The un-American way to tackle extremism

Obama counters 'violent extremism' in speech
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Story highlights

  • Bill introduced to authorize Office for Countering Violent Extremism
  • Arjun Singh Sethi: Pilot programs introduced in some cities is un-American

Arjun Singh Sethi is a writer and lawyer and director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. The views expressed are the writer's own.

(CNN)On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee will discuss legislation that would create a new office within the Department of Homeland Security to combat homegrown terrorism, one tasked with creating a social media messaging campaign to counter terrorist propaganda.

Ultimately, the bill would seek to replicate pilot programs that were launched last year in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis under which Muslim American community leaders were asked to be the eyes and ears of law enforcement and identify individuals likely to support violent extremism. President Barack Obama, for his part, reiterated this vision in an international summit convened at the White House earlier this year, calling on faith leaders to decipher and report early indicators of violent terrorism.
So what could be wrong with the bill, introduced by Republican Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, which now also has signs of bipartisan support? Well, such programs are un-American.
    The reality is that the very activities that community leaders are monitoring and reporting to law enforcement are protected by the First Amendment:
    A Muslim man deciding to grow a beard; a Muslim woman deciding to wear a hijab; an imam posting a controversial article on Facebook; a Muslim activist remaining seated during the national anthem; or a group of Muslim students vociferously protesting U.S. foreign policy are actually quintessentially American activities. They are expressions of free speech, religion and assembly that are protected by the Bill of Rights -- the very First Amendment, in fact, because the founding fathers recognized that such freedoms were sacrosanct and vital to a healthy democracy.
    But in addition to being un-American, these programs are also ineffective.
    For a start, they're theoretically flawed because they're based on overly simplistic notions of terrorist radicalization. Studies have shown that First Amendment protected activities are poor predictors of violent extremism and that that there is no universal path to radicalization. Rather, an individual's decision to turn to violent extremism is usually unforeseeable, highly individualized and not readily discernible to an observer.
    Nor do these programs work in practice. Instead, they breed discontent between communities and law enforcement. Community members from pilot cities have described living under an umbrella of fear where their right to privacy is all but lost and the First Amendment is nothing but a fleeting promise. This is hardly a recipe for effective policing and community engagement. Muslim American community leaders should be the servants of the youth, not the confidential informants of law enforcement.
    Today's countering violent extremism programs also stigmatize Islam and fuel Islamophobia.
    That's because these programs focus almost exclusively on violent extremism emanating from Muslim American communities and ignore threats arising from other communities. As we saw most recently in Charleston, South Carolina, violent extremism isn't the exclusive province of any one group, faith or nation. Any person could potentially lay claim to it.
    As a Sikh American, I know this all too well.
    In 2012, a neo-Nazi stormed a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and killed six Sikh Americans. Three years later, no commission has been convened and no investigation conducted into the specific threat posed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
    Instead, law enforcement's myopic focus on Muslim American violent extremism fosters alienation and disenfranchisement in these communities -- the very sentiments that push vulnerable youth into the open and waiting arms of violent extremists.
    The U.S. is undoubtedly at war with violent extremism. But the solution isn't doubling down on law enforcement, which already has a large presence in these communities, or asking community leaders to do their bidding. It's through greater economic opportunity, after-school programs, anti-bullying legislation and a culture of inclusion rather than exclusion -- a culture in which Muslim and Arab Americans are celebrated as part of the American experience rather than denigrated as a stain on it.
    What's at stake is nothing short of a free society, in which all Americans have an equal claim to the Bill of Rights, not just those who look a certain way or practice their faith a certain way. In times of fear, it's easy to claim exigency and exceptions to the rule of law. The tougher and right choice is to renew our nation's founding principles.