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Analysis

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
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David McNew/Getty

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.