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Marshaling candor spirit before ‘countering violent extremism’

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 US 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 US Muslim community’s confidence on the neutrality and fairness of the FBI. 
 
In the US, 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 US. In 2009, I wrote a piece titled Bridges of Rhetoric and Suspension arguing 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 till last year, after The Federal Civil Rights Engagement with Arab and Muslim American Communities: Post 9/11 report was released, that I (and others with the same conviction) were 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 (US, UK, Pakistan, or Palestine) or the method employed (Machine gun, suicide-belt, machete, drone or carpet-bombing). 
 
Collective Demonization 
Especially since the Paris terrorist attacks, Muslim communities in Europe and US 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 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 ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative.” 
 
However, in certain political circles both in US 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 US government to drop the use of ‘violent extremism’ and use instead terms such as “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic extremism” as that appeals to their ultra conservative political base. 
 
“You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is” insists US Senator, Ted Cruz who is also running for president in the coming election. 
 
Under Scrutiny
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 US 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 acknowledged decades 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, over the years, an irrefutably dubious pattern has developed 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. 
 
On Feb this year, a Somali-American youth was arrested in Columbus, Ohio for having ties with terrorists in Syria [this may or may not be true]. 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 got a response informing me that the reporter has opted out. That was hardly shocking. 
 
It wasn’t till April 16th , 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 are 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 US foreign policy, is indeed one of the elements that ignite violent extremism. On one hand it promotes great values of 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
 
Lastly, 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, these 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 could be part of the problem. 
 
Fourth, political leaders who routinely spew hate narratives that project or insinuate that Muslim in the West are ticking bombs alienate American Muslims and, subsequently, radicalize some of their youth who may decide to join extremist to push-back against those who deny them their constitutional rights. 
 
Fifth, muster the moral courage to accept this reality: Greed-driven foreign policy sows hate and counter hate. What you sow domestic fear and insecurity (actual or anticipated).
Sixth, COINTELPRO defeats genuine community and law-enforcement partnership for common good.
 
Seventh, 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.

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Abukar Arman

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat and a widely published analyst who often writes on foreign policy, East Africa, Islam and counter-terrorism.

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