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Using Local Public-Private Partnerships to Reduce Risk of Violent Extremism

Since 2011, when the White House first unveiled its strategy for combating homegrown violent extremism, one consistent theme has emerged: the need for public-private partnerships to stand in the breach against homegrown terrorism.

The presence of ideology as a motivating factor for engaging in criminal wrongdoing distinguishes terrorism from other forms of violence. However, the U.S. Constitution gives a person the legal freedom to be a racial or religious bigot, as long as he or she is not committing a crime. Samuel Rascoff, a legal scholar and former director of the New York City Police Department’s intelligence analysis division, argues government involvement, including funding, to combat extremist ideas (as opposed to criminal behavior) is both unconstitutional and counterproductive.

Rascoff and others also find government actors to be the least credible “messenger” to combat hate. The most effective voices tend to be private citizens and civil society groups who compete in an open marketplace of ideas to replace bad ideas with good ones. In essence, the White House strategy is a partnership with a division of labor: where federal and local government actors focus on criminal activities, community-based civil society actors are relied upon to address its underlying ideological and social root causes.

Examples of Community-Led Initiatives

In response to the White House’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy, at least two national U.S. Muslim organizations have launched their own community-led initiatives. One of them is the World Organization for Resource Development and Education’s (WORDE) “Montgomery County Model (MCM).” Named after Montgomery County, Maryland where the Model and WORDE’s headquarters are located, it has “a core focus on generating public awareness about the risk factors of violent extremism, and empowering the appropriate figures to intervene with vulnerable individuals before they choose a path of violence.”

The MCM is implemented through the Faith Community Working Group, which is a government body housed within the Montgomery County Executive’s Office of Community Partnerships. At the heart of the MCM is the Crossroads program, which conducts targeted outreach and interventions with specific county residents from Muslim-majority regions of the world who have been identified as at-risk for engaging in violent extremism. The entire model, including the Faith Community Working Group and the Crossroads program, is funded by both the county and federal government.

The second community-based effort is the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) “Safe Spaces Initiative.” (Full disclosure: I am the author of Safe Spaces and a former MPAC staffer from 2009 to 2012). Safe Spaces is a no-cost empowerment training service offered to local U.S. Muslim communities around the country at their request. It is a “traveling” program, not tethered to a specific location.

Like the MCM, Safe Spaces seeks to raise awareness about violent extremism, but also provide local communities with the concepts, institutional guidelines, and skills to enhance resilience against recruitment into violent extremism. Much of Safe Spaces is based on a modified version of the “Threat Assessment Team” model, developed by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education, which is used in public schools and universities around the country.

In April 2014, MPAC launched Safe Spaces, releasing a 130-page handbook that forms the core of the training curriculum. The program also includes a pre-training diagnostic to assess a community’s particular needs, tabletop exercises to simulate crisis interventions with at-risk individuals, and follow-up consultations for up to two years. Safe Spaces was developed and implemented entirely through private funds from U.S. Muslims; no U.S. government or foreign money is used.

To be successful in the long run, civil society-sourced initiatives have to engage the concerns of skeptics.

Resistance to Community-Led CVE

To be sustainable and successful in the long run, civil society-sourced initiatives have to engage concerns from “CVE disengagers,” or individuals and institutions among U.S. Muslims who are skeptical of CVE.

CVE disengagers are not monolithic. Some skeptics see the threat of violent extremism inflated by media outlets, government officials, and anti-Muslim voices, often pointing to statistics that show that Al-Qaida and ISIS attacks in the U.S. are a rare phenomenon.

A related argument is that it is more important for Muslims to combat anti-Muslim bigotry and other issues they see as more immediately affecting their lives. For many Muslims, like Los Angeles-based cleric Jihad Saafir, local gangs pose the most immediate threat to community safety, not homegrown violent extremists.

Others reference studies on violent far-right actors like militias and Sovereign Citizens, saying that CVE in its current form only focuses on ISIS and Al-Qaida to the exclusion of other threats, thereby singling out Muslims. (This particular criticism is often shared by American Muslim supporters of community-based CVE efforts.)

Many critics also point to historical and ongoing civil liberties concerns as reasons for their hesitation or hostility to CVE. Citing violations that took place under the FBI’s COINTELPRO program during the 1960s and 1970s, these skeptics argue CVE supporters aren’t being critical enough about what they view as alarmist public discourse on homegrown terrorism.

Finally, some of the criticism has to do with the unique internal politics of American Muslims. Some critics point to associations, real or perceived, with unfavorable groups. For example, some activists are critical of the Montgomery County Model because certain individuals advocating for it were affiliated hawkish pro-Israel groups. Others have alleged that MPAC’s support for community-based CVE is tainted by alleged conflicts of interest.

Moving Forward

While the debates about CVE are sometimes heated, they are a healthy part of a democratic society. One promising sign is the changing nature of these conversations. Many of the debates initially took place over social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, allowing for little in-depth discussion, instead devolving into exchanges of 140 character-long barbs. More recently the Islamic Monthly, a respected online American Muslim magazine, hosted a structured online debate about CVE between Sahar Aziz, a civil liberties lawyer, and Salam Al-Marayati, President of MPAC.

Another promising sign is that CVE and community-based efforts are evolving. For starters, the term “CVE” itself is being phased out among community practitioners. Safe Spaces currently describes itself a “public health”-style program that seeks to prevent “targeted violence.” The program is currently undergoing further substantive changes to reinforce this new framing.

This reframing was echoed in the findings from a recent convening of 25 CVE experts. Made up of researchers, educators, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and community advocates, the experts argued for changing “the conversation to…strengthening communities and fostering community resilience.” It also argued for moving away from alienating approaches that mainly emphasize surveillance and arrest, to shift toward “public health and psychosocial approaches” that treat homegrown terrorism similar to forms of targeted violence like hate crimes, school shooters and gang attacks.

Government actors appear to be catching on to this approach. For instance, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice, in partnership with academic and civil society groups will be hosting an all-day conference to discuss “Developing Community-Based Strategies to Prevent Targeted Violence and Mass Casualty Attacks.”

Even with these changes, strong skepticism is likely to remain. However, combined with the changing nature of the debates in communities, the ongoing evolution in civil society-sourced programming, and more socially inclusive framing, community-based CVE will continue to elicit interest from government and non-government actors in the United States.

Alejandro J. Beutel

Researcher for Countering Violent Extremism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism

Alejandro J. Beutel is a Researcher for Countering Violent Extremism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). He is the author of the Safe Spaces Initiative: Developing Tools for Healthy Communities. The opinions offered here are solely his and do not necessarily represent the views of START.

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