Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), as defined by the Department of State in a recent CVE joint strategy document, “refers to proactive actions to counter efforts by violent extremists to radicalize, recruit, and mobilize followers to violence and to address specific factors that facilitate violent extremist recruitment and radicalization to violence.”
Though government efforts to engage local Muslim communities in multivalent forms of “partner” arrangements to mitigate and quell the allure of violent extremism have existed for the last few years, CVE as a particular initiative represents the most comprehensive attempt to proactively address violent extremism to date. In its current incarnation, CVE is demonstrably different from what has been tried previously in the following areas:
How is CVE Different?
1- It is a global initiative, and a recent CVE Summit hosted by the White House in February drew attendance from over 60 countries. Of the countries in attendance, the United Arab Emirates has been dubbed as playing a central role as a partner to the US in developing and enacting global CVE initiatives. Since the February meeting, the UAE has already inaugurated the Sawab Center “to counter the online messaging, propaganda and recruitment by the terrorist organization known as Daesh (ISIL).”
2- It is a funded initiative, with the current application period for grants having just closed on September 6th of this calendar year. Headed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), current CVE allocation stands at $10 million dollars that will be distributed to a projected 60 grantees. Of the available $10 million, $3 million has been allocated for programs that help “develop resilience,” with the remaining $7 million divided between programs designed to “challenge the narrative,” “train and engage,” “manage intervention activities,” and “build capacity.” It should be noted that DHS represents but one sector of CVE funding, as both the Justice Department and State Department have separate mechanisms for CVE funding.
3- Locally, CVE enlists the “help of counselors, social workers, religious figures, and other community members to intervene with people the FBI thinks are in danger of radicalizing” as part of “Shared Responsibility Committees.” In a leaked letter from the FBI directed toward potential SRC members, the details of participating in an SRC include “not consulting outside experts” without written permission from the FBI along with potentially having to sign nondisclosure agreements.
4- Participating entities include not only local SRCs, but a myriad of private sector organizations. During the 2015 White House CVE Summit (referenced above), Jared Cohen, the then Director of Google Ideas (now Jigsaw), spoke of Google’s desire to be “proactive” in addressing those topics that fell in the “intersection of technology and global security challenges.” Cohen later referred to an internal CVE Summit organized by Google that brought together an array of ex-terrorists to discuss the challenge of violent extremism. Prior to the February Summit, the White House released a fact sheet on CVE stating that one of the objectives of the Summit was to widen the “global base of CVE stakeholders” to include “social media solutions.” CVE pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minnesota have made a point of incorporating private sector participation into their initiatives, with Minnesota’s CVE program drawing funding from private sector entities. The Los Angeles CVE pilot has detailed as part of its framework the inclusion of “private partners, such as social media companies, film production and public media outlets” to “help amplify positive narratives to combat extremism via social media.” At a recent Global Entrepreneurship Summit in June, Secretary of State John Kerry called on the tech industry to create new products “to tackle the enormous global challenges we face,” and has elsewhere elicited the support of Hollywood executives as part of broader CVE related efforts. Twitter has claimed to have suspended 235,000 accounts since February 2016 on terrorism-related grounds, and a recent statement by the non-profit Counter-Terrorism Project encouraged other “social media companies” to “follow this example and increase their efforts to enforce their terms of service by removing extremist content.” Like Twitter, Facebook has taken to censoring offending content in a reported partnership with the Israeli government, while the Google Transparency Project has reported Google’s tight ties with the White House, including 427 visits to the White House between the start of Obama’s presidency and October 2015 as well as a “revolving door” between Google and the Obama administration. In addition to these documented formal relationships, a number of private sector non-profits have formed to discuss and develop potential policy for the next Administration. This includes the non-profit Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Countering Violent Extremism, which is in the process of producing a “final report, aimed at breaking new ground in the way CVE is understood and practiced and influencing the next Administration’s CVE policies and approaches.” CSIS boasts as Co-Chairs of its CVE Commission Leon Panetta and Tony Blair, and includes as commissioners a General Counsel member from Google, the President of Microsoft, the Head of Global Impact Investing of Goldman Sachs, and the Co-Founder of the Tribeca Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Institute. Therefore, private sector participation a) includes a cross-section of industries including the financial sector, media, and tech, b) is already underway vis-à-vis either government solicited or independent efforts aimed at challenging what is perceived as an alluring terrorist narrative, and c) is actively being solicited by White House and State Department officials.
Given the foregoing scope of CVE, this article will endeavor to examine the contours of the current CVE discourse as it pertains to Muslims. Within this context, this article will begin by unpackaging terms native to CVE including the presuppositions necessary to situate CVE as an issue of urgency, and then proceed to attend to common arguments in favor of Muslim community participation.
Violent Extremism – Not Simply a “Muslim Thing”
A necessary prerequisite for any initiative of this scale is a robust epistemological underpinning. Unfortunately, the core terms deployed in service of CVE remain fickle, disjointed, and incoherent. Take for example the term “radicalization.” Given the frequency of the use of this term, one would assume there to be an existing definition of radicalization that makes it qualitatively distinguishable from violent activity that is not an output of perceived radicalization.
Alex Wilner and Claire-Jehanne Dubouloz refer to radicalization as “a personal process in which the individual adopts extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations, and where the attainment of particular goals justifies the use of indiscriminate violence.” Brian Jenkins, a Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation, described radicalization before a subcommittee hearing on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment, as “internalizing a set of beliefs, a militant mindset that embraces violent jihad as the paramount test of one’s conviction.”
In order to qualify both definitions, we need to ask a few important questions. What, for example, constitutes “extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations”? Or a “militant mindset”? Countries throughout the world have leveraged these and other rather amorphous terrorist-related taxonomies as dialectical tools to quell opposition and suppress political dissent. Russia’s recently ratified Yarova Amendment provides what has been described as “sweeping new powers to security forces, beefs up controls of social media and telephone calls, and broadens the definition of extremism crimes.” Paul Gregory, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, has lamented these broad powers, stating that although the amendment was “paraded before the public as an anti-terrorism measure, its real purpose is to shield the Putin regime from internal dissent and unrest.” Last year China passed a new national security law which has been described as reading “more like a Communist Party ideology paper and a call to arms aimed at defending the party’s grip on power.” Governments throughout the world have stifled legitimate dissent and repressively castigated political opposition under the rubric of national security (see: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Brazil, Turkey, the EU, et al). Given the ever-elusive definition of extremism and its cognate radicalization alongside rampant global abuse, on what grounds can one lay claim to holding a genuine/legitimate grievance against “extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations”?
The fact of the matter is that the often unspoken definition of radicalization and extremism is that it applies exclusively to acts of violence enacted by self-identified Muslim actors (or, actors which can be depicted as being Muslim by the government). Muslim actors in heterogeneous contexts, possessing an assortment of motives, and pursuing varied means to violently oppose their conflict partner are collectively conflated under the umbrella of the reductive neologism “terrorist.” Following the Charleston shooting last year that left nine dead, Glenn Greenwald noted the inconsistent application of the term terrorism, characterizing it as a “completely malleable, manipulated, vapid term of propaganda that has no consistent application whatsoever.”
It is difficult to argue against Greenwald’s assessment. That millions of Americans grow up in a socio-cultural context that routinely and unremittingly depicts Muslims as a conflict partner, “radical Islamism” as an ideological opponent, and killing of the Muslim “other” as the exclusive path for remediation, is beyond debate. Moreover, this culture of Western radicalization designed to depict Muslims as the cultural “other” has been fomented in various military circles. Islamophobia Today has reported a “crusader sub-culture” in the military today, with an increase in “Anti-Muslim/Islam and pro-Crusader themes tied to military-use paraphernalia, including: T-Shirts, insignias, bullet coating, rifle scope cases as well as tattoos inscribed ‘Kafir,’ and ‘Infidel.’” Up thru 2012, military training included an encouragement to use “Hiroshima” tactics as part of a “total war on Islam.” Also in 2012, a South Carolina-based Marine Corps squadron reinstituted the controversial name “Crusader” with a cross as its insignia, reportedly telling its members that, “The enemy gets to have Allah in their fight. We need to get our Lord and Savior back into our fight.” Even paramilitary contracting units have adopted this discourse, with the former CEO of Blackwater, Erik Prince, viewing himself as being tasked with the elimination of “Islam and the Muslim faith from the globe.” Prince openly and frequently employed terms such as “ragheads” and “hajis” when referring to Iraqis and other Arabs whose killings he rewarded. Does none of this constitute a “militant mindset”?
