Obama's Tricky Balancing Act In Getting Muslim Americans To Fight Radicalization

They say it doesn't help to single them out.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Muslim American officials and even some experts on violent extremism aren't entirely sold on a recent push by the Obama administration for Muslim leaders to play a more visible role in countering radicalization in the United States.

President Barack Obama pressed the issue in his Sunday night address to the nation, which was prompted by the recent shooting in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 dead. The president called on the Muslim community to step up their public condemnations of violent extremism, saying that "extremist ideology" was a "real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse."

It was a rhetorical shift for Obama, who in past instances of extremism involving a Muslim perpetrator mourned the events and elegized the victims, but made no mention of Islam. And in the days that followed his Sunday address, other administration officials echoed the president's call.

But the rhetoric around anti-radicalization strategies can be just as delicate as the geopolitics. And the new talk also produced new confusion: Top Muslim American officials said they're not sure what, exactly, the president expects Muslim groups to do that they aren't already doing.

"All of them denounce terrorism. All of them are trying to do good in the community and be more part of the community," Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim members of Congress, told The Huffington Post. "These people are always telling me how they're doing interfaith dialogue, feeding the poor, opening health care clinics for people of any faith to participate in."

Other Muslim leaders said they fear there could be ugly side effects if they keep being singled out as the primary community responsible for responding to radical extremists.

"We understand there is an issue that exists in terms of radicalization or people being recruited by ISIS," said Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of CAIR Arizona. "But you can't put the onus on the entire community. We are coming on the heels of the Planned Parenthood shooting. So there is a guy who subscribed to the Christian faith, who defended God's army, who according to his wife read the Bible cover to cover, who by all intents and purposes was a zealot from a Christian background. But that same type of scrutiny is not placed on the larger Christian community, even though there is a threat of right-wing extremism."

For all his concerns, Siddiqi was largely apologetic for Obama's shift in focus. He attributed the change to a president encumbered by political pressures to adopt "certain verbiage." Ellison, however, was slightly less forgiving, saying that if the president is looking for Muslims to play a bigger role in countering violent extremism, he would be well-served to actually meet with them first.

"I mean, this president has never visited a mosque inside the United States," he said. "That's a fact. He has been invited numerous occasions by me, personally."

While there's been no mosque visit, the president did reach out to Muslim leaders last spring, when the White House hosted a summit on countering violent extremism (CVE) strategies. Ellison was among the nearly two dozen attendees, who brainstormed ideas on how various groups -- law enforcement, religious leaders, government officials and social service providers -- can work together on the issue.

Attendees said the summit was an exercise in charting out a holistic approach to CVEs. And, indeed, the ideas emphasized during the day didn't put any onus on a single group or religion.

The administration has also launched its Strong Cities Network, an international effort that connects city leaders in developing CVE programs, and it hosted a spring youth summit aimed at countering violent extremism. It started a Peer-to-Peer Global University challenge, which motivates university students to use digital technology to counter violent extremists. Additionally, there have been Justice Department pilot projects in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles that created community partnerships and youth programs aimed at stemming violence.

But as experts note, CVE strategies aren't panaceas. They take time to be effective. And in the wake of other instances of violent extremism, pressure has mounted on the White House to single out bastardized Islam as a source of the scourge.

For strategic reasons, both this administration and the previous one have largely resisted those pressures, as Peter Feaver, director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke University, noted.

"The Bush administration's rhetoric, whatever objections you had to their policies, was remarkably sensitive to these concerns from the very beginning," he said. "[They] understood there is only so much you can do kinetically. There are some people you have to kill because you cannot persuade them, but you cannot kill your way to victory in this larger context. You have to win the ideological contest."

That was the first big insight. The second big insight, Feaver said, was "that the other side wins if this is viewed as Muslims versus the West. So while that is how the terrorists view it and that is the rhetoric, we have to be careful not to reinforce that rhetoric."

But there's been a divergence in White House strategy. While Bush didn't shy away from calling out Islam as an "inspiring" force for the radicalized, Obama has carefully avoided making that connection. So much so, argues Feaver, that the administration has "given the impression that they're fooled about the nature of it."

In that vein, Obama's comments on Sunday were a shift toward Bush's approach. But it's one other aspect of counter-terrorism that needs to be approached with care.

"The perception is there among many Muslim American communities that the CVE is really just about Islam and groups like al Qaeda and ISIL, and isn't applied [to others]," said William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. He also attended the February White House summit.

"But I'll argue that in many cities that are actively trying to do CVE work, they are trying to take an all-faith, an all-hazards approach," Braniff said. "They have learned that that's really the requirement if they're to do CVE well, that they have to reach out to every community, have to have programming for all communities and not alienate the Muslim American community."

As Braniff sees it, public officials from the White House on down need to apply CVE strategies across religious and ideological lines, whether the perpetrators are Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who were behind the San Bernardino shootings, or Dylann Roof, who shot nine black church attendees in Charleston, South Carolina. Because if one group feels singled out, they may very well recoil when asked to help -- either out of anger from being ostracized or from wariness of being seen as a lackey for the government.

Muslim leaders are "concerned about radicalization like any other community, but the notion they would be singled out as the go-between between government and law enforcement efforts to stop radicalization is concerning," said Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism and another attendee at the February White House summit.

"When you look at people who have been radicalized in this country, the data sort of bears that these are diverse people being attracted to diverse violent causes," Segal said. "They're not just attracted to al Qaeda or ISIS."

He added: "The point being, it's very broad, complicated issue."

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