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Countering Violent Extremism Coming to a Church Near You

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On March 22, 2016, I was invited to participate on a House Congressional briefing on countering violent extremism - a euphemism for "soft" counterterrorism. Despite our disagreements on various issues, all panelists agreed that the facts on homegrown terrorism were clear: right wing extremists are the most numerous perpetrators of domestic terrorism in the United States post-9/11.

According to a Duke University report on preventing violent extremism, "74 percent of 382 law enforcement agencies rated anti-government extremism, such as "sovereign citizen" movements that do not recognize the authority of laws or governments, as one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction. By comparison, 39 percent listed extremism connected with al Qaeda or like-minded terrorist organizations as a top terrorist threat, and 33 percent listed environmental extremism."

Similarly, in an FBI report on violent extremism, the agency "recognizes several domestic violent extremism movements, including but not limited to white supremacists, animal rights and eco-terrorists, and antigovernment or radical separatist groups."

So why aren't the tens of millions of dollars spent on countering violent extremism targeting white communities or far right and left activists?

The answer lies in this hypothetical scenario.

In an average town in America, there is a police department working with a federal agency to counter terrorism and more specifically to counter violent extremism. The police chief is aware of multiple studies proving that right wing extremists are the most numerous group among all extremist groups in the United States and that they have killed more people in the U.S. than other violent extremists, if you exclude the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

These violent extremists are diverse in their motives for engaging in politically-motivated violence, including: opposing abortion, refusing to acknowledge the sovereignty of the United States government and its authority over them, opposing what they see as the destruction of the earth, defending the rights of animals against abuse and torture, and opposing the increase of non-Whites in political office particularly the presidency of the United States.

The police department resides in a part of the country (such as Texas where I live) where there is a church at nearly every other traffic light, political memorabilia espousing right wing views are prevalent, conservative evangelical Christians are the majority, and anti-government political beliefs are the norm.

As a result, a countering violent extremism program that comes with millions of dollars in grants requires that the police chief or local FBI special agent reach out to all of the churches, the right wing political groups, and right wing civic groups and invite them to meetings where he will tell their members not to support violence.

The police and the local FBI agents will tell Christians that those who oppose abortions are more likely to become extremists and although such beliefs are protected by the First Amendment, churchgoers should report any suspicious congregants who are too zealous in their opposition to abortion.

Police community engagement officers will encourage the right wing political groups in that community to report to law enforcement officials their compatriots who appear too committed to their political cause or adamant in their opposition to the government. They will warn them to look for signs of violence manifested in anti-Obama rhetoric, racist rhetoric, or beliefs that the White race is being oppressed and under attack in America.

These officers will also engage in outreach to leftist groups that engage in environmental activism or defend animal rights. The same message will be communicated - work with us to identify who among you is the extremists so that we can make this country safer.

In this American town, what do you think would happen to the police chief, the community outreach police officer, and the FBI agents participating in these countering violent extremism programs - assuming they'd be willing to participate in the first place?

They would probably be threatened with a Section 1983 and Bivens lawsuit alleging they are violating the First Amendment and equal protection rights of Christians, Whites, and individuals based on their political beliefs.

They would also be subjected to organized and aggressive campaigns to have them fired from their jobs. Voters would likely pressure their Congressional leaders to cut the police budget and defund or ban CVE programs altogether.

The politically appointed bosses of the FBI agents in that particular city as well as in Washington DC would also be called on to resign under accusations of being un-American. A media campaign would likely be underway accusing law enforcement of threatening civil liberties and undermining the U.S. constitution.

From a civil liberties perspective, this is precisely what should happen. Holding extremist ideologies is not illegal. Nor should it invite government scrutiny.

The question is why isn't this backlash against law enforcement happening now as Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians are targeted by countering violent extremism programs? Why aren't Americans condemning the police and federal law enforcement for threatening religious liberty rights, free speech and association rights, and equality principles? Why aren't resources allocated based on the facts and demonstrated higher risk of non-Muslim groups engaging in domestic terrorism?

The answer is simple - it's politically popular and economically lucrative to vilify Muslims and discount their civil rights and liberties. It gets an agent a promotion and a raise rather than a termination letter. It increases your agency's budget and helps raise campaign funds.

One need only look at the latest political rhetoric by Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz calling targeted patrols of "Muslim neighborhoods" after terrorist attacks in Belgium and Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants and deporting those already here.

It is clear that countering violent extremism programs are merely a ruse to continue a long history of racialized policing in the United States that has wreaked havoc on racial and religious minority communities.

But just as we learned with mass surveillance justified to spy on "those" Muslims that soon spread to all Americans, countering violent extremism will eventually come to a church and right wing political group near you.

Sahar Aziz is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and author of Rethinking Counterterrorism in the Age of ISIS

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