And indeed, therein lies the rub: in the paradigmatic framing that predominates contemporary CVE discussions, it is only Muslims and perhaps, in a more charitable trying-not-to-be-exclusively-Muslim-framing, fringe white supremacist groups, that are capable of carrying out violent extremism. Meanwhile, drone attacks, shock-and-awe tactics, paramilitary contracting units, indefinite detention, extraordinary renditioning, and the many other tools of the powerful vs. the powerless get a pass. Millions dead in Muslim-majority nations are flippantly regarded as unavoidable civilian casualties or “collateral damage.” All the while, any trenchant critique aimed at drawing attention to these basic facts results in the hackneyed charge of anti-Americanism or radical sympathizing. The outcome of such a discourse necessarily limits the scope of “violent extremism” to Muslims alone. Given this presumptive basis, Muslims are depicted as uniquely possessing the ability to carry out egregious violence, and it is on this account that we are held responsible to self-police our communities.
Muslims should – and indeed, must – reject this terror framing of their faith. The fact is that if we use “violent extremism” as a conceptual category encompassing all acts of violence, then violent acts carried out by self-identified Muslims would be put into proper perspective relative to the many more common ways in which everyday Americans are victims of daily violence. This, in turn, could perhaps reduce the anti-Muslim hysteria that continues to dominate certain segments of society. Moreover, we would begin to address more critically the wanton violence carried out by both state and non-state actors, and perhaps ask why so many purportedly “advanced” and “civilized” nations in the West have taken to the military option and global violence.
CVE and Stigmatization, even within an Establishment Framing
For arguments sake, let us accept the establishment framing of “terrorism” and “radicalization” as an act only carried out by actors inspired by jihadist groups (i.e. Daesh/ISIL, AlQaeda, the Taliban, etc.) or fringe fanatics in the US (radical leftists, right-wing extremists, etc.). Would, within this revised framing, CVE be a laudable program worth pursuing? The answer remains a resounding “no.” Even in this already narrow and politically-motivated definition of “terrorism,” CVE deputizes and stigmatizes Muslims alone with only lip-service directed toward non-Muslim terror threats.
In a recent subcommittee hearing held by the House Homeland Security Committee (HSC) entitled “Identifying the Enemy: Radical Islamist Terror,” George Selim, the Director of the Office for Community Partnerships for the DHS and head of the DHS CVE Task Force, testified concerning the current state of CVE. At multiple points in the hearing, congressional inquiry revolved around CVE scope. Following his initial testimony, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman asked Selim about non-Muslim NGOs that have been involved with CVE. Despite his insistence that him and his staff work with a “range” of NGOs in countering domestic terrorism that are not Muslim, Selim failed to name a single non-Muslim NGO. Rep. Bennie Thompson later asked Selim about right-wing terror groups and other ideologies that motivate domestic violence, ones that statistically represent a much greater threat to the homeland than Daesh/ISIL. In response, Selim cited Secretary of the DHS Jeh Johnson as having stated that the “preeminent threat to our homeland security today is ISIL’s ability to recruit and radicalize,” a claim that Rep. Thompson went on to flatly reject, referring to reports highlighting non-Muslim sources of violent extremism as “irrefutably” worse and more threatening than Daesh/ISIL.
If there remained any doubt about the exclusively-Muslim framing of CVE, Selim quickly extinguished it in the coming set of questions when asked by Rep. Scott Perry whether or not white supremacist groups in general, and the KKK in particular, would represent an ideologically extreme group whose thought CVE would seek to preempt or counteract. Though he initially responded generically, over time Selim all but conceded that such groups would not be in scope (Perry characterized his response as saying “essentially no”), repeating his prior statement that the “preeminent threat to the homeland today is ISIL’s ability to recruit and radicalize.”
In short, CVE efforts are solely concerned with Muslim “radicalization” and if the recent HSC hearing is any indication, government officials are making little effort to conceal that fact.
CVE, Research and The Numbers
CVE programs also presuppose another critical yet entirely unsubstantiated claim: that violent extremism is indeed a significant problem. In his work The Missing Martyrs, Charles Kurzman examines the global death toll that has resulted from Muslim terror plots and in contrast to popular discussions on the topic, inquires as to what accounts for the decidedly low rate of Muslims carrying out terror attacks. Published in 2011, Kurzman states that at the time of his writing, “Global Islamist terrorists have managed to recruit fewer than one in 15,000 Muslims over the past quarter-century and fewer than one in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11.” In a 2011 interview, Kurzman says about terror acts conducted in the US, “Muslim American terrorist plots have killed since 9/11 — since the 3,000 killed on 9/11 — have killed 33 individuals in the United States since that time. Over that same period of time, there have been more than 150,000 murders in the United States, or 14 or 15,000 murders every year. Muslim American terrorism, then, has been a very small, very low percentage of the overall violence in the United States.” Other studies have since corroborated this count. Even if we incorporate into Kurzman’s initial assessment the emerging population of Daesh/ISIL, we are still left with a diminutive fragment of the global Muslim population. Estimates have differed dramatically over Daesh/ISIL’s real membership, with the highest estimates reporting up to 100,000 members. Though such a number may seem high at first glance (a number which was, incidentally, established by way of “foreign observers” and is more than triple CIA estimates), it can be contextualized more easily when juxtaposed against Chicago’s 150,000 gang member population, and a total of 1.4 million gang members across the United States. In addition to the aforementioned numbers of Daesh/ISIL members, ISIS prosecutions in the US have relied extensively on cases encouraged by informants or undercover agents. In a study produced by Fordham Law’s Center on National Security analyzing ISIS prosecutions in the United States, 59% of all ISIS prosecutions in the US were determined to have involved informants or undercover agents (this, out of a paltry 101 cases in total).
Given these relatively sparse numbers – particularly within the United States – one must wonder the likelihood of thwarting violent extremism by deputizing imams and community leaders, a likelihood that becomes even less probable when one considers further factors that I will discuss in the ensuing sections.
In 2004, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board published a 102-page report concerning America’s standing in the global war of ideas. Tasked with investigating global opinion about America, the report stated that “American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies,” concluding that “Muslims do not hate our freedoms, but rather, they hate our policies.” Since this early Bush-era study, a number of subsequent studies have arrived at much the same conclusion. Dr. Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, has been lauded for completing the most comprehensive examination of suicide attacks to date, investigating over 4,600 global suicide attacks since 1980. Pape concludes that, “What 95 percent of all suicide attacks have in common, since 1980, is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention, often specifically a military occupation, of territory that the terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly.” Kruger and Maleckova’s “Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” disproves popularly held beliefs about terrorism being motivated by economic disenfranchisement and a lack of education, stating that “any connection between poverty, education and terrorism is indirect, complicated and probably quite weak. Instead of viewing terrorism as a direct response to low market opportunities or ignorance, we suggest it is more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economics.”
In a 2013 Senate hearing on targeted killings and the use of drones, 23-year old Farea al-Muslimi spoke about his village named Wessab in Yemen that had been subject to drone attacks just six days prior to the hearing. In a moving testimony, al-Muslimi said with respect to the recent drone strikes: “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.” That violent extremism is inspired by an opposition to Western interventionism (as a primary reason, though there may be secondary contributing factors, of course) is attested to in just about every serious scholarly study of terrorism and predominates as the reason for said violence by terrorists themselves. This does not foreclose on the possibility that some join for other reasons, such as ex-Daesh/ISIL members who confessed to not knowing exactly why they joined, though of course these individuals represent more of an exception than the norm. In response to the “conveyor belt” theory of radicalization that views violent extremism as the logical outcome of an anti-Western religiously-motivated ideology, a 2010 study states, “The proportion moving from radical ideas to radical action is small, and the proportion moving from legal activism to radical action and terrorism may be even smaller. Certainly the proportions are too small to support the metaphor of a ‘conveyor belt’ (Baran, 2004) with its implication of an inevitable end for anyone who steps onto the belt.” In examining religious motivations, the same study states, “Hussain Osman, arrested in connection with the 7/21 attempted bombing in London, reportedly told his Italian interrogator that, “Religion had nothing to do with this. We watched films. We were shown videos with images of the war in Iraq. We were told we must do something big. That’s why we met” (Leppard & Follain, 2005). Osama bin Laden’s speeches offer another clue. He emphasizes Muslim grievances against the U.S. – support for authoritarian Muslim leaders, support for Israel, U.S. troops in Muslim countries – but spends little time selling the global caliphate that he asserts is the answer to these grievances.” Patrick Eddington of the Cato Institute echoes many of these points in his assessment of a recent House Homeland Security Committee (HSC) memo, stating that “Neither President Obama nor the authors of the HSC report can bring themselves to admit that our own actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have helped to fuel the very terrorist violence and domestic recruiting efforts both decried this week.”
