Forum panel criticizes tactics in extremist fight

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — The federal government’s fight against violent extremism has taken center stage this campaign season, but an Arab-American civil rights group argues that efforts to weed out radicals in the U.S. “is a controversial government initiative.”

“Cointelpro & The Surveillance of the American Muslim Community” focused on efforts grouped under the Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, category. The Department of Homeland Security defines it as a way “to address the root causes of violent extremism by providing resources to communities to build and sustain local prevention efforts and promote the use of counter-narratives to confront violent extremist messaging online.”

Officials with the department, which this year announced new federal funding for non-governmental organizations and institutions to carry out such work, say CVE can help fight radicalization. But the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Michigan said it’s a “controversial government initiative that seeks to use members of the American-Muslim community to work with law enforcement to counter radicalization in the Muslim community.” Others say it can be stigmatizing and stereotyping, which can mute government efforts and spark distrust.

“We believe that CVE is far much more of a net harm than net benefit,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR’s Michigan chapter, who was among the panelists at a public forum Wednesday at Wayne State University School of Law.

The forum, co-sponsored by the Wayne State Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights and the Take on Hate campaign, was connected to a “Twitter town hall” during Wednesday night’s televised presidential debate. The focus was the impact of the nation’s efforts to combat extremism.

The issue resurfaced in the second presidential debate Oct. 9, candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were asked about addressing how they would fight discrimination against the nation’s Muslims. Their responses drew mixed reactions from observers.

Clinton said “we need American-Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears, on our front lines,” adding the United States needs Muslim nations to form a coalition to defeat terrorists and could not risk alienating them.

Trump, who was pressed on his changing positions on Muslims entering the country, called Islamophobia “a shame” but also said extremism should be reported.

Walid and other panelists from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights said authorities’ efforts to combat extremism can negatively impact the Muslim community.

“We’re stigmatizing American Muslims,” said Rana Elmir, deputy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “We’re reinforcing anti-Muslim stereotyping.”

Elmir questioned the criteria for what is considered signs of radicalization since those can be broad. How teachers, social workers or religious leaders might report perceived threats or problems to authorities can affect relationships with the community, she added.

“When we think there are informants in our mosque … we may not say what we want to say,” she said. “We may not go to mosques the way we normally do. We change our actions based on this.”

Walid argued that if authorities intended to keep the efforts community-focused, CVE would be overseen by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “not under a law enforcement framework. By nature it is criminalizing the Muslim community.”

Department of Homeland Security officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. But when visiting Dearborn this year, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said it is more difficult to detect terrorism plans since the Islamic State group uses the Internet to recruit youth.

Some Metro Detroit Muslims have voiced concerns about their loved ones becoming radicalized. But worries remain about perceived profiling. Last year, religious leaders and civil libertarians accused the FBI of deliberately targeting Muslims in Dearborn during surveillance flights across the region. The bureau said it was conducting a specific criminal probe and not investigating credible terror threats nor targeting racial or religious communities.

Murtaza Nek of Detroit, who attended the forum Wednesday, questions government surveillance tactics.

“Society is becoming increasingly Orwellian,” he said. “I don’t know if there is a great long-term solution. I think things are going to get worse in this regard.”

Wednesday’s event follows findings that U.S. Muslims are increasingly being targeted.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations recently reported that 2016 was on track to be one of the worst years ever for mosque incidents. The group said it has attributed the rise in anti-Muslim incidents nationwide “in large part to Islamophobic rhetoric used by public officials.”

In a brief issued this week, CAIR found that anti-Muslim and anti-Islam political discourse has focused on issues such as refugees, immigration and travel, used “terminology demonizing Islam” and called for the surveillance of Muslim communities.

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