” TVTP, as the program is known, is a permuta­tion of the Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism (CVE) programs of the Obama years and suffers from the same flaws as its prede­cessor. There is scant evid­ence that CVE/TVTP approaches are effect­ive, and both use over­broad and unproven criteria to label people danger­ous and worthy of suspi­cion, support­ing biased law enforce­ment prac­tices.

While the commit­ment to end TVTP is of itself import­ant, Biden has also prom­ised that before devel­op­ing new preven­tion programs, his admin­is­tra­tion “will conduct a thor­ough review of past programs,” “consult with lead­ers from histor­ic­ally targeted communit­ies, includ­ing Arab Amer­ic­ans, to ensure that civil rights are protec­ted,” and that “programs are prop­erly oriented towards actual threats based on data.” This is a crit­ical under­tak­ing because preven­tion programs like CVE are continu­ally being re-branded as each success­ive gener­a­tion faces oppos­i­tion from the communit­ies at which they are targeted.

Biden’s second specific prom­ise is to instruct the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity to review “’watch­list’ and ‘no-fly list’ processes to ensure that they do not have an adverse impact on indi­vidu­als or groups based on national origin, race, reli­gion or ethni­city, and improve the process to remove names, when justi­fied, from these lists.” Review­ing the impact of watch­list­ing — which has long resul­ted in Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians unfairly being preven­ted from flying as well as ques­tion­ing about their faith and polit­ical views at airport secur­ity and border check­points — is a start. But it does not go to the heart of the prob­lem: the over­broad criteria used by federal agen­cies, espe­cially the FBI, to place people on vari­ous watch­lists.

Lastly, Biden commits to “creat­ing a dialogue with Arab Amer­ican community lead­ers on issues of surveil­lance, poli­cing, and coun­terter­ror­ism, in tandem with other communit­ies histor­ic­ally affected by secur­it­ized rela­tion­ships with the U.S. govern­ment.” There is no dearth of dialogue between Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communit­ies and the govern­ment. Indeed, groups repres­ent­ing these communit­ies have for years vigor­ously advoc­ated for a change in approach. But many of the govern­ment’s community outreach efforts treat these communit­ies prin­cip­ally as sources for inform­a­tion about terror­ist threats. Chan­ging this dynamic, which is essen­tial to ensur­ing that Muslims, Arabs and South Asians are treated as fully Amer­ican, will require more than the same “dialogue” that we have seen for almost two decades. Laws and policies must change.

The commit­ments made to Arab Amer­ic­ans and Muslim Amer­ic­ans in the Demo­cratic Party’s plat­form and the Biden campaign’s agen­das are modest in terms of specif­ics, as is normally the case with such docu­ments. And, of course, the prom­isors may not prevail in the upcom­ing elec­tion. But regard­less of who wins, they signal some­thing of a shift towards recog­niz­ing that our coun­terter­ror­ism laws and policies system­at­ic­ally target and discrim­in­ate against some Amer­ic­ans. Inshal­lah — this time for real.