Critics of this narrative tend to cast those maintaining the aforementioned causes for terrorism as blaming the West, or being reductive in consigning terrorist motivations to a monocausal explanation. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The question is not one of blame, but one of acknowledging reality: so long as the structural realities that inform terrorism are not addressed, it is unlikely that any global CVE program can socially engineer people prone to radicalization (assuming we are even capable of distinguishing such a predisposition from normal teenage angst) into thinking themselves out of it. As University of Massachusetts professor John Horgan put it in a recent article, “we delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow cure the problem through deradicalization programs that in many cases have a track record of failure around the world.”
In spite of the abundance of available research arguing the contrary, popular notions of an ideological struggle remain the paradigm of choice from which the vast majority of CVE discussions emerge. Accordingly, Muslims and others are told that if they merely challenge existing narratives, or produce an intellectually compelling counter-narrative, the lure of violent extremism can indeed be abated. In this vein, Muslims are encouraged to champion liberal values and foster hollow notions of patriotism as an inoculation against this purported ideological incubator. The fact that government-clerical alliances, silence over Western interventionism, and efforts to recast religion in terms palatable to Western liberalism have only served as recruiting instruments by terrorist actors defies simplistic “counter narrative” efforts and renders them, at best, ineffectual, and at worst, counterproductive.
CVE and State-Sponsored Religion
Inherent in the “counter narrative” discourse is a second, perhaps more problematic aspect, particularly for orthodox religious adherents: selectively endorsing particular ideological persuasions – often way outside the Islamic mainstream – over others. Advocates of CVE frequently make explicit use of this method, arguing that the West in general, and America in particular, has a responsibility to endorse – both overtly and covertly – interpretations of Islam that coincide with contemporary liberal and Western socio-cultural norms. As law professor Samuel Roscoff notes in his “Establishing Official Islam? The Law and Strategy of Counter-Radicalization”:
“For the government to formulate (or to pick out from among rival options) and endorse a preferred conception of Islam—in effect to play the role of theologian and missionary—raises potentially serious concerns rooted in the Establishment Clause and the values it enshrines. That the government has proved capable of shaping religious beliefs and practices in the past, sometimes with a distinctly heavy hand, hardly supplies a compelling legal foundation for the present preoccupation with Official Islam.”
Effective “counter narratives,” therefore, do not simply require a reconfigured conception of jihād, but also of Muslim gender norms, sexual ethics, a commitment to Western “freedoms,” and related views to which Muslims must either subordinate themselves or risk being labeled “extreme.” As Mohamed Ghilan stated in a recent article, “CVE is not just about deputizing Muslims for law enforcement…It is about a greater effort to reshape Islam as a religion so it is rendered deaf, mute, and blind after it had previously been packaged for Afghanistan in a way that focused on its armed resistance aspect. It is about how we as Muslims think of our own agency, our religion, and our role in the world.” A number of Muslims have buckled, wittingly or unwittingly, to such political pressure and are now eagerly recasting Islam in accordance with the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary in which the “good Muslim” practices an inoffensive brand of Islam that aligns with the sensibilities of upper class white America. The “bad Muslim” other in this scenario includes all following mainstream Islamic interpretations, as well as those more specifically aligned with Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jama’ati Islami, Deoband, and even certain Sufi trends (this is of course not an exhaustive list), at least insofar as such individuals and groups attempt to assert their religious understandings – particularly those that conflict with contemporary liberal discourse – beyond the confines of their communal enclaves. Commenting on this good Muslim/bad Muslim binary in his book Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend, Andrew Shryock remarks:
“The “good Muslim,” as a stereotype, has common features: he tends to be a Sufi (ideally, one who reads Rumi); he is peaceful (and assures us that jihad is an inner, spiritual contest, not a struggle to “enjoin the good and forbid the wrong” through force of arms); he treats women as equals, and is committed to choice in matters of hijab wearing (and never advocates the covering of a woman’s face); if he is a she, then she is highly educated, works outside the home, is her husband’s only wife, chose her husband freely, and wears hijab (if at all) only because she wants to. The good Muslim is also a pluralist (recalls fondly the ecumenical virtues of medieval Andalusia and is a champion of interfaith activism); he is politically moderate (an advocate of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom, an opponent of armed conflict against the U.S. and Israel); finally, he is likely to be an African, a South Asian, or, more likely still, an Indonesian or Malaysian; he is less likely to be an Arab, but, as friends of the “good Muslim” will point out, only a small proportion of Muslims are Arab anyway…..Of course, these traits are lacking in millions of real Muslims as well, but it is not their empirical presence or absence that matters as much as the moral connotations these traits carry when they are used to define the modern, safe, and acceptable Muslim.”
By comparison, the “bad Muslim” is merely tolerated, provided that he harbors his beliefs internally. The “bad Muslim” is not celebrated as part of the internal diversity of Islam and is generally excluded from having his voice represented in policy discussions interested in furthering this moderate Muslim “counter narrative.”
Muslims Need to “Assume Responsibility”
A common retort to the foregoing list of concerns by well-intentioned Muslim Americans is that Muslims in fact need to assume a type of responsibility for responding to the narrative of Daesh/ISIL. This call is echoed by conservative media pundits, and President Obama has repeatedly enlisted the assistance of Muslim allies to reject Daesh/ISIL’s “twisted interpretation” of Islam. That said, it is unclear what more Muslims can do. Lists abound with everyone from local Muslim leaders, masajid, and MSA’s to grand muftis and heads of state unequivocally condemning Daesh/ISIL. Indeed, even leading Salafist Jihadist voices like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi have denounced Daesh/ISIL as “deviant” and against the principles of both Islam and the Sharia. As Muslim scholar Jonathan Brown has noted, this persistent demand for Muslims to “assume responsibility” or “do more to condemn terrorism” defies not only the overwhelming, pervasive, and ceaseless stream of condemnations emanating from Muslims globally, but is in fact designed to distract from the parlous effects of more than a decade of failed policies.
The assumption of local responsibility also assumes that local leaders possess a unique insight into the psychology of congregants. Family members of the Orlando and San Bernardino shooters have reacted as “shocked” by said shootings, and if even those closest to violent extremists – their parents, siblings, and best friends – testify as being stunned by the actions of their relative and/or friend, then what chance do local communities have of “de-radicalizing” individuals who display no discernable outward indicators, are often completely disengaged from Muslim communities, and demonstrate little to no literacy of Islam itself?
A Seat at the Table
More honest proponents of CVE within the Muslim community concede its problematic framing and remain skeptical of its ability to achieve its intended aims. Nonetheless, Muslim community participation is said to be essential not to somehow guide an initiative that will dispel violent extremism, but to feel included and participate as part of a process from the inside. This has been characterized as “having a seat at the table,” arguing that so long as Muslims want to be taken seriously and have their concerns heard, they need to be at the table to inform critical policy discussions.
Of course, this “seat at the table” narrative is not universally endorsed in other contexts. Despite 29% of Americans self-identifying as Republican, no mainstream Muslim leader has encouraged working alongside the Trump campaign. Instead, many Muslim leaders and communities have gone out of their way to reject the Trump campaign rather than assume a “seat at the table.” This has been premised upon a recognition that Donald Trump’s public statements about Islam and Muslims have been so caustic, and his policy proposals, even as a matter of theoretical debate, so damaging, that any perceived alliance, no matter how shallow or symbolic, cannot be seriously entertained. In short, the harms far outweigh the benefits.
Unfortunately, such calculus hardly factors into determining whether the CVE table is worth sitting at. With few discernable benefits and plenty of evident harms, CVE engagement deputizes Muslims to serve at the behest of the national security state, securitizes Muslim communities, further entrenches into the Muslim psyche a self-conception that associates Islam with terrorism, and risks alienating disenfranchised and politically frustrated Muslims.
