On Friday, January 13th, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released the names of various organizations to which it had awarded a sum total of $10 million in grants for their participation in DHS’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program. Featuring a combination of law enforcement agencies and NGOs, the list also includes organizations such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Muslim Leadership Alliance. These organizations and others like them that purport to represent the best interests of US Muslims and then turn right around and participate in such duplicitous activities need to be held accountable for their actions. CVE is nothing more than an initiative facilitating the state-sanctioned, mass surveillance of Muslims in the US under the false pretense of “countering extremism.”
Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)
Based on the discredited “Radicalization Theory,” CVE essentially operates by turning community spaces into settings of surveillance. Organizations are offered money and services for community projects (often related to mental health) and in exchange are encouraged to report any suspicious activities to local authorities. The problem, according to an ACLU report on the “Radicalization Theory,” is that the parameters for what constitutes suspicious or deviant behavior suggestive of the potential for “radicalization” are so broad that they constitute de facto discrimination: “Commonplace activities for Muslim-Americans, like wearing Islamic clothing, growing a beard, abstaining from alcohol and joining advocacy organizations or community groups were all listed as potential indicators of radicalization. In other words: any kind of behavior and all kinds of behavior.” CVE and related initiatives that encourage individual citizens to file suspicious activity reports (SARs) thus operate on a model of predictive policing that effectively render wide swaths of the population guilty until proven innocent simply by virtue of their (at times presumed) religion and appearance. Furthermore, the disrupted “terrorist plots” that are used to justify mass surveillance of Muslims through programs like CVE are often directly manufactured or at least encouraged by the FBI through sting operations, creating a cycle whereby incidents primarily surrounding Muslims are whipped up by law enforcement agencies in order to justify continued discriminatory surveillance. To that end, the Trump administration’s recent declaration that CVE was to be rebranded so as to focus solely on Muslim “extremism” (a move that white supremacists are already celebrating), while reprehensible, is essentially an explicit clarification of what has already been federal policy. Indeed, how successful we will be in combating Islamophobia in the Trump era rests upon our ability to realize how much of what has occurred during Trump’s campaign and following his election is not an exception, but an escalation.
Beyond Bigotry: Islamophobia as a Pattern of Repression
We may be more used to thinking of Islamophobia as an individual bias or prejudice against Muslims or people presumed to be Muslim, but it is important also to see Islamophobia as a larger state project of surveillance and repression ultimately framed by white supremacist, imperial and neo-colonial interests. The discriminatory mass surveillance, detention and deportation made possible by post 9/11 legislation such as the PATRIOT act and programs like NSEERS that complemented the profit-driven military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan under the so-called global “War on Terror” is one example of how this operates (while the Obama administration announced that it would dismantle NSEERS in December, Obama’s presidency nevertheless largely saw the preservation and expansion of the surveillance programs and military campaigns inherited from Bush).
But domestic Islamophobic profiling and surveillance reach back well beyond the declaration of the “War on Terror.” This is clearly demonstrated by the history of struggle of Black American Muslims who, as Margari Hill writes, “have always been under intense scrutiny by law enforcement and vilified in the media.” Nessa further elaborates this point, reminding us that the history of Islam in the US begins not with Arab immigration, but with slavery; that Black American Muslims were the first targets of Islamophobic repression in the US; and that the persecution of Black Muslims in the US continues into the present day through programs like Minneapolis’ own version of CVE “targeting Somali-Muslims.”
Palestine is another important dimension of Islamophobic repression in the US. The 1967 Six Day War marked the inauguration of the military-imperial relationship between the US and Israel, with the US henceforth heavily supporting Israel’s ongoing settler colonization of Palestine. The returns of this relationship have especially been felt in the post 9/11 era, as Israel continues to export the military technology it hones in the occupied territories to governments all over the world and to train police forces in surveillance and crowd control tactics. The US’s own status as a settler-colonial entity, an ongoing project of which the current protests of the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline are only one example, throws this privileged relationship with another militarized settler-colonial state into even sharper relief. The intersection of these struggles shows the insufficiency of confronting Islamophobia without likewise opposing the interlocking ideologies and systems of oppression such as US exceptionalism and capitalism, which continues to incentivize the death, dispossession and deprivation of rights of millions the world over through the global arms trade and a for-profit security industry that includes mercenaries, borders and prisons. Furthermore, we can’t truly fight Islamophobia without opposing Zionism, the ideology that justifies Palestine’s ongoing colonization, and Israeli state logic that, similar in some ways to what we see in the US, falsely constructs Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as justifiable collateral to “fighting terrorism.”
The solidification of the US-Israel relationship also resulted in an intense crackdown on activism related to Palestine. Well before 9/11, there was the case of the LA 8, seven Palestinian men and one Kenyan woman who, in 1987, were charged and faced deportation simply for distributing educational material in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The charges against all members were not dropped until twenty years later, and the legal team for the defendants later maintained that the initial arrest was intended to serve as a test case for a government program entitled “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan” that would entail the mass internment of Arabs and Muslims in the US. While there has been talk of internment of Muslims in the context of the Trump administration, the LA 8 case demonstrates a blueprint for such a program was already in the works decades ago. The LA 8 case also set a precedent for the use of legal charges of “material support” for terrorism that were so broad as to essentially allow for the targeting of individuals for political ideas alone, a tactic that especially flourished in the Bush and Obama eras, and which will no doubt persist under Trump.
Even prior to his election, Trump did a great deal to mainstream Islamophobia. Now, with so many lives already being torn apart by his administration’s Muslim ban, it is especially urgent to oppose Islamophobia as well as all other forms of oppression Trump’s words and actions have normalized. But we must not mistake blatancy for novelty. State-sanctioned Islamophobia has been in the political fabric of the US for decades, well before Trump and even well before 9/11. If we are truly committed to abolishing Islamophobia, then, we need to do much more than simply protest Trump. We must oppose policies like CVE, and SARs, and call for an end to local police departments’ participation in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which uses the false pretense of security to surveil activists, and support organizations working to expose these patterns of surveillance like CAIR , the National Lawyers Guild, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. We must demand the immediate release of those targeted by the government for political and community advocacy under the guise of countering terrorism, like the Holy Land Five and Rasmea Odeh.
On a smaller but no less fundamental level, we need to interrogate the messaging we use when we do attend demonstrations. Denouncing policies like Trump’s ban through appeals to the US as a “nation of immigrants” erase this country’s history of slavery and settler-colonial genocide, not to mention the struggles of non-immigrant Black American Muslims against Islamophobia, while warm and fuzzy slogans like LOVE TRUMPS HATE frame Islamophobia as solely a matter of individual bigotry rather than a product of state surveillance and repression designed to preserve hierarchies of racial subjugation, safeguard campaigns of imperial/colonial capitalist profiteering and exploitation, and criminalize political dissent. We must reject such exceptonalization if we truly hope to combat Islamophobia in any substantive way moving forward.
PIcture Credit: “No Islamophobia” © 2015 JMacPherson, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/