Recently, a coalition of activist groups, which included several prominent Muslim groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Students Association (MSA), announced plans to demonstrate against the city of Los Angeles, because of its participation in the Federal government's "Countering Violent Extremism" program (CVE). Several years ago, with growing numbers of American Muslims joining terror groups abroad or committing violent acts in America, the Obama administration introduced CVE to prevent radicalization of vulnerable populations, with focus areas including "building resilience," "building capacity of community-level non-profit organizations," and "training and engagement with community members." But CAIR and its partners claim that the CVE program is discriminatory against Muslims, because it "stigmatizes them as inherently suspect" for the risk of radicalization.
While one can object to the CVE program for having unfocused goals and implementation, it strains belief to suggest that a program framework created in 2011 would be motivated by discrimination against Muslims. Remember that the Obama administration, seeking to reverse the perceived abuses of the Bush years, famously went out of its way to reach out to the Muslim community at home and abroad—to the extent, critics claimed, that it was overly accommodating to Islamists. Indeed, CVE strategy pieces conspicuously omit mention of Islam or Islamism altogether. So why would CAIR and its allies attack the program with accusations of discrimination and bigotry?
In fact, this is merely the continuation of an old pattern. CAIR is not an ordinary Muslim organization; it has a long history of involvement in Islamist activities. In particular, CAIR has a recurring pattern of using the language of civil rights and discrimination to hinder terror investigations. CAIR was founded, as Federal court documents have demonstrated, by members of the Muslim Brotherhood's "Palestine Committee" with the intent of providing support for Hamas activities in the United States. Even as it has built a reputation as a civil-rights organization, there have been several troubling incidences of CAIR impeding legitimate counter-terrorism efforts.
In 2009, CAIR was condemned by the Somali-American community of Minneapolis for discouraging cooperation with the FBI, which was investigating the disappearance of dozens of Somali men and youths (who turned out to have joined the terror group Al-Shabaab). While CAIR claimed that its campaign was meant only to inform people of their rights, the relatives of the missing men described a deliberate effort to deter interaction with investigators. And in 2011, CAIR-California came under heavy criticism for displaying an image reading "Build a wall of resistance—don't talk to the FBI!"More concerning here is CAIR's attempt to slander the strengthening of community resilience, and diminishing the appeal of terrorism to at-risk youth, as "Islamophobia." The CVE program, for all of its flaws, was designed to help American Muslims build strong, healthy communities that will resist the siren-song of violence from a dangerous and influential extremist minority. How does this reflect a "phobia"? Why does CAIR object to the goal of thriving Muslim-American communities that live in harmony with their neighbors?
Perhaps CAIR et al. are leery of deepening Federal involvement with Muslim-American communities for fear of what would happen, once Americans truly understood the dynamics of extremism on the street level. It is widely acknowledged that past counterterror efforts have sometimes been ham-handed, with overbroad surveillance of innocent Muslims, or misguided attempts at outreach by using the very extremists that ought to have been arrested. Such failures were largely the result of ignorance and inexperience. But as investigators become more experienced, and build up more connections with the Muslim community, the evidence continues to mount that terrorism comes not from general religiosity, but from specific extremist ideologies—chiefly Islamism, the 20th-century totalitarian ideology built on a claimed religious justification.
Terrorism may be the product of violent Islamism, but nonviolent Islamist groups play an important role in radicalization. By inciting hatred against non-Muslims and the West, and by offering political and theological justification for violence (without directly advocating it), lawful Islamism encourages young Muslims to view themselves as enemies of the societies they live in. An effective counter-extremism program would eventually force lawful Islamist groups such as CAIR to face the kind of questions it does not want the American public to ask.
By all means, we must strive to protect the civil liberties of all Americans, including Muslim Americans. But that does not mean abandoning at-risk youth to the dangers of radicalization, for fear of being called bigots by Islamist organizations. CAIR and its allies, meanwhile, should answer the following questions: if effective counter-terrorist programs are Islamophobic, then what should we do instead? Do they seek to defend civil rights, or to provide a smokescreen for Islamism?