Being Proactive, Not Reactive
The rhetoric of “getting proactive” to advance law and order has been mobilized against minority communities for decades. Designed to disguise otherwise prejudicial policies, both domestic and international “proactive” efforts have largely resulted in the sustained marginalization and disenfranchisement of minorities. Perhaps the best example of this has been the proactive policing of black communities for decades, a policy which has been dubbed by race advocates like Michelle Alexander as representing a “New Jim Crow” within which black males in particular find themselves on the receiving end of racial stigmatization and victims of a judicial system with draconian mandatory sentencing requirements for, in many instances, little more than petty drug possession. These programs, enacted under a “broken windows” philosophy of policing, sought to remove “visible signs of social disorder…by using police resources both for vigorous enforcement of laws on minor ‘quality of life’ offenses, while aggressively interdicting citizens in an intensive and widespread search for weapons.” In a report examining this “broken windows” policing method, professors at Columbia University concluded that such an approach did little to “reduce crime or disorder” while simultaneously threatening to “undermine police legitimacy and diminish the social good of policing.” That African Americans now comprise roughly half of the US prison population, are incarcerated at roughly six times the rate of whites, and disproportionately find their youth subject to arrests, judicially waved to criminal court, and admitted to state prisons is the rotten fruit that this “proactive” policy has sown.
Like the proactive methods employed against black communities for decades, the aftermath of 9/11 resulted in a full-throated endorsement of global proactive policing of the new terror threat. In discussing this preventive shift, Jules Lobel remarks in his “Preventive Paradigm and the Perils of Ad Hoc Policing” that the Bush administration had “invoked this sweeping new preventive paradigm to justify the coercive use of state power to preventively detain suspected terrorists, to engage in extraordinary rendition of suspects to foreign states, to interrogate detainees, and to go to war against Iraq.” In laying out the troubles of pursuing an expanded proactive strategy, Lobel notes that preventive strategies involve a fair amount of speculation about future events and intentions. Permitting the government to undertake consequential action on the basis of speculation and probability analysis is simply a bad idea, and has yielded little success and lots of damage.
Muslim Americans now find themselves on the receiving end of a comprehensive and prejudicial policy that stigmatizes their youth and men, targeting them, monitoring their communities, and securitizing their sacred spaces in CVE (though of course much of this has been well underway before the advent of CVE). Far from actually reducing crime or the allure of violent extremism, CVE programs create a wedge between civilians and law enforcement, engender distrust between community members and CVE-affiliated leaders and organizations, and risk further stigmatizing an already beleaguered Muslim community. Muslim leaders should be wary of adopting such “proactive” rhetoric and think long and hard before signing up themselves and their communities for this paradigm of government-civil relations.
In a report entitled “Countering Violent Extremism: Myth and Fact,” the NYU Brennan Center for Justice recounts various CVE programs that have been tried in the United Kingdom, Europe, Kenya, Indonesia, and Australia, stating that the efforts have often been “harmful and counterproductive.” Another report published in September 2015 by Human Rights First details rampant CVE abuse and repression of political dissent by many key CVE allies including Bahrain, Egypt, Kenya, and others. Far from reducing the allure of terrorism, the report notes that “security efforts rife with human rights violations undermine security and encourage violent extremism.” Marshalling the conclusions of such studies, a joint statement released by 41 humanitarian and peacebuilding organizations states that CVE strategy “risks repeating the same mistakes as other post-9/11 stabilization initiatives: prioritizing securitized responses over investments to address the structural causes of instability, and coupling the two lines of effort creating confusion and working at cross purposes.”
In addition, invasive monitoring programs have been cited as obfuscated intelligence work rather than enlightening such efforts. Former FBI agent Michael German writes in a recent article:
“The fact is: opening the intelligence collection spigot has left the FBI and other intelligence agencies drowning in irrelevant information. One federal review of the FBI’s pre-attack investigation of Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, for example, argued this “data explosion” contributed to the investigators’ inability to identify all of Hasan’s relevant communications sitting in FBI databases.
But the increasing data collection is only half the problem. Since 9/11, the Justice Department has repeatedly expanded the FBI’s authorities, making it easier to initiate investigations with less evidence. These lowered standards, combined with ill-conceived “see something, say something” campaigns and “no leads go uncovered” policies, vastly increase the agent workload and divert investigative resources to cases with the least evidence indicating a criminal or terrorist threat.”
That counter radicalization programming has existed globally for over a decade and not a single model exists that can be pointed to as having yielded any serious success calls into question whether there can, even in principle, be a CVE program that effectively mitigates violent extremism. Given the relatively low numbers of violent extremists, contributing geopolitical factors which are deemed beyond the scope of CVE efforts, the glut of (irrelevant) monitoring and intelligence metadata already being collected, and the relative ease with which violent extremism can be carried out, it bears to be asked whether a “solution” for violent extremism exists. Rebranding or rhetorically altering CVE messaging to render it less offensive to Muslim sensibilities should not be seen as novel or likely to produce results that meaningfully depart from the many failed CVE efforts both here in the U.S. and around the globe.
A Path Forward
Now more than ever, American Muslims need to collaboratively determine the fault lines that govern their relationship with the state. An uncompromisingly apolitical posture is highly unlikely for a community as diverse as Muslim America, and such a posture – one cordoned off from any meaningful engagement with the state absent ideal circumstances – cannot be the alternative offered by critics of CVE. Instead, Muslim Americans should work in local communities to build healthy relationships with local law enforcement within a defined scope, and in certain contexts engage government organizations concerned with national security.
That said, CVE is a program that American Muslims, in light of the aforementioned considerations, should abstain from endorsing or affiliating with. Abstaining from CVE should not be characterized as “boycotting” the government. CVE is not “just another form of political engagement,” and many Muslims have erroneously conflated CVE within a prior engagement/disengagement paradigm which included things like the White House Iftar and Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). CVE is different, and should be treated as such.
Modifying the vocabulary of prejudice does not render discriminatory policies objective. Adding in a few token white supremacist groups and peripheral fanatics to the scope of CVE also does not alter the fact of what CVE is and what it is designed to do. Muslim Americans stand to have their religious liberties curtailed, their civic freedoms diluted, and their religious identities forever associated with terror and violence by pursuing CVE grants and endorsing the CVE agenda.
Criticism, Accountability and the Exclusion of Quran and Sunnah – Critiquing Ahmed Sheikh’s Critique
Let me begin by making two things clear. First, this article is not seeking to defend the positions of any person nor is it related to the issue of CVE and what it means to the Muslim American community. I am in no way claiming that CVE is not controversial or harmful to the community nor am I suggesting that affiliations with governments are without concern.
Second, this paper is meant to critique the arguments made by the author that encourage holding Islamic scholars accountable. I encourage the reader not to think of this article as an attempt to defend an individual(s) but rather as an attempt to present an important issue through the framework of Islamic discourse – Quran, hadith supported by scholarly opinion. In that spirit, I would love to see articles providing other scholarly views that are contrary to this articles. The goal is to reach the position that is most pleasure to Allah and not the one that best fits our agenda, whims, or world views.
In this article I argue that Islamic scholars in America cannot effectively be held accountable, not because they are above accountability but because (1) accountability in Islam is based on law derived from Quran and hadith and this is the responsibility of Islamic experts not those ignorant of the Islamic sciences. And to be frank, this type of discourse is absent in Muslim America. (2) Muslim Americans have no standard code of law, conduct, or ethics that can be used to judge behavior and decisions of Muslim Americans. I do believe, however, that criticism should be allowed under certain conditions, as I will elaborate in the proceeding paragraphs.
To begin, the evidence used to support the concept of holding leaders accountable is the statement of Abu Bakr upon his appointment to office:
“O people, I have been appointed over you, though I am not the best among you. If I do well, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me.”
This is a well-known statement of his, and without a doubt part of Islamic discourse applied by the pious companions. However, one should take notice of the context in which Abu Bakr made his statement. Specifically, who he was speaking to. The companions were a generation that embodied and practiced a pristine understanding of Islam and therefore, if anyone were to hold him accountable they would do it in the proper manner. It would be done with pure intentions that they seek to empower Abu Bakr with Quranic and Prophetic principles rather than attack him personally or with ill intentions.
