What’s at issue?
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Grant Program “seek[ing] to develop and expand efforts at the community level to counter violent extremist recruitment and radicalization to violence.” While these are noble and important goals, and areas of focus for grant projects are indeed appropriate aims for combatting violent extremism, the Department of Homeland Security’s approach is flawed on enough levels that faculty promoting social justice and civil rights should not be affiliating themselves with such a program. While I wish this situation and my claims fell squarely in the “Not News” category after skimming the wealth of resources available on the matter to prepare this piece, the idea that research teams from two of the University of North Carolina system’s prestigious public universities have already applied for, secured and begun projects under this grant demonstrate that this is clearly not the case.
Why I care
One of the most profound experiences of my oddly privileged youth was visiting the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. My parents, members of the working poor class attempting desperately to transition to middle class and having met as enlisted Marines on their first voyage from the homeland to posts in Okinawa, Japan, made travel and intercultural sensitivity high priorities while raising my younger sister and me. So for two years, I raised funds with my then church youth group to join a two-week mission trip to Eastern Europe, culminating for me in the visit to the Mauthausen Memorial. At the time, I was 14, coming to terms with my bisexuality and beginning to question the Christian ideologies that had formed the core of my upbringing in addition to the traditional trials and tribulations of puberty.
Examining some artifacts in a glass museum case, a pink triangle caught my eye. I cannot remember the context that clued me in to its meaning, but I remember the instant paradigm shift: suddenly, this terrible place where no birds sang and no laughter rang that had been evoking a deep sadness for Anne Frank and the Jewish people became instead my imagined home in a distant past. The tour guide read us the famous Martin Niemöller quote on the dangers of silence and the virtues of speaking for others. As a scholar of postcolonial theory and critical pedagogy, I’ve learned that speaking for others, as the Department of Homeland Security and grant recipients are promoting, can be equally as dangerous. To move forward together in the battle for civil rights and global community, we must stand and speak with one another in solidarity and support.
I’ve drawn much inspiration from the strength of African American activists and artists who have been engaging in social justice work and continue to educate allies willing to stand with them. I have been standing in solidarity with my fellow educators and LGBTQ community members fighting the corporatization of our education system and cannibalization of civil rights actively since 2013. Since I severed my own ties with religious practice, I had remained largely silent on the religious front. After working closely with a group of Saudi Arabian students attending the ECU Language Academy for the 2015-2016 academic year and bearing witness to their experiences in Eastern North Carolina, I shamed myself out of my silence.
Standing in solidarity with marginalized groups who do not share my views has become far more important to me, and I will be forever grateful to my Muslim friends for reminding me how vital it is for all marginalized groups to stand together against powerful forces such as the Department of Homeland Security who make statements like “Building relationships based on trust with communities is essential to this effort” to promote programs such as CVE while actively working to undermine the very goals of the program through its implementation.
Why you should care
Today, I stand in solidarity with and speak to support the UNC-CH Muslim Student Association (MSA) as they speak out against the implementation of the CVE Grant Program. The program seeks applications for projects focusing on any of five “focus areas” that effectively curb violent extremism based on current research: developing resilience, training and engaging with community members, managing intervention activities, challenging the narrative, and building capacity of community-level nonprofit organizations active in CVE. Current research into the program conducted by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, however, suggests among its six recommendations for “responsible federal, state and local agencies” to focus instead on “providing funds for social and educational programs helps prevent terrorism” without the risks of further alienating marginalized groups and needlessly feeding an epidemic of paranoia by conducting projects with similar goals “outside the counterterrorism and law enforcement umbrella, and include safeguards to prevent them from turning into vehicles for intelligence gathering.” In other words, a far more effective way to counter violent extremism than creating a targeted program to combat it would be to fix the broken social programs creating the conditions that fuel it.
According to the Brennan Center, “often dubious results” of CVE programs disproportionately affect Muslims and perpetuate “flawed theories of terrorist radicalization which lead to unnecessary fear, discrimination and unjustified reporting to law enforcement.” In an LA Times op-ed piece, Former FBI special agent and now director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California’s Sole Price School of Public Policy Erroll Southers criticizes this myopic Muslim focus, reminding us that “Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and so-called sovereign citizens, who violently reject the authority of the state” among other extremist groups with violent ideologies “must be addressed with purposeful engagement and study” to protect and promote civil rights—to preserve our humanity—in the face of a rise of nationalism threatening to undo generations of global progress toward civil engagement.
What we can do
Most important in taking action on sensitive issues such as these is to foster not awareness but understanding. Awareness without understanding leads down the slippery slope toward yellow stars and pink triangles. The Brennan Center for Justice has compiled a rich set of resources “intended to provide journalists, policymakers, and the public information about CVE programs so that informed decisions can be made regarding whether and how” to design and implement programs to counter violent extremism. Resources are organized by the following themes that have emerged:
- Reliance on the debunked theory of radicalization;
- Exploitation of community outreach for intelligence purposes;
- Proposed frameworks for CVE pilot programs;
- Community and civil liberties’ groups concerns about CVE programs;
- CVE on the international front;
- CVE and technology;
- Scholarship questioning the efficacy of CVE programs;
- Concerns over right-wing violent radicalization;
- Concerns over the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” initiative in schools; and
- CVE in the Trump administration.
We will never cure an epidemic of violence by treating the symptoms, and the DHS, among many other powerful players, choose willful ignorance rather than acknowledge the true roots of the cause. We will, however, inspire meaningful change by working together to support each other and make efforts to better understand one another, the challenges that people different from ourselves face, and the commonalities among us. To that end, the MSA took part in a well-attended teach-in on CVE at UNC-CH on April 5. They subsequently attended a free public forum to discuss rising Islamophobia and the concrete actions we can take to combat it at interpersonal and community levels: "Deconstructing Hate: Building a Stronger Movement Against Islamophobia and Other Oppressions.”
Additionally, the MSA has been advocating for the UNC-CH researchers serving as principal investigators (PIs) of a CVE research project to return the grant funding awarded them through this program. The MSA is requesting the PIs (Cori Dauber, professor of communication, and Mark Robinson, director of the Multimedia lab) agree to a town hall to discuss the goals, objectives and future of the project. As a product, advocate, and agent of public higher education, I am writing today to stand with the MSA in calling for PIs Dauber and Robinson to meet with the MSA in a public forum to offer any interested and affected parties an opportunity to better understand the project and its goals and to ensure the faculty stand and speak with the communities they seek to empower instead of making the far more dangerous mistake of silencing them and speaking for them.
Chris Moore is a PhD candidate, Department of English, at East Carolina University. She is also a teacher consultant at Tar River Writing Project.