By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
The White House held a three-day anti-terrorism summit dubbed as "Countering Violent Extremism Summit," from Tuesday to Thursday (Feb. 17-19).
Addressing the summit on Wednesday, President Barack Obama said the United States is not at war with Islam. He told the summit that he wants to discredit the belief that Americans and Westerners in general are at odds with Muslims. He said this narrative helps extremists radicalize and recruit young Americans and others.
He also said that the world is at war with those who have "perverted Islam," and stressed the importance of reaching out to young people most at risk of being recruited by radical groups. "No religion is responsible for terrorism, people are responsible for violence and terrorism," Obama said.
Speaking at the anti-terrorism summit on Thursday, President Obama reiterated that any contention by terrorist groups that Western nations are fighting a war against Islam is an "ugly lie." "The notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie," he said. "And all of us, regardless of our faith, have a responsibility to reject it."
Obama urged summit delegates to "confront the warped ideology" espoused by terror groups, particularly efforts to use Islam to justify violence. "These terrorists are desperate for legitimacy and all us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative,'' Obama said.
According to a White House statement, the purpose of the summit is to "highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence, efforts made even more imperative in light of recent, tragic attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, and Paris."
This summit will build on the strategy the White House released in August of 2011, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, the first national strategy to prevent violent extremism domestically.
Keith Ellison: Speaking at the summit on Wednesday, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) denounced the United States' targeting of Muslim populations and argued that by failing to prosecute hate crimes against Muslim communities the U.S. government is only furthering extremists' cause.
Recalling the shooting of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Feb 10, and official reluctance to question the shooter's motive, Ellison told the assembly, "It’s important that law enforcement prosecute hate crimes against Muslims....It’s important that we at least admit that what happened in Chapel Hill probably was not only about a parking space." He added, "This defies our sense of logic and common sense."
Ellison, who is the first Muslim elected to Congress, said that the incident is emblematic of how the United States' targeting and prosecution of Muslims only reinforces extremist behavior. "This actually helps to support the false narrative of violent extremism; [extremists] want to make the case that America hates you, is against you, join us," he said.
"Razan, Yusor and Deah—the three student victims—were living, walking, breathing examples of countering violent extremism until their lives were taken away," added the congressman. "Let us not slip into a mistaken idea that terrorism is somehow a Muslim idea."
Ellison also criticized recent moves by U.S. banks to stop all money transfers between the U.S. and Somalia. "On February 6, our financial services system stopped working with Somali money-wiring services to send money to Somalia," said Ellison, whose home state has the largest Somali-American population in the country. "This is important because in the region, the violent extremist wants to be able to say 'See, they won’t even let your relatives send you money.' They want to be able to say that and we have got to be able to stop them from saying that." "The violent extremist makes the case that America is at war with Islam and Muslims, and we have to assert that this is not true; not just in word, but in deed," he said.
Joe Biden: Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday opened the three-day White House summit by pointing to the U.S. experience with assimilating immigrants as a factor in helping it prevent the terrorist attacks that have hit Europe. Biden took part in a round-table discussion with local leaders from Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. The three cities have programs to counter extremism that the White House wants to promote as examples. Officials say they hope to replicate those programs in other places around the countries with populations that could be prone to radicalization.
Biden, in his remarks, held up Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis as examples of communities moving ahead with programs to counter extremism locally. He said the goal was to bring together broad coalitions of community leaders so that all Americans — and particularly Muslims — would feel like "we see them." "We haven't always gotten it right," Biden said. "But we have a lot of experience integrating communities into the American system, the American dream."
American Muslim reaction
The CVE summit has drawn criticism from civil rights organizations, who say the government risks alienating Muslim communities by partnering with religious and cultural organizations to identify potential extremists. "From conceptualization to implementation, the CVE strategy raises significant constitutional and privacy concerns. It is not based on empirical evidence of effectiveness. It threatens to do more harm than good," Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, was quoted by CNN as saying.
American Muslim leaders have also warned that the White House conference to ‘counter violent extremism’ is well intentioned but risks stigmatizing and endangering Muslims in America. They say whatever the summit’s intentions, it will reinforce a message that American Muslims are to be hated and feared, a spark in what they consider to be a powder-keg of Islamophobia in the media and online.
A number of national faith groups have questioned the framing of the summit. In an open letter to President Obama, the Interfaith Alliance protested White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s statement formally announcing the event, which the group said “mentions only acts of violence perpetrated by individuals who self-identify as Muslims, and it holds up as examples of prevention only CVE pilot programs directed at American Muslims.”
The letter signed by 18 organizations notes that: " As you know, studies by the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center have shown that the overwhelming majority of terrorist incidents in the United States were committed by non-Muslims.”
Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of Interfaith Alliance, said, The White House must make sure not to unfairly single out American Muslims as it seeks to confront violent extremism perpetrated in the name of any faith or ideology.”
While Muslim Advocates has been critical of the summit, it was also invited to attend. It sent legal director, Glenn Katon, to share the group's viewpoint. “They seem to focus primarily on Muslim communities, which account for only a small fraction of terrorist activities carried out in the United States,” Farhana Khera, executive director of the group Muslim Advocates, said in an interview with Washington Post. She added that any faith community — including Christians and Jews, “would be horrified to learn that their religious leaders were asked by law enforcement to monitor their congregants’ religious views and opinions and report back to them.”
The killing of Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, “really underscores how dangerous it is for the US government, including the White House, to focus its countering violent extremism initiatives primarily on American Muslims”, said Farhana Khera.
The US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), a coalition of several leading national and local Muslim organizations, gathered around fifty U.S. Muslim leaders at a full-day forum on countering violent extremism (CVE) in Washington, D.C. on February 10, 2015. The forum adopted the following points on CVE:
(a) The USCMO endorsed an ACLU-led letter addressing the current countering violent extremism initiative that was sent to the Obama administration. We are disappointed that the administration has not responded to the fair concerns raised in the letter. (b) Based on the shared experience of summit attendees and recent media revelations, the USCMO is very concerned that law enforcement outreach and CVE programs may be accompanied by intelligence gathering activities or other abusive law enforcement practices. The concern is particularly acute in relation to the FBI. (c) The USCMO is concerned that the Muslim community has been singled out by the administration for CVE. This singling out is Constitutionally-questionable and morally problematic.
While the first two days of the three-day summit primarily focused on domestic extremism while the final day, Thursday saw full participation of more than 60 countries including several ministers. According to the White House Fact Sheet the "Summit offers an opportunity to approach CVE in a comprehensive way and build upon the framework of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which encourages the UN and other multilateral bodies to intensify efforts to identify and address the local drivers of violent extremism. "
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.