Furthermore, their knowledge of the faith was sufficient to where they understood where and when the boundaries of Allah are transgressed, and therefore understood when he was accountable. However, when these facets of accountability are lost then the validity of accountability is lost as well.
To give an example, during the life of Abu Bakr, prior to appointing Omar (ra) as his successor he took the opinion of several companions. The prospect of Omar’s appointment upset some of the companions because of Omar’s stern character. These companions approached Abu Bakr and asked him “what will you tell Allah when he asks why you appointed the stern and severe (ie Omar).” Abu Bakr replied “I will tell Him that I appointed the best person on earth,” after which Abu Bakr angrily commanded them to turn their backs and leave his presence.
Fast forwarding to the life of Uthman, large groups of Muslims accused Uthman of changing the Sunnah of the Prophet in several manners. Part of this group felt the need to hold Uthman accountable and ended up sieging his home leading to his death. Now, when one researches what this group was criticizing Uthman for, you find that Uthman (ra) did make mistakes in applying the sunnah that even companions such as Ibn Mas’ood expressed concern and disagreement with. However, due to the lack of fiqh and knowledge, these Muslims felt that the actions of Uthman made him guilty of “crimes” against the sunnah and therefore he must be held accountable.
With this I make my first point. A distinction between criticism and accountability must be made. Ibn Mas’ood and others criticized Uthman but, since they were scholars, understood that although Uthman was mistaken his mistakes did not cross the boundaries of Allah, and therefore he was not guilty of anything and thus was not accountable.
Holding Muslim scholars accountable cannot be justified unless evidence from the Quran and hadith indicate transgression against Allah’s law. Thus, before the Muslim American community can call for the accountability of Dr. Jackson, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, or others, an argument founded in Quran and Sunnah and supplicated by scholarly (classical scholars) research and books must be made.
It is simply against Islamic discourse to claim that a scholar is guilty of unethical decisions or affiliations simply because CVE is a plot against Muslims (as I will detail shortly). Rather, an argument must be made that shows how involvement with CVE is against Quran and sunnah. Again, I emphasize the difference between criticizing their decision because of the potential harms versus accusing them of transgressing Islamic principles.
To further elaborate this distinction I offer the following examples. First, Allah says in context of the battle of Badr and the decision to ransom the prisoners of war,
“It is not fit for a prophet that he should take captives until he has thoroughly subdued the land. You ˹believers˺ settled with the fleeting gains of this world, while Allah’s aim ˹for you˺ is the Hereafter. Allah is Almighty, All-Wise. Had it not been for a prior decree from Allah, you would have certainly been disciplined with a tremendous punishment for whatever ˹ransom˺ you have taken. Now enjoy what you have taken, for it is lawful and good. And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (8:67-69)
In these verses Allah criticizes the decision taken by the Muslims but then states that ransom money was made permissible by Allah, and therefore they are not guilty of a punishable offense. In other words, Allah criticized their decision because it was a less than ideal choice but did not hold them accountable for their actions since it was permissible.
Another example is the well-known incident of Osama bin Zaid and his killing of the individual who proclaimed shahadah during battle. Despite this, Osama proceeded to slay him. Upon hearing of this the Prophet (s) criticized Osama and said, “did you see what is in his heart?”
Although Osama’s actions resulted in the death of a person the Prophet (s), did not hold Osama accountable for his actions and no punishment was implemented. Similarly, Khalid bin Waleed killed a group of people who accepted Islam accidentally and similarly, the Prophet (s) criticized Khalid but did not hold him accountable.
Why was there no accountability? Because the decisions of Osama and Khalid were based on reasonable – although incorrect – perspectives which falls under the mistake category of Islamic law “And there is no blame upon you for that in which you have erred but [only for] what your hearts intended. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (33:5)
The previous examples, among others, are referred to in Islamic discourse as ta’weel (interpretation). There are many examples in the lives of the companions where decisions were made that lead to misapplications of Islam but were considered mistakes worthy of criticism but not crimes worthy of punishment or accountability.
Ta’weel, as Ibn Taymiyya states, is an aspect of Islam that requires deep understanding of the Islamic sciences. It is the grey area that becomes very difficult to navigate except by scholars as the Prophet (s) states in the hadith, “The halal is clear and the haram is clear and between them is a grey area which most people don’t know (ie the rulings for).”
Scholars have commented stating that the hadith does not negate knowledge of the grey entirely and that the scholars are the ones who know how to navigate that area. The problem arises when those ignorant of Islamic law attempt to navigate the grey area or criticize scholars attempting to navigate it.
Going back to Ibn Taymiyya -skip this part if you believe Ibn Taymiyya was a dancing bear- I would like to discuss his own views on associating oneself with oppressive rulers. In his book “Islamic Political Science” (As Siyaasa ash Shar’iah) he details the nuances of fiqh in regards to working with or for oppressive rulers.
It would be beneficial to quote the entire section, but for space sake I will be concise. Ibn Taymiyya argues that the issue of oppressive rulers should not be approached with a black and white mentality. Rather, one must inquire of the relationship between the person and the ruler.
One can legitimately adhere to the verse “And cooperate in righteousness and piety” (5:2) while working for an unjust ruler such as: “performing jihad, applying penal laws, protecting the rights of others, and giving those who deserve. This is in accordance to what Allah and His messenger have commanded and whoever refrains from those things out of fear of assisting the unjust then they have left an obligation under a false form of asceticism (wara’).”
Likewise, accepting a position under an unjust regime may prevent or reduce the harm of that regime, or prevent someone mischievous from taking the position and inflicting even more harm, then such an association is Islamically valid. Furthermore, someone working in a particular department is not responsible or accountable for the crimes being committed in another department nor are they guilty of “cooperat[ing] in sin and aggression” (5:2). He ascribes these fiqh rulings to the majority of scholars including Abu Hanifa, Malik and Ahmed.
The argument against those who are affiliated with the UAE is simply not grounded in fiqh or supported by clear evidences from the Quran and hadith. How does being part of a peace forum make the participants guilty of the crimes in Yemen? The claim that such participation enhances the influence of these regimes is not necessarily consistent with Quran and hadith.
Dr. Jackson, I argue, is in line with Islamic discourse when he says that being part of such initiatives does not mean he agrees with all they do. The same goes for CVE. As Ibn Taymiyya suggests above, participating in such programs is Islamically justifiable if the goal is to reduce the harm and this is what Dr. Jackson claims. Ibn Taymiyya gives the example of someone working as a tax collector for a ruler who unjustly takes taxes from his citizens. If the individual can reduce the amount being taken then his position is Islamically valid.
One might state that such a claim – reducing the harm – is naïve and an excuse to justify their affiliations. No doubt this is a possibility, however, I once again quote Ibn Taymiyya,
“The obligation is to bring about the benefit to the best of their ability and or prevent the harm or at least reduce it. If there are two possible benefits then the individual should pursue the greater of the two even if it leads to losing the lesser. If there are two possible harms to prevent then they should prevent the greater of the two even if it results in the occurrence of the lesser.”
There are ways of determining whether a persons is clearly excusing himself. At the same time, the debate as to whether the benefits outweigh the harm is almost always within the grey area mentioned above. Thus, it is irresponsible to attack Islamic scholars and call for their accountability for positions that are not clearly against Quran and hadith.
Another rebuttal might claim that the rulers during the time of Ibn Taymiyya were better than present day rulers and that his fiqh was addressing his realities which are inconsistent with ours. My response is that although that is true, Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings are not built on contextual realities that are only effective in those realities. Rather, his teachings are built on principles that are formulated in a way that renders it capable of measuring a particular context. In other words, it acts in a way that considers the realities and context as part of the equation and decision process.
A third rebuttal might claim that Ibn Taymiyya, like many others, warned of the harms of befriending rulers. Again, this is accurate, however, an important distinction must be made and that is between spiritual advice and fiqh rulings. An issue can be spiritually problematic but permissible fiqh-wise and this differentiation is seen in the lives of the companions and spiritualists in general.
For example, the companions rejected many worldly pleasures out of zuhd and wara’ (two forms of asceticism) and not because they are forbidden. To be more specific, a person may restrict themselves from drinking green tea not because it is forbidden by Quran or hadith but because of they view it as a desire that distracts them from the next life.
