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Stigmatizing Boston’s Muslim Community is No Way to Build Trust

The Department of Justice’s new pilot program to counter violent extremism will launch in Boston.

October 9, 2014

A version of this piece ran in the Boston Herald.

The Justice Department announced last week that it is partnering with the White House, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center to launch a new pilot program to “counter violent extremism (CVE)” in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. The program, which aims to bring community and religious leaders together with law enforcement to “develop comprehensive local strategies and share information on best practices” may sound nice, but no one should be surprised that civil rights groups and American Muslim communities were less than enthusiastic about this news.

CVE meetings are not new. Previous FBI outreach efforts to Muslim communities have been less about curbing violence than thinly veiled attempts to recruit informants and gather intelligence. Some Justice Department-sponsored community outreach events, like a workshop in Seattle focused on improving police relations with the Muslim community, was seen as offensive. Other unannounced FBI “community outreach” visits to people’s homes have bordered on harassment.

DHS launched a “new” outreach effort in 2011 which generated similar frustrations. Last April, National Security Advisor Lisa Monaco announced to community groups at Harvard’s Kennedy School that DHS would be sending an “envoy” to Boston to conduct training to community groups so they could recognize extremist behaviors that need to be reported to police.

There is no doubt that many dedicated federal employees at these agencies are deeply committed to building relationships and addressing community concerns about crime and policing issues that affect them. But the unmistakable implication behind “CVE” programs is that certain communities are suspect and particularly vulnerable to becoming terrorists. There were no DHS or Justice Department CVE programs, for example, directed to white, Christian communities after former Ku Klux Klansman Fraizer Glenn Miller murdered people at a Jewish community center last April, even though West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center reported that far right extremists attack and kill more Americans than any other terror groups.

The overarching problem with CVE programs is their reliance on simplistic theories of terrorist radicalization that have long been discredited by empirical studies. The overwhelming consensus from these studies is that there is no profile for terrorists, no discernible pattern or pathway that individuals follow to becoming terrorists, and no reliable indicators that can be used to predict who will become a violent. Yet these CVE programs pretend there are, based on flawed theories promulgated by the FBI and others.

The FBI’s theory of terrorist radicalization claims that the commonplace activities of many American Muslims, including wearing traditional religious attire, frequent attendance at mosques, participating in a pro-Muslim social group or political cause, or even growing facial hair, are “indicators” in a four-step process toward becoming a terrorist. A 2008 FBI counterterrorism textbook teaches agents they can “quantitatively gauge” whether a Muslim is militant by asking a series of questions about his or her political and religious beliefs. It is no wonder that civil rights groups are concerned about CVE programs that falsely identify religious practices and political opinions as terrorism indicators.

Monaco told the Harvard Kennedy School audience that community members could help prevent violence by identifying even more subtle warning signs of radicalization, which included “sudden personality changes in their children,” “clashes over ideological differences,” or “watching violent material.” Many parents of teenagers would recognize their children in some or all of these attributes, and become unnecessarily alarmed about entirely normal adolescent behavior.

After the Kennedy School speech, the Brennan Center for Justice and several national and local civil rights and advocacy groups wrote a letter to DHS requesting a meeting to discuss the program and review the materials supporting it. There was no response, raising further concerns that these “new” CVE programs will rely on the same old discredited theories.

All communities want to protect themselves from crime and violence. CVE programs that rely on false theories of terrorist radicalization will only spread fear, distrust and dissension within communities, and lead to unwarranted law enforcement reporting. Instead of wasting resources chasing false leads, police should focus their resources where they have evidence of criminal activity.

If the Justice Department and DHS want to educate and empower communities they need to ground their counterterrorism programs in sound empirical research, and tailor their community outreach programs to address community needs. Stigmatizing Boston’s minority communities as potential terrorists, however, is no way to build trust.