By Mariam Awaisi
Countering Violent Extremism – popularly termed CVE – was the subject of Critical Connections’ event on Sunday, October 4, “Exploring Collaborative Approaches to Preventing Violent Extremism.” Held in partnership with and the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts (ISWM) in West Springfield, MA, the event convened three speakers with distinct viewpoints on what CVE denotes and how to appropriately combat it. It also brought together approximately fifty members of the Muslim and law-enforcement communities.
First to speak was Dr. Aliya Saeed, a psychiatrist by training who has presented widely on CVE and is a member of the Committee on Terrorism and Political Violence of the think tank Group for Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP). Dr. Saeed discussed how many American Muslim communities are “failing” their youth: most mosques, for example, do not allow for open conversations in which young people can ask questions and engage in honest dialogue and where they can feel a strong sense of community. At a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is rising in the United States and young Muslims are likely to feel alienated, Saeed advocated for mosques to better engage youth and enable congregants to do more than simply “come, pray, and leave.”
The second speaker of the evening was Mr. Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program at the NYU School of Law. According to German, the term CVE first came into use in 2005 following the London subway bombing. Since then it has been utilized to develop several violence-reducing programs, including a new iteration being piloted in Boston. However, some CVE programs are flawed in terms of their conceptual underpinnings, methodology, and implementation. Many government agencies, German noted, put forth “specious” information about the indicators of violent extremism, such as wearing a headscarf or having a beard. The fact, German maintained, is that “extremism comes in many flavors,” and the path to it is not always linear. In addition, some CVE programs may do more harm than good by focusing on a singular community – Muslims – thereby fueling anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia. Instead, such initiatives should provide services to the Muslim community to deter violent extremism.
Closing the panel discussion was the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Ms. Carmen Ortiz, who in 2009 became the first Hispanic and first woman to represent the state in that capacity. Ortiz began by referring to Boston’s CVE pilot program as a “framework” or “menu of options,” rather than a comprehensive set of action items. The program brought together several constituencies, including mental health experts, law enforcement, and religious leaders. In order to combat CVE, and because ISIL is targeting everyone – not just Muslims – Ortiz stressed the need for community engagement and resiliency.
The evening concluded with a lively Q+A session in which audience members – including Muslim community leaders and members of the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s offices from Springfield and Boston – actively engaged both the panelists and each other. Members of the Muslim community voiced concerns about surveillance and sting operations and the need to develop better relations with law-enforcement in order to effectively counter the threat of violent extremism. The discussion also focused on the drivers of CVE are and whether it is possible to block websites that promote violent extremism. Ortiz commented that she would like to see local communities set the agenda on CVE issues: government officials would prefer to be invited to related events, rather than organize them themselves.. Ultimately, the need to for continued dialogue that leads to more nuanced CVE programs appeared clear.