By Abukar Arman
April 21st, 2015
Violent extremism presents existential dilemma to all irrespective of faith, race, political and economic status. Countering such seemingly ubiquitous threat requires comprehensive strategy that addresses the root causes and effects of the issue at hand.
It requires broad-based collaboration and coordination that, needless to say, can only be achieved when there is strong foundation of goodwill and trust between parties.
Unfortunately, in the past decade or so, some U.S. agencies and offices, such as the FBI and the Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, have played relentless political roles that polarized Muslim leadership, stigmatized major organizations, and stereotyped communities. By and large, these practices have eroded the U.S. Muslim community’s confidence on the neutrality and fairness of the FBI.
In the U.S., the tragic events of 9/11 have blurred the demarcation of authority or checks and balances; so much so that there is not a distinction between the law-enforcement and offices established to protect the constitutional rights of people in the U.S. In 2009, I wrote a piece titled “Bridges of Rhetoric and Suspension,” which argued precisely that. Some active members of my Somali and other Muslim community wrote to me recommending that I, in a nutshell, should “stop overreacting.”
It wasn’t until last year, after The Federal Civil Rights Engagement with Arab and Muslim American Communities post-9/11 report was released, that I was vindicated. Yes, the FBI has been exploiting community trust by abusing its own outreach programs across the country, and planting agent saboteurs in mosques.
Nature of the Beast
In its essence, violent extremism is terrorism, and terrorism is an evil act regardless of the executing agent (Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist or Atheist) or the geographical space (U.S., U.K., Pakistan, or Palestine) or the method employed (machine gun, suicide-belt, machete, drone or carpet-bombing).
Especially since the Paris terrorist attacks, Muslim communities in Europe and U.S. have been subjected to unbearable stereotyping and fishing expeditions that made many feel alienated from the rest. Never mind the Pew Research Center Report on Global Attitudes and Trends’ findings that violent extremist “cults,” such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Shabaab, don’t have the popularity that certain special interest groups project them to have, and that anti-extremist sentiments are on upward trend in most, if not all, majority Muslim countries.
At the Washington summit to counter violent extremism, Obama aptly said that “all of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like [ISIS] somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative.”
However, in certain political circles both in U.S. and Europe, there are polarizing politicians who have been aggressively pushing a motto that is intended to indict the religion of Islam as a terrorist manifesto. They pressure the U.S. government to drop the use of “violent extremism” and use instead terms such as “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic extremism” as that appeals to their conservative political base.
“You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is” insists U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who is also running for president in the coming election.
While the threat of violent extremism is real, any hyperbolic approach in appraising said threat or reckless reaction in its “preemption” could only exacerbate the situation and promote the recruitment of more terrorists.
Ironically, the FBI must come clean. Granted, every aspect of security-related strategy cannot and should not be placed in a glass display or in the public domain. However, if two parties with history of mutual suspicion should partner for the common good, first they must hash certain things out of the way for confidence-building measures.
Yes, we should all partner in countering violent extremism. However, such partnership could only succeed if/when it is genuinely in the interest of the common good.
To this day — though with slight modifications — the U.S. national security strategy is based on Neocon world vision- a foreign policy based on global war on terrorism and a domestic policy based on the infamous FBI COINTELPRO.
Within this arrangement, many wrongs were done unto many people.
The Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, has produced a damning 200-page report titled “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions.”
As a result of a separate revelation, recently the Justice Department and the FBI have acknowledgeddecades of false forensic expert testimonies that eventually convicted innocent Americans. It should be noted that the investigation, which revealed this chilling pattern of deception, would have remained shrouded in secrecy had the Washington Post not confronted the right office with critical query. This, needless to say, underscores the importance of media’s critical role of vigilance to keep power in check and defend public interest.
If the FBI could allow this to happen to Americans who mostly defy the stereotypical terrorist image,is it outlandish to assume that those who fit in the stereotypical profile can only be saved by the grace of God.
