In the early hours of Sunday June 12, 2016, a madman perpetrated the mass murder of 49 people in a nightclub considered a safe space for Orlando’s LGBT community.
Politicians quickly went into gear to exploit this tragedy to push their own agendas. Glaringly silent on the civil rights of LGBT communities, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz repeated their calls to ban, deport, and more aggressively prosecute Muslims in the wake of this attack. As if Muslims in America are not already selectively targeted in counterterrorism enforcement, stopped for extra security by the TSA at airports, and targeted for entrapment in terrorism cases manufactured by the FBI.
Other politicians reiterated calls for Muslim communities to fight extremism purportedly infecting their communities, all while ignoring the fact that domestic terrorism carried out by non-Muslim perpetrators since 9/11 has had a higher impact than the jihadist threat. Asking Muslim American communities to counter violent extremism is a red herring and a nonstarter.
In 2011, the White House initiated a countering violent extremism (CVE) program as a new form of soft counterterrorism. Under the rubric of community partnerships, Muslim communities are invited to work with law enforcement to prevent Muslims from joining foreign terrorist groups such as ISIS. Federal grants and rubbing elbows with high level federal officials are among the fringe benefits for cooperation, or cooptation as some critics argue, with the CVE program.
Putting aside the un-American imposition of collective responsibility on Muslims, it is a red herring to call on Muslims to counter violent extremism. An individual cannot prevent a criminal act about which s/he has no knowledge. Past cases show that Muslim leaders, or the perpetrators’ family members for that matter, do not have knowledge of planned terrorist acts.
Hence, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are in the same state of uncertainty and insecurity about the circumstances surrounding the next terrorist act on American soil.
CVE is also a nonstarter for a community under siege by the government and private acts of discrimination. CVE programs expect community leaders and parents to engage young people on timely religious, political, and social matters. While this is generally a good practice for all communities, it should not be conducted through a security paradigm. Nor can it occur without a safe space for honest dialogue.
After fifteen years of aggressive surveillance and investigations, there are few safe spaces left in Muslim communities. Thanks in large part to mass FBI surveillance, mosques have become intellectual deserts where no one dares engage in discussions on sensitive political or religious topics. Fears that informants and undercover agents may secretly report on anyone who even criticizes American foreign policy have stripped mosques from their role as a community center where ideas can be freely debated. Government deportations of imams with critical views have turned Friday sermons into sterile monologues about mundane topics. And government efforts to promote “moderate” Muslims impose an assimilationist, anti-intellectual, and tokenized Muslim identity.
For these reasons, debates about religion, politics, and society among young people are taking place online outside the purview of mosques, imams, and parents.
Meanwhile, Muslim youth are reminded in their daily lives that they are suspect and their religion is violent. Students are subjected to bullying at school. Mosques are vandalized in conjunction with racist messages. Workers face harassment at work. Muslim women wearing headscarves are assaulted in public spaces. Whether fear or bigotry drives the prejudice, government action and politicians’ rhetoric legitimize discrimination as an act of patriotism.
Defending against these civil rights assaults is consuming Muslim Americans’ community resources and attention. Worried about their physical safety, their means of livelihood, and the well-being of their children in schools; many Muslim Americans experience the post-9/11 era as doubly victimized by terrorism. Their civil rights are violated by private actors and their civil liberties are violated by government actors—all in retribution for a criminal act about which they had no prior knowledge, and which they had no power to prevent by a criminal with whom they had no relationship.
To be sure, we should not sit back and allow another mass shooting to occur without a national conversation about the causes of such violence. But wasting time debating ineffective and racialized CVE programs is not constructive. Our efforts are better spent addressing gun violence, the rise of homophobic violence, and failed American foreign policy in the Middle East.
We all have a responsibility to do what we can to prevent more madmen from engaging in senseless violence that violates our safe spaces.
Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. She is the author of Policing Terrorists in the Community.