Similarly, the discouragement scholars expressed towards relationships with rulers was because of the spiritual harms and not because of an unequivocal prohibition against it. This is an important facet of Islamic discourse that should be recognized by the Muslim community. That is, a person can critique an issue from various angles (for example the psychological harms of political rhetoric and how it effects a person’s spirituality) while remaining neutral to Islamic law. What I am trying to say is that legitimate criticisms can be made about a particular issues without having to bring a person’s Islamic credibility into the discussion.
To conclude, I’d like to once again emphasize a distinction between criticism and accountability. Criticism is justified when the criticizer is qualified in the topic and when the one being criticized has made a mistake. Accountability is legitimate when a person has transgressed red lines established by Islam itself. But, in order for such accountability to be valid one must invoke the Quran and hadith and here lies the problem.
In the several articles posted against UAE and CVE, Quran and hadith are excluded and such has become Muslim American discourse – we are Muslims who invoke Allah and His messenger yet exclude their words from the conversation. I remind the Muslim American community and myself of the following verse “And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result” (4:59).
I would like to pose the following questions to the Muslim American community:
- Under what code of law and ethics should scholars be held accountable? In other words, what standards do we use to deem a scholar accountable or guilty? Who determines these laws and principles? Is it other scholars who are well versed in fiqh? Is it American standards or perhaps Muslim American activists and whatever is in line with their agenda?
- Who or what institution has the authority to hold scholars accountable?
- To what extent do we consider Quran, hadith, fiqh and scholarly opinions in determining illegal actions, problematic decisions, and or immoral behavior?
- Are these laws and principles only applicable to scholars or are other Muslim leader figures held to the same standards?
- Are all scholars “dancing bears” who have no credibility? If not, who, in your opinion, is trustworthy and credible and why do you think so? Is it because they are following Quran and Sunnah, or because they fit activism?
- Do you believe that certain celebrated Muslim American activists / politicians present theological and moral problems to American Muslims that are corrupting their faith and behavior? Should they be held accountable for their statements and actions? What about the various Muslim organizations that invite them as keynote speakers and continue to show unwavering support?
- Do you believe it is fair to say that these celebrated activists are not responsible for clarifying to the community their controversial positions and statements because they are not scholars or seen as religious figures?
- Do you believe that activism is dominating Muslim American discourse and do you believe that there is a serious exclusion of Quran and hadith in that discourse?
I hope the community will acknowledge the concerning reality of the exclusion of Quran and hadith from our affairs. Until we live up to the standards of Quran and sunnah our criticism will only lead to further division and harm.
Sherman Jackson, CVE, UAE and some questions
For Muslims in the United States, it is easy to fall for the fallacy of “American Muslim exceptionalism.” Some Muslims view Muslim-majority countries as dark, corrupt, and authoritarian places while we in the United States are the light. As we have written about in various contexts, including Zakat abuse and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), the Muslim community’s leaders are capable of corruption and other abuses. There is no reason to believe Muslims in the United States are any better than Muslims anywhere else.
A few years ago, the federal government started to offer ways for Muslims to profit from the global war on terrorism. It started a race among the unscrupulous to show national security-focused agencies and even foreign governments, how they are best qualified to tame Muslims and Islam. In CVE, Muslims were singled out as a problem religion and a problem community, though they did not start out being explicit about this. There was strong opposition to CVE from Muslim communities and others and those who organized and worked hard to oppose it found success.
One group of Muslims that for the most part, we did not see participate in CVE were our students of knowledge, our Islamic teachers. Many cared about the dignity of their community and their religion. We can be grateful for this. Unfortunately, there were exceptions. As a community, it is vital we hold our leaders accountable and correct things when they are wrong. Ali Al-Arian recently called attention to the CVE work of Dr. Sherman Jackson which was uniquely troubling among various CVE ventures for reasons I will discuss below. Jackson’s response was inadequate, and he needs to do better.
Sherman Jackson in the CVE racket
Dr. Sherman Jackson has been a player in CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) for several years. Unlike other CVE proponents in the Muslim community, Jackson did not speak in American Muslim spaces on the subject as best as I am aware. CVE is the now widely discredited, (yet somehow still very much alive in various forms) project to move the war on terrorism to Muslim spaces, in schools, and in mental health. Jackson was a commissioner in the Council of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) CVE Commission in November 2016. You can read their CVE report online.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta co-chaired this CVE Commission. The report represents a consensus view of all commissioners. Jackson was only one of two known Islamic scholars who lent their name to this project.
This “comprehensive new strategy” was meant to be for the benefit of the next President of the United States, assumed to be Clinton. The person who ended up as President seemed uninterested in the advice provided mainly by supporters of his opponent.
Ali Al-Arian and Sherman Jackson
Al-Arian’s description of Jackson’s CVE efforts and UAE collaboration is sparse. Most of his article is not really about Jackson’s CVE work and UAE connections and outside my scope. Though it clearly made a big impact on Jackson.
Dr. Sherman Jackson corrects a few of Al-Arian’s minor mistakes and offers an emotional rebuttal. He was not an “advisor” to the commission, but a commissioner himself. The product of the commission is Jackson’s product, however. Putting his name on it was his choice. CSIS is not a “right-wing” organization. They are worse than that, something I will get to below.
Other claims by Jackson were speculative at best (Tony Blair would not have wanted him on the commission) or require clarification. I hope Sherman Jackson will be able to clarify these from the questions below.
I am not interested in engaging on Dr. Sherman Jackson’s racial politics and views on immigrants or Al-Arian’s preferred framing in the context of global empire and white supremacy as a system. Instead, it is more useful to look at white supremacy in the context of CVE. In the national media, CVE has come back into vogue as a way to address mass-shootings by white-nationalists. It has come up recently after the El Paso shooting, for example.
Those who want to look to CVE as a way to prevent ideological violence in the name of white supremacy will find no help from the CVE Commissioners. The only CVE Dr. Sherman Jackson co-signed is interested in is targeting Muslims. The CVE Commission Report helpfully tells us what a “violent extremist” is. On page 2 of the report, the commissioners (including Dr. Jackson) tell us:
Throughout this report, we use the general term “violent extremism” to refer to the subset of violent extremist organizations that claim the religion of Islam as their motivating source and to justify their nefarious goals, and the term “extremist” to describe the ideologies and narratives deployed by these groups.
Quite simply, for purposes of US Government policy, the CVE Commission was advocating that Muslims and Muslims alone can be capable of violent extremism. Nobody from any other religion or anyone with a secular ideology could be a violent extremist.
A stylistic departure for CVE
For the CVE Commission, this was a stylistic departure from the Obama Administration CVE policy, which claimed to address other forms of extremism. However, it was always clear that while there was no real intention to address white supremacy. The war on terror involved spying on Muslim students going rafting but the government did not even know who the armed white supremacist groups were. CVE was always meant to single out the Muslim community, like the rest of the war on terror.
The CVE Commission would have done away with any Obama-era window dressing. Leaving CVE as the preferred term to not offend partners, who may not sign up for a program called “Countering Islamic Extremism” (a term Republicans would prefer). In a sense, it was more honest than the Obama Administration policy. Another bout of honesty from the CVE Commission is that CVE is not an alternative to the war on terror. It is part of the war.
Dylann Roof was not a violent extremist because he was not Muslim
In 2015, the year the work of the CVE Commission started, Dylann Roof walked into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine worshipers. Violence by white supremacists had a long history in the United States before 2015, a fact Dr. Jackson had known. White nationalist violence has continued since.
Dr. Jackson, who has proclaimed himself to be the most “explicit” and “eloquent” on white supremacy, somehow managed to co-sign a report that failed to include the murder of black people in a church by a white supremacist in the definition of “violent extremism.” Indeed the document with his name on it failed to mention white supremacy even once while claiming to be a “comprehensive new strategy.” It appears Dr. Jackson was unable to be either “explicit” or “eloquent” on white supremacy when it may have mattered.
The co-chairs dismissed “extremism” by non-Muslims as something we should worry about by stating that “we must be clear-eyed about the nature of the enemy.” That makes sense, CVE is an extension of the war on terrorism.
The Value Proposition
The CVE Commission report, other than to commit exclusively to the perceived Muslim problem, something Republicans already did in the CVE Grants Act in 2015, was not groundbreaking. The document recycled tropes and jargon from prior CVE documents. The commissioners failed to offer any solutions other than providing more funding to programs that are “proven.” Objectively, there have never been any proven CVE programs. The report included “enlisting” technology, religious and other sector leaders, getting the White House to lead, and other meaningless gobbledygook. None of this was actionable as policy, except the funding part.
