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Countering Violent Extremism: Time for the Administration to Get It Right

Zak Newman,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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September 24, 2014

Today President Obama took the unusual step of chairing a meeting of the U.N. Security Council. He went seeking international support for the campaign against the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including a U.S.-sponsored resolution that, among other things, urges governments to "counter violent extremism"—an approach that the United States is also taking here at home.

That may sound prudent – but far too often in recent years the fight against "extremism" has involved targeting and abusing innocent Americans on the basis of their political activism and religious observance.

When the Obama administration announced its plan for a White House summit on violent extremism last week, the Department of Justice said that the summit was meant to "highlight" efforts of U.S. attorneys to "facilitate communication in their neighborhoods and districts" on the issue of domestic violent extremism.

Given the recent history of abuses by federal, state, and local law enforcement –particularly the FBI and the NYPD – it is absolutely necessary that the administration use the summit as an opportunity to show a decisive commitment to civil liberties and religious freedom, particularly for American-Muslim communities. The summit is an opportunity for the White House to reject racial, ethnic, or religious profiling of American Muslims and other minority groups.

Further, the administration must avoid describing the summit in terms that have the effect of stigmatizing American-Muslim communities. Already, there are reports of groups using the atrocities committed by ISIS to spread messages of anti-Muslim hate. As we explained in our letter to the White House regarding the planned summit:

Crimes motivated by religious, racial, or other biases do not occur in a vacuum. They occur in the context of a broader public discourse in which members of minority communities are frequently vilified, stereotyped, and demeaned. Particularly in the current climate of heightened public concern, [administration] officials can profoundly impact the way that Americans understand racial, ethnic, and religious differences.

In recent years, American-Muslim communities have suffered a litany of abuses by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials based on the false premise that religious observance can serve as an indicator of potentially violent behavior. These programs have fueled distrust in government and have obstructed rather than supported engagement between federal officials and the American-Muslim community. Some American Muslims justly fear that engaging with law enforcement could lead them to be targeted – either to become an informant or to be prosecuted.

Such abuses have been well documented in ACLU reports and litigation. As our letter states:

Under the guise of community outreach, the FBI has targeted mosques and Muslim community organizations for intelligence gathering. It has pressured law-abiding American Muslims to become informants against their own communities, often in coercive circumstances. It has sent undercover FBI employees and informants to infiltrate mosques and community centers in what appear to be virtual fishing expeditions. It has targeted individuals for sting operations based on their religious or political beliefs …

The planned White House summit can and must show that the administration's efforts are consistent with the civil liberties guaranteed to American Muslims – like all Americans – under our Constitution.

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