According to Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, an irrefutably dubious pattern has developed over the years in which the law enforcement — namely the FBI — “target a Muslim: not due to any evidence of intent or capability to engage in terrorism, but rather for the ‘radical ‘political views he expresses. In most cases, the Muslim targeted by the FBI is a very young (late teens, early 20s), adrift, unemployed loner who has shown no signs of mastering basic life functions, let alone carrying out a serious terror attack, and has no known involvement with actual terrorist groups.”
Greenwald argues if the FBI had substantive findings of criminality or intention of terrorism, it would not rely on blackmailed testimonies or count on trying the case through the court of public opinion.
In February of this year, a Somali-American youth was arrested in Columbus, Ohio for having alleged ties with terrorists in Syria. Almost instantaneously, the case became international news. I got a call from local media for a comment. I accepted the Columbus Dispatch offer with the condition that I would be asked all questions in writing, and I would answer them all the same. I received one question soliciting my thoughts on said arrest and home-grown terrorist threat. My response was as follow:
If the accused is found ‘guilty as charged’ through a fair trial, it is only fair that he faces what the court hands him.
That said, I must confess I was intrigued by three particular things:
First: Why would the Feds let the county Prosecutor spearhead a terrorism case? Second: How would a person accused of misdemeanor theft of $15.33 (actual charge) have the money and resources to support a terrorist organization? Third, what compelled the Dispatch to publish the address of a family of accused citizen?
Shortly after sending my answer, I received a response informing me that the reporter has opted out. That was hardly shocking.
It wasn’t till April 16, after weeks of law enforcement visible camping in the neighborhood and the verdict of the court of public opinion became clear, that the case has officially become a federal terrorism case and the county prosecutor dropped all charges.
This past weekend, six more Somali-American youth were indicted in Minnesota for supporting ISIS.
Foreign Policy and Violent Extremism
The duality, or more accurately, the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” aspect of the U.S. foreign policy, is one of the elements that ignites violent extremism. On one hand, the U.S. promotes values like governance by legitimate means, human rights, free-market economy; on the other hand—mostly covertly—it operates in the dark and plays by rule of the jungle.
The more a given group of citizens, or a particular religious community, is squeezed, routinely placed under the microscope or are unfairly ostracized, the more they become disillusioned or feel disenfranchised and see themselves as non-stakeholders.
To gain the confidence of the majority of the Muslim community in collaborating to counter violent extremism effectively, the following factors should be taken into consideration.
First, stereotyping and paranoiac cynicism that often leads to covert campaign of guilt by association must come to an end.
Second, law-enforcement agencies and support offices should be periodically provided sensitivity trainings by professionals who have no zero-sum political agenda to advance.
Third, the “mainstream media” still hold monopoly on framing debates and raising awareness on issues of contention and conflicts; whenever they neglect their objective role or jingoistically relinquish their duties to a particular group, they become part of the problem. That needs to stop.
Fourth, political leaders need to stop routinely spewing hateful narratives that project or insinuate that Muslim in the West are ticking bombs. This alienates American Muslims and, subsequently, radicalizes some of their youth, who may decide to join extremist to push back against those who deny them their constitutional rights.
Fifth, we must muster the moral courage to accept this reality: Greed-driven foreign policy sows hate and counter hate. Doing so only sows domestic fear and insecurity, whether actual or anticipated.
Sixth, resist the “overblown” factor by assessing threats within the appropriate context and proportional reaction.
In conclusion, like anti-Semitism, Islamophobia must be systematically curtailed and eradicated. This, of course, would require an educational campaign, a collaborative efforts that include governmental and non-governmental institutions, such as think tanks, media groups, academia and public education sectors.
Abukar Arman is a former diplomat (Somalia's Special Envoy to the US). He is a widely published analyst. His focus is Foreign policy/Islam/post-civil war Somalia/extremism. He is a DiploAct of a sort (fusion of diplomacy & activism).