How do governments fight ideologies they don’t like without getting into thought policing? Is there a way to know if someone is about to become a terrorist in the future? How do we prevent CVE from merely becoming code for political repression? You won’t find answers to any of this in the CVE Commission report.
CVE was never able to live up to its promise of being a solution to anything. According to an FBI study, for example, there is no way to tell by looking at someone’s ideology that they are more likely to commit violence. CVE was always a corrupt and fraudulent enterprise. It was junk science attempting to convince policymakers and the public that soothsaying can be actual public policy.
It seemed clear that for CSIS, the CVE Commission was mainly a fundraising play. The donors were getting something though: a narrative that reflects their values, and loyalty. The UAE, for example, engages in thought policing and political repression. In the UAE, peaceful protest of government policies falls under the terrorism law and can lead to the death penalty. If the UAE or other seriously sick regimes fund you, it makes sense to sidestep difficult issues and discuss the things they want to hear.
The CVE Commission report was emphatically not scholarship. It was political hackery for money. Dr. Jackson stated he consulted with “Washington insiders” before accepting. The end product seems to reflect the quality of the counsel he sought. It was garbage in, garbage out.
Why Credibility with the UAE matters
It is impossible to separate Sherman Jackson’s work on the CVE Commission from his UAE affiliation. To CSIS’s credit, they disclose the United Arab Emirates is one of their largest government donors. Though CSIS credits funding for the report itself to Mark Penn, a Clinton pollster who has since become a pro-Trump pundit on TV, and Fred Khosravi, a businessman who reportedly once told his cellmate he was a “freelance consultant for the FBI.” Both of these individuals were also commissioners alongside Jackson. Defense contractors and oil companies are also prominent funders for CSIS. That guy from your local masjid who generously donates every Ramadan is likely not on CSIS’s fundraising mailers.
If you are going to fundraise for a commission report, you want to name commissioners the donors like and trust. Tony Blair is best known for lying his country into a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, nearly all of them Muslim. For the funders, he had the requisite credibility and moral authority to co-lead his fellow commissioners. This seems especially true when it comes to the UAE.
Islamic Scholars “clean and…vetted”
In 2015, we learned the UAE donated $1,000,000 to the NYPD’s Intelligence Division through a foundation three years earlier. This agency had an aggressive anti-Muslim surveillance operation. In 2014, the UAE, through a cabinet-level decision, absurdly designated the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS), “terrorist” organizations. Both are entirely American organizations that have nothing to do with the UAE.
In the years since, the UAE has prosecuted an aggressive and unflinchingly violent foreign policy in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. In Yemen, the UAE reportedly operates a network of dozens of sites dedicated to engaging in systematic rape and torture. Moreover, it has been a champion of domestic political repression and oppression of the Uighurs and Kashmiris. Indeed, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the butcher of Gujarat and currently in the midst of shocking actions in Kashmir, was just given the UAE’s highest honor. India’s fascist government and the UAE’s rulers deserve each other. More troubling is that some prominent American Muslim scholars, including Sherman Jackson, appear to have no problem with the honor of being considered “clean and…vetted” by the UAE so that their actions are consistent with UAE’s overall foreign policy goals.
A Question of Values
When Muslim scholars find reasons to affiliate with such a foreign government so dedicated to oppression, it deserves some communal self-evaluation.
US Muslim scholars, including Dr. Sherman Jackson, continue to attend a conference hosted by the UAE’s government on, and this is seriously the name, “Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.” Getting American Muslim scholars in the UAE’s corner to grant themselves religious legitimacy is part of UAE foreign policy. That all of this seems cartoonishly absurd mockery of their religion does not stop Muslim scholars from collaborating with the UAE’s government. Worse though, Muslim scholars in the United States who have nothing to do with the UAE have not done anything to self-police this servile and propagandistic sham.
It is not at all surprising someone like Tony Blair aligns perfectly with CSIS donor UAE’s values. But do Islamic scholars in the United States have values similar to the UAE’s shaykhdom? Do American Muslims?
I don’t agree with everything the mafia does
Dr. Jackson notes he spoke twice about the problem of religious violence as well as “the problem of government repression, mass imprisonment, and torture.” Neither the CVE Commission or the MCE has any project to address these things. Reciting platitudes about human rights is not synonymous with moral courage. The UAE itself publicly and repeatedly proclaims itself as a champion of human rights. That does not make it one.
In his post, Dr. Jackson notes that just because he works with a UAE sponsored entity, it does not mean he agrees with everything the UAE does. Dr. Jackson wants the Muslim community to hold him to a meaningless ethical standard. Nobody agrees with everything anyone does.
If a scholar joined a Mafia-sponsored effort to give itself religious legitimacy, “I don’t agree with everything the mafia does” won’t work as a moral defense. It should not work when collaborating with the UAE government either. Dr. Sherman Jackson gets to decide who he associates his name with. That is a moral choice.
Benefit and Harm
What we need to do is evaluate the benefit to be gained by the community versus the harm Dr. Jackson may be causing.
There is significant harm from scholars to providing religious legitimacy to regimes that have foreign policies dedicated to oppression and murder in multiple countries. There is further harm because the UAE stages it’s religious scholars as props in a way that makes a mockery of religion and religious authority. It is undignified and far below the station of any scholar of Islam to play in such farces, yet, there they are.
The CVE Commission in the United States was merely an extension of this game. Use religious leaders to give cover to policies meant to harm people who follow that religion. Dr. Jackson’s participation in the CVE Commission shows there is virtually no bottom to what you can get a prominent Islamic scholar to co-sign. Islamic Scholars willing to collaborate with war criminals to make Muslims less violent are little more than dancing bears for the national security state. The dignity of the religion of Muhammad deserves better.
Benefits of this display to the Muslim community are not clear, at least not to me. I hope Dr. Jackson can explain why the immense cost of his participation is worth it.
If I act wrongly, correct me
An Islamic Scholar is someone who holds a position of a sacred public trust. That requires public integrity. According to a hadith of Muhammad , ulema (not all religious leaders qualify here) are heirs of the Prophets. However, that does not mean they are infallible and somehow incapable of making serious mistakes.
Abu Bakr , in his inaugural speech as Khalifah, reportedly said:
“O people, I have been appointed over you, though I am not the best among you. If I do well, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me.”
Those who honor our tradition should not merely be deferential to scholars and leaders when they start doing things that make no sense or are objectively harmful. They should correct them and not be afraid of asking difficult questions.
Some Muslims, including some leaders and scholars, seem to think of Dr. Sherman Jackson as the Muslim ummah’s grandmaster chess player (something he alluded to in his post). We may not understand what he is doing, but that is only because he must be several moves ahead of what our brains can process. I do hope those Muslims can stop thinking this way. Sometimes, even people whose work you admire can make severe errors in judgment.
Nobody likes to have their integrity questioned. Sherman Jackson would plainly prefer the Muslim community see him as above reproach. But if a scholar collaborates with human rights abusers and mass-murderers to make the world a more peaceful place, a few Muslims may start raising their hands to ask a few questions.
I have a few questions for Dr. Sherman Jackson, but if readers have their own, leave them in the comments:
- Do you agree with any portion of the CVE Commission Report? If so, please share with the Muslim community what parts you agree with and why. If you repudiate this report in full, please tell us.
- I understand you signed on to the CVE Commission to prevent a product with undue bias. However, why did you agree to include your name on the final product that excluded Dylann Roof from the definition of “violent extremist”?
- Do you believe CVE is not fraudulent and actually works? If so, do you have any evidence of this?
- You mentioned in your post you told scholars that people who disagree with CVE should protest outside. Did you ever inform them or anyone about where and when the largely secret meetings were so that they can organize protests?
- Have there been any concrete benefits to oppressed Muslims anywhere because of your affiliation with the UAE-based MCE?
- What benefits have you personally enjoyed as a result of your affiliation with the CVE Commission and the UAE?
- Do you believe Tony Blair should be charged, and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in Iraq?
- Do you believe the senior leadership of the United Arab Emirates should be charged for war crimes and crimes against humanity?
- What value do you believe you are offering the government of the UAE’s rulers by serving on the MCE?
Allah’s Will and Our Responsibility: Responding To Forest Fires
What do Indonesia, Greenland, Brazil, Siberia, Turkey, Bolivia, The Canary Islands, and The Congo, have in common? They are losing their forests due to wildfires, commonly known as forest fires.
The image above is not an image of city lights at night.
It represents wildfires that happened around the world in July of 2019. The purpose of this article is to clarify misconceptions, provide the facts, and suggest possible solutions. Despite media coverage, forest fires are not typically bad. If you remember back to your Biology class in High School, a forest fire can be part of secondary succession. It plays a role in our environment. Forest fires stimulate new growth, and it opens up the canopy allowing sunlight to hit the forest floor. Forest fires also release nutrients trapped in the forest floor. Currently, we have reached a state of panic and misinformation. High profile social media accounts have been sharing pictures and information that is not accurate in time and location. These only fuels fear and doubt, and like anything on the media, you need to fact check.
While it is true that the Amazon forest is experiencing a more significant number of fires this year than last, the pattern isn’t necessarily abnormal on a global scale. In 2015 we experienced 4.7 million forest fires globally, and that number has been steadily decreasing every year since. To date, we have experienced 2.9 million forest fires in 2019. From 2003 to 2008 we averaged 5 million forest fires annually.
Right now, we are at the average number of forest fires we would be experiencing in August, based on 20 years of data. While the media is focusing on Brazil, Brazil ranks number 5 in the number of forest fires in the last year. The Congo has ranked number 1 for several years now in regards to forest fires. The Congo loses about 1% of their forest annually to wildfires, and Brazil about 0.15% of their forest. Either way, these are huge losses. Our brothers and sisters in Indonesia are suffering as well, including some critically endangered species.
What is causing this? Nothing happens without the will of Allah ﷻ. In Surat Yusuf, verse 21 Allah ﷻ says “The Will of God prevails, but most of the people know not”
In a narration, we hear the Prophet reminding us of the above verse.
عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَبَّاسٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا قَالَ: “كُنْت خَلْفَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه و سلم يَوْمًا، فَقَالَ: يَا غُلَامِ! إنِّي أُعَلِّمُك كَلِمَاتٍ: احْفَظْ اللَّهَ يَحْفَظْك، احْفَظْ اللَّهَ تَجِدْهُ تُجَاهَك، إذَا سَأَلْت فَاسْأَلْ اللَّهَ، وَإِذَا اسْتَعَنْت فَاسْتَعِنْ بِاَللَّهِ، وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ الْأُمَّةَ لَوْ اجْتَمَعَتْ عَلَى أَنْ يَنْفَعُوك بِشَيْءٍ لَمْ يَنْفَعُوك إلَّا بِشَيْءٍ قَدْ كَتَبَهُ اللَّهُ لَك، وَإِنْ اجْتَمَعُوا عَلَى أَنْ يَضُرُّوك بِشَيْءٍ لَمْ يَضُرُّوك إلَّا بِشَيْءٍ قَدْ كَتَبَهُ اللَّهُ عَلَيْك؛ رُفِعَتْ الْأَقْلَامُ، وَجَفَّتْ الصُّحُفُ”. رَوَاهُ التِّرْمِذِيُّ
Abu al-‘Abbas ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas reports:
“One day I was riding (a horse/camel) behind the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, when he said, ‘Young man, I will teach you some words. Be mindful of God, and He will take care of you. Be mindful of Him, and you shall find Him at your side. If you ask, ask of God. If you need help, seek it from God. Know that if the whole world were to gather together in order to help you, they would not be able to help you except if God had written so. And if the whole world were to gather together in order to harm you, they would not harm you except if God had written so. The pens have been lifted, and the pages are dry.'” Related by Tirmidhi
There is a sense of freedom through the reliance of Allah ﷻ.
But Allah ﷻ has given us a responsibility, an amanah.
وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَكُمْ خَلَائِفَ الْأَرْضِ وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَكُمْ فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ دَرَجَاتٍ لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ ۗ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ سَرِيعُ الْعِقَابِ وَإِنَّهُ لَغَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“And it is He (God) who has made you successors (Khalifa) upon the Earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty; but indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful.” [Surah Al-An’am:165]
I worry the world is neglecting that responsibility, and taking the Earth for granted. Not only are we neglecting this responsibility, but we are also exploiting what Allah ﷻ gave us.
“Eat and drink from the provision of Allah, and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption.” (Qur’an, 2:60)
We are in a state of a “climate crisis,” yet we have not taken the proper steps to address it. We worry about the world that our children will inherit, but lack the passion for doing something about it.
A lot of it is at the government level. The Green New Deal failed and living in a plutocracy, and it may not come to fruition. Capitalism that fuels our consumeristic manners only speed up this destruction we are inflicting on ourselves. The solutions are simple and need to come from the community and work outward. We see the forests of the world burning, are we going to sit and watch the world burn, or will we implement the words of the Prophet ? Our Prophet Muhammad said: “There is no Muslim who plants a tree or sows a field for a human, bird, or animal eats from it, but it shall be reckoned as charity from him.” [Bukhari, Muslim]
عَنْ أَنَسٍ، عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ مَا مِنْ مُسْلِمٍ يَغْرِسُ غَرْسًا أَوْ يَزْرَعُ زَرْعًا فَيَأْكُلُ مِنْهُ إِنْسَانٌ أَوْ طَيْرٌ أَوْ بَهِيمَةٌ إِلاَّ كَانَتْ لَهُ صَدَقَةٌ ”
If the Forest Burns, We Plant More Trees
If the forests burn, we plant more trees; this gives us sadaqah jariyah (continous reward), and allows us to fulfill our obligation as stewards of this planet. Countries with much fewer resources are doing it, and so can you. The Great Green Wall is an African-led movement with an epic ambition to grow an 8,000km natural wonder of the world across the entire width of Africa. Its foundation is in the Sahel the southeastern part of the Sahara. That part of the world is on the frontline of climate change, and the people are changing their ways to address it.
As Brazil loses 0.15% of forest due to fires, India has increased its forestry by 1% in two years. There is no doubt that capitalism plays a role, and we play a role in capitalism, and instead of being blind consumers, we can be informed consumers. Your dollar forces companies to make choices that can be better for the planet. It is essential to be cautious of your purchases and the role that the company plays in our delicate ecosystems. Three significant regions are suffering tremendously due to forest fires. The Congo, Brazil, and Indonesia, each has its unique part in our capitalistic lives.
Cells for Congo
Mining to get rare earth metals comes from the Congo; mining requires deforestation to reach the resources needed. These “rare earth” metals are used by anyone that has a cell phone, laptop, computer, etc. One thing we can do not to be part of the problem is to find more ethical companies in regards to technology usage.
Investigate for Indonesia
Next is Indonesia, and it is notorious for having corporations burn its trees down for palm oil. Palm oil is an ingredient found in many processed foods, cosmetics, and toiletries. It’s said that the equivalent of 300 soccer fields of rainforest is cleared every hour for the production of palm oil worldwide. Palm oil can be produced in a responsible manner that respects the environment and the communities where it is commonly grown. Find no palm oil alternatives here. Look for the RSPO label to ensure you purchase products made with certified sustainable palm oil. This label gives you the confidence that the palm oil was produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
Beefless for Brazil
Then there is Brazil the largest exporter of beef in the world. Cows are not small or cheap. They use a lot of water and resources to accommodate a growing demand for meat. One pound of beef uses 1800 gallons of water; this includes the water it drinks and the water used for its food. Add the amount of space needed, and one can’t help but think if beef is worth it.
These three very sought out resources and luxuries increase profits for the corporation for companies like Google, Samsung, Sony, Apple, Nestle, Kelloggs, General Mills, Colgate-Palmolive, and the beef industry supported by the populist Brazilian President. One can’t help but think that some of these fires are not naturally occurring. There is enough by the greed and selfishness by those that can impose their power on other people and our planet to fuel these fires. Use your dollar wisely, and voice your concern to any corporation that exploits the resources that Allah ﷻ bestowed upon us.
I want to conclude with a hadith that should make us respond to the loss of our forests. Planting trees and preserving what we have is so crucial that Anas Ibn Malik is said to have reported: that the Prophet , said, “If the Final Hour comes while you have a palm-cutting in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.” [Ahmad]