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The 'Countering Violent Extremism' program institutionalizes injustice against Somalis

REUTERS/Eric Miller
Somali-Americans do not deserve to be silenced or discriminated against by the CVE program.

Norm Coleman’s “In the Land of 10,000 Terrorists” Op-Ed that appeared in the Star Tribune on April 24, 2015, has offended many progressives and members of the Somali community alike. However, something even more egregious is receiving blind support from Minnesota’s progressive community. Under the leadership of U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, the Department of Justice has launched a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program in Minneapolis. 

Like Coleman’s Op-Ed, the CVE program promotes seriously flawed theories of terrorist radicalization, as well as unjustified fear toward Somalis. Terrorism is not defined by a single cultural group or a faith system – yet the Department of Justice’s program exclusively targets Muslim Americans, and, in Minnesota, it specifically targets Somalis, cashing in on the tired and racist cliché that Islam and Muslims are inherently violent. The reality? According to the FBI, six percent of all acts of domestic terrorism are attributed to Muslims, which means that the CVE program will ignore the source of 94 percent of threats to homeland security.

While progressives have come out strong against Coleman’s Op-Ed, progressive leaders continue to throw their support behind the CVE, which enjoys bipartisan support.

Focusing on the semantics of Coleman’s argument simply distracts people from a more important matter, like the fact that the Minneapolis Public Schools is a partner with the DOJ in the CVE program. This partnership means that our young people will fall prey to surveillance in the very institution that parents entrust to educate them. MPS officials have said they are “very proud to participate in this program” and plan to hire individuals to monitor youth to “spot identity issues and disaffection.” This is a silly barometer for identifying potential terrorists when you consider that many young people display some level of disaffection and teen angst at one point or another.

During a time when MPS often fails to educate low-income children of color, it’s not only shocking that the district is overextending its role to carry out the DOJ’s law enforcement work, it is also shameful. Parents entrust the district with providing their children a good education; they do not send their sons and daughters to school for racial profiling. 

The CVE program isn’t just based on a flawed premise, it’s also counterproductive when it comes to the very issue it seeks to address: youth radicalization. In fact, if history is any indication, the CVE will lead to more discrimination and more civil rights abuses. We can’t address security issues through a program that seeks to further marginalize, alienate and stereotype Somalis.

The purpose of the Department of Justice is to prosecute people — not to deliver social and human services, and we need our community organizations and local institutions to be independent of law enforcement bodies. One reason is because the FBI has a track record of gathering intelligence under the guise of “community engagement.” According to the Brennan Center for Justice, for example, efforts to address “community concerns about access to social services” in the Twin Cities in 2009, quickly turned into “making a list of ‘radicalized youth’ and keeping it on a police database shared with the FBI.”

But there’s another reason. There are many community organizations that are focused on solving tough questions — the education opportunity gap, homelessness and mobility, economic development — and many who do it well. The mere perception of law enforcement involvement with these groups would impact their community support, ultimately rendering them ineffective. And without community buy-in, it’s impossible to achieve the community impact we need. The Somali-American community in Minnesota faces colossal disparities in education, the labor market, housing, and other areas of well-being. We cannot afford to lose support for the very programs that working to help our community overcome these disparities and prosper.

Solving the issue of radicalization of Somali youth involves a proportional response that does not exaggerate this issue, and — more importantly — is led by the Somali community. We cannot be pawns or tokens in the effort to address an issue impacting our community.

Somali-Americans do not deserve to be silenced or discriminated against by the CVE program. Many of us are deeply concerned about the depth and scope of the program’s influence in our schools, community organizations and philanthropic organizations. People are afraid to speak out against the program, fearing government retaliation. Sadly, the reality of the post-9/11 world is that it seems difficult for other allies to rally around the Muslim and Somali community, even in the face of such a disturbing program.

In a year that marks the 50th anniversary of such civil rights milestones as the Selma to Montgomery marches and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we cannot deny civil rights to an entire community. To prospective allies, we need you. We encourage you to stand with us and to use your voice to demand more from our local civic leaders, schools and public institutions, starting with the eradication of this prejudiced program. To join the conversation, follow #CVESpeakOut on Twitter and Facebook.

The authors are Somali and East African community activists who reside in the Twin Cities.

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