National Security and the Muslim Question

Last month, lawmakers in the state of Minnesota introduced legislation to invest $2 million in youth development schemes aimed at the state’s Somali-American population. The House minority leader Paul Thissen noted that such programs have a “positive impact” on the community and lawmakers should “continue that progress by passing this legislation.”

Around the same time, $300,000 of federal and private funding was being allocated to six groups in Minnesota working on mental health and after-school sports. This funding was also aimed at helping the state’s Somali-American population.

Such interest in the economic well-being of the state’s Somali-American population should certainly be welcomed by all. Who, after all, could possibly be against state and federal investment in local communities? Unfortunately, in this particular case, the government’s interest is less in the economic well-being of the state’s Somali-American population and more in the hope that these programs would deter its members from becoming terrorists.

According to a 2015 report from the US House Committee on Homeland Security, Minnesota “leads the nation in the number of people who have left or sought to leave the country to fight with terrorists aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria.” The funding now being made available in Minnesota is part of the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy. As with other aspects of the strategy, however, there is no reason to believe that it would be effective and many reasons to believe that its effects will not be as benign as its proponents assume.

Even Andrew Lugar, the US Attorney for Minnesota, is unsure about whether the programs would achieve their stated goal. “We had to try something that would at least help the community,” he told NPR. “If it helps lessen terror recruiting, obviously that was the goal, but if it didn’t, it was still good for an important and vital part of the overall Twin Cities community.” It remains unclear whether all government investment is modeled after such sound research.

Government investment that is intended to deter radicalization ends up stigmatizing those it claims to help, identifying Muslim communities as sources of radicalization. This conveniently shifts attention away from the actual sources of radicalization, which are the policies pursued by the US government.

It also undermines the economic needs of these communities and subsumes them under the rubric of national security. Lack of educational and employment opportunities are no longer issues concerning education and employment when they afflict Muslim communities. Instead, they begin to be seen as national security threats. The irony here is that even though these programs are seen as an alternative to aggressive law enforcement methods of the Bush administration, they end up transforming every aspect of Muslim life in accordance with law enforcement needs.

The FBI’s Don’t Be a Puppet program, for example, attempts to train teachers to spy on students. Its Shared Responsibility Committees try to institutionalize an informant system with the aid of community leaders. This is in addition to the extensive informant networks already developed by law enforcement agencies. Mental health institutions are also participating in CVE, though it remains unclear so far in what capacity.

We are now at a point where Muslims are potentially under surveillance at their schools, places of employment, doctor’s offices, or mental health institutions. The spies could be their friends, teachers, co-workers, doctors, or even parents. And all of this is being promoted as an alternative to law enforcement, rather than as the expansion of law enforcement into every aspect of Muslim life.

One 2012 study supported by the Department of Homeland Security went as far as to identify “unobserved spaces” for youth as a risk factor for radicalization. As if privacy itself is responsible and must be curtailed. At least the after-school programs would help with that problem.