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Rights groups take aim at anti-terror program

Say Muslims unfairly targeted

Yawu Miller | 8/12/2015, 11:15 a.m.
Activists in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles spoke out last week against the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism program, calling ...
Jewish Voices for Peace organizer Liza Behrendt, Boston Workmen’s Circle board member Andrew Cohen, Muslim Justice League Executive Director Shannon Erwin and Said Ahmed of United Somali Youth denounced the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism program last week. Banner photo

Activists in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles spoke out last week against the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism program, calling for more transparency and denouncing what many see as an unwarranted focus on Muslims.

At the Boston press conference held at City Hall Plaza, activists expressed deep distrust in the CVE program, which federal officials say is aimed at identifying individuals at risk of committing acts of domestic terrorism.

Shannon Erwin, Executive Director of the Muslim Justice League — a Boston-based organization advocating against “war on terror” policies — and Board Member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, stated that federal agencies’ shielding details of program operation from dissenters and the broader public obstructs meaningful discussion about CVE’s potential impacts. Erwin called upon mayors, city councils, police, and health and education professionals to “help us send a clear message that our cities cannot be testing grounds for dangerous and divisive profiling tactics.”

Covert protection

Concerned organizations and religious leaders in all pilot cities — Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis — have continually raised objections to the White House, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security. Yet federal agencies continue to convene closed discussions about CVE program development, exclude dissenting voices, and resist sharing information with the public about precisely how the programs will operate, including planned roles for education and health professionals.

“This is a program that is profiling all kinds of young people,” said Said Ahmed, who heads the Roxbury-based organization United Somali Youth. “This is a serious issue.”

Ahmed and other organizers of the press conferences are calling for greater transparency in the CVE program, complaining that meetings are held with select individuals from Muslim community organizations to plan the program’s implementation.

“They want to divide and conquer the Muslim community,” Ahmed said.

Others at the Boston press conference objected to what they said was the targeting of Muslims in the program’s pilot cities.

“There is no evidence to suggest that Muslims pose a greater threat of violence than any other community,” said Liza Behrendt, an organizer with Jewish Voices for Peace, Boston. “In fact, it is white Christian Americans who are statistically most likely to commit extremist crimes. The attempts to link terrorism to Islam are an alarming manifestation of bigotry against an entire religious community that must be condemned by people of all faiths. These attacks, often veiled by claims of fighting anti-Semitism, in fact promote the kind of stereotyping that Jews themselves have resisted for centuries.”

Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said the initiative is not solely targeting Muslims and stressed that the initiative is aimed at working with local organizations.

“As we have often said, CVE efforts are best pursued at the local level and we will continue to support efforts across the country toward this goal,” Catron told the Associated Press.

Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen said government officials have done little to build confidence with local communities.

“The nature of this program is shrouded in secrecy,” he said. “You don’t know what tax money is being spent. You don’t know what tactics are being deployed.”

Activists in Los Angeles filed public records request to federal, state and local authorities requesting information about the CVE program. Boston activists said they, too, plan on filing a similar request.