A plan to overhaul how the federal government investigates extremist recruitment has drawn the ire of Muslim and civil rights leaders who fear aspects of the proposed legislation would threaten First Amendment rights and scapegoat minority communities. If adopted as law, H.R. 2899 would amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 by establishing a new office within the Department of Homeland Security to address violent extremism.
Proponents of the new bill say it would streamline and prioritize attempts to stifle the spread of extremist ideology at a time when governments around the world are struggling to stem the influence of militant groups abroad. But the bill is attracting growing criticism from civil rights and Muslim organizations who argue aspects of the legislation would rely on unproven tactics that stomp on civil rights.
The House Homeland Security Committee voted Wednesday to advance the bill introduced by Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas. The legislation is vague and makes no mention of Islamic-based extremism. The most significant aspect of the bill is the formation of a new office within the DHS with its own secretary, responsible for overseeing new hires and communicating with other federal investigators. The measure also calls for identifying “risk factors” for extremism and “identifying populations targeted by violent extremist propaganda, messaging or recruitment."
Muslim and civil rights groups fear the office would likely focus only on Muslim communities. They say attempts at “identifying risk factors” in the past have involved conflating religious or political beliefs with extremism. Further, extremist views alone are not the reason for surveillance by the authorities, and could infringe on an individual’s right to free expression and free speech, the bill’s opponents say. This week, 42 civil rights, community and religious organizations signed a letter expressing their concern over the legislation.
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“We believe that this effort is unnecessary, it would be a waste of taxpayer funds and it threatens to entrench a program that raises significant civil liberties and privacy concerns,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, a signatory of the open letter, in an interview this week. She said attempts to identify risk factors for violence have no evidentiary basis after years of research, and questioned how the new office would measure its success.
Civil rights leaders pointed to past efforts to identify “risk factors” for violent extremism as evidence that such programs often scapegoat minority communities. In 2007, a New York Police Department report, published by the NYPD Intelligence Division, described “typical signatures” of extremist conduct as “giving up cigarettes, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes, … wearing traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard … and becoming involved in social activism or community issues,” according to a report published by the Brennan Center For Justice. The Brennan Center report alleges that while the NYPD report explicitly disavowed religious profiling, it encouraged policing based on activities engaged in by millions of Muslims.
Susan Phalen, a spokeswoman for the House Homeland Security Committee, said opponents of the bill are raising concerns based on speculation, and not on the text. “As the chairman pointed out at the bill’s markup, violent extremism comes in many forms and the bill does not single out any specific group,” she wrote in an email interview with International Business Times. She acknowledged that while the bill comes in the wake of several Islamic State group-inspired attacks and foiled plots, possibly leading opponents to believe the bill will target Muslims, it also comes following a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. In that attack, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, opened fire inside a historic black church, killing nine parishioners last month.
But Shamsi of the ACLU said there’s a significant gap between rhetoric and reality. “Government officials repeatedly say these programs are not targeted against Muslim-Americans, yet [they are] programs that have only been focused thus far on American-Muslims,” Shamsi said.
For the last year, the Justice Department has been experimenting with countering violent extremism through pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. While few details of the programs and their findings have emerged, Corey Saylor, national legislative director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said local Muslim leadership ultimately pulled away from the process, raising concerns about the program’s focus on Muslim communities.
Phalen, the House Homeland Security Committee’s representative, said the pilot programs were not the primary driver behind the introduced legislation, but civil rights leaders said the pilot programs are indicators of