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Rethinking Radicalization After the King Hearing

Rep. Peter King’s hearing to examine “radicalization” of American Muslims created a media circus. After releaseing a report this week on theories of radicalization, the Brennan Center’s Faiza Patel offered her expertise to media outlets across the country.

  • Erik Opsal
March 12, 2011

Yesterday, Rep. Peter King’s (R-NY) hearing to examine “radicalization” of American Muslims created a media circus. But lost in the shuffle is an issue that requires our attention. Terrorism is a serious issue, and it requires a serious response. King’s hearing, based largely on anecdotes and stereotypes, missed the point. What we need is an evidence-based approach — one that looks at the research available and helps law enforcement agencies find the best way to spot potential terrorists.

On Tuesday, the Brennan Center’s Faiza Patel released the report Rethinking Radicalization, which studies the theories of radicalization and offers this kind of evidence-based analysis. Throughout the week, Ms. Patel offered her expertise to media outlets across the country. Here is a roundup of her appearances.

On Thursday, Ms. Patel appeared on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports.

She was also interviewed for Free Speech Radio News where she “made recommendations to the federal government suggesting how it could recalibrate its approach to radicalization.”

On the Hill’s Congress blog, Ms. Patel detailed the questions Peter King should have asked:

Rep. King should also ask these expert agencies — and others with specialized knowledge in the field — to explain what their years of research have taught us about the path to terrorism.

The FBI, for example, posits a model of “radicalization” that begins with a religious epiphany, moves on to acceptance of an extremist mindset, and eventually leads to violence. The Bureau is determined to intervene early in this process, where the only signs of incipient terrorism are linked to religious behavior that also characterizes thousands, if not millions, of peaceful citizens.  The National Counterterrorism Center, on the other hand, has explicitly rejected such a model.  Its website clearly states that there are no visible signs of radicalization short of participation in terrorist networks or plots.

Where does the truth lie? Does available research support looking at religious behavior as a “marker” of terrorism, or is this simply another example of stereotyping of the sort that has brought us opposition to mosques around the country?

Agence France-Presse also covered Ms. Patel’s report:

Whether an ordinary US Muslim becomes a violent extremist cannot be determined by the length of his beard or how often he goes to the mosque, experts say, urging Americans to avoid stereotypes.

On the eve of controversial congressional hearings on radicalization that have raised the ire of US Muslims, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice published a report deconstructing the “simplistic theories” that may have led Republican Congressman Peter King to launch the inquiries.

“Rethinking Radicalization” delves into the possible origins of the homegrown extremism whipping up growing panic in the United States after a string of attacks or attempted acts of terror led by Americans.

“A thinly sourced, reductionist view of how people become terrorists has gained unwarranted legitimacy in some counter-terrorism circles,” noted the Brennan center’s Faiza Patel, a civil liberties specialist.

“Given the piecemeal and contradictory information that is publicly available, an outside observer can hardly evaluate who is right in this ongoing discourse.”

She focused her criticism on the FBI and the New York Police Department, who have suggested law enforcement agents can stop radicalization by looking for the “right signs,” contrary to federal government and social science research.

“The innocuous nature of many of the signatures identified by the NYPD—such as growing a beard or becoming involved in community activities—means that they are likely to be found in a large segment of the American Muslim population,” she said.

Such theories may have led King—who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee—and other Congressmen to suspect the community as a whole.

Adam Serwer at the American Prospect has also been all over the King hearing, as well as Ms. Patel’s report. On Thursday, he wrote an article on the similarities between the Obama administration and Republicans on counterterrorism.

The Obama administration kept the Bush-era FBI investigative guidelines, which are more lax on matters of racial and ethnic profiling. The rules allow FBI agents to initiate surveillance without suspicion of criminality, allow domestic intelligence gathering in religious spaces, and even allow agents to gather information on “concentrated ethnic communities.” A report by the Brennan Center titled “Rethinking Radicalization” suggests the guidelines have encouraged law enforcement to monitor entire communities rather than suspicious individuals.

“When you have such broad discretion, you increase the likelihood of ethnic or religious profiling,” says Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program and author of the report. “This tends to alienate the very communities whose support and information we need to fight real terrorist threats.”

Finally, Newsday (subscription-only) wrote an article on the hearing and quoted Ms. Patel.