Over 120 people came together on a hot muggy Sunday afternoon in August to learn about our government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs in Montgomery County, MD, and around the country. Three young Muslim women, Amara Majeed, Fatema Ahmad, and Ayaan Arraweelo briefed the audience about the way the program has been implemented, how it makes them feel targeted, and how some communities are organizing to fight back. Watch a video of the event here.
As a Muslim American, this is what I want to tell you about CVE.
Countering Violent Extremism makes me feel criminalized.
It makes me feel like because of my religious identity, I will be viewed through the lens of national security.
It makes me feel that I am viewed as a potential terrorist first,
a counterterrorism tool second,
and an everyday, normal American citizen entitled to their Constitutional freedoms last.
Amara Majeed is a rising Junior at Brown University who has spent the summer working with the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition as part of it’s Anti-Islamophobia Working Group. She launched the conversation with an overview of the CVE program which she describes as a “soft counterterrorism program” couched in lexicon like “building community resilience.” CVE programs reinforce this ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’ dichotomy, she said, and erroneously asserts that extremist belief is a precursor to, and motivating factor for, violence. She pointed out how Muslim teenagers, going through the normal angst of being a teenager, are having their teachers view their problems through a national security lens. “It really is scary, it profiles students and treats them as potential terrorists.” She shared this video:
Ayaan Arraweelo, executive director of the Young Muslim Collective in Minneapolis described the CVE program in that city, which is targeted at the Somali community. Although it is administered through the Department of Justice by District Attorney Andrew Lugar, the program uses a social service model. “Who doesn’t want their kid to have access to mentoring, counseling, and mental health services,” Ayaan asked. “But the program comes with mass surveillance and entrapment.” Many local organizations are hiding their involvement with CVE programs, so Muslim youth don’t know who they can trust, who they can turn to that is not connected to the police or the DOJ.
The FBI has a very strong presence, both visible and hidden, in the Somali community in Minneapolis. In addition to FBI agents who identify themselves as such, the community is full of undercover informants who are paid to conduct sting and entrapment operations, and inform on their neighbors. This is dividing the community, sewing suspicion.
Fatema Ahmad has been organizing against CVE on two fronts: in North Carolina, where she attended Duke University, and now in Boston, where she is Deputy Director of the Muslim Justice League.
The Muslim community in North Carolina was recently surprised to learn that UNC had applied, and been awarded, a grant from DHS to run a “peer to peer” program. Young people (UNC students) with no background or training would make videos designed to stop their peers from becoming terrorists. The grant is troubling on a number of fronts, but primarily because it promotes the idea to the young video makers that Muslims are on a conveyer belt to terrorism, and need to be plucked off it (by one of these videos). This was not a research grant, so there would be no accountability. Fortunately, the grant was cancelled. But the professor is still at the school, and likely to pursue the project.
Much of what is happening in CVE is out of the public eye, difficult to find out about, and much of it will be privatized. This surveillance is not anything new. It has been happening for a long time. Particularly against Black Muslims. We need to work with other communities who have faced surveillance or who will face it. The Denver police department has applied for CVE funding, mentioning the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter. We can see how quickly this program will expand to other marginalized groups.
In Boston, CVE has been rebranded as a public health initiative. Similar to the Minneapolis program, CVE in Boston is disguised as a social services program, and even the name is an alias:
Promoting Engagement, Acceptance and Community Empowerment, or PEACE. There is also a component that engages with law enforcement, called Youth and Police Initiative Plus, that raises the specter of Somali youth having “unaccountable times and unobserved spaces” as a potential factor in turning them into terrorists.
In 2014 the World Organization for Research, Development and Education (WORDE) received a three-year $5 million grant to operate a CVE program in Montgomery County. The program has significant support from the Montgomery County Police Department and the Faith Community Working Group,and the county contributed $244,000 to the effort. Although WORDE claims the program is community led, Amara said it is “not even community informed.” The schools are a primary target, and transparency is a major issue. As in other places, the name of the program keeps changing. The program has also moved from WORDE to the Center on Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
The program has come to be known as the “Montgomery Model,” and like other CVE programs, relies on a list of supposed indicators of propensity toward terrorism. Amara spoke out about how frustrating it is to speak out on legitimate grievances including opposition to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone warfare, and human rights abuses, and have that viewed through the lens of national security The “Montgomery County Model” is being used around the country to target other communities including LGBTQ folks and Black Lives Matter.
Sponsored by the Resisting Surveillance Collaborative (American Friends Service Committee, Boston Workmans Circle, Defending Rights & Dissent, Intelligent Mischief, and Muslim Justice League) along with the Islamic Center of Maryland, ACLU of MoCo, Arab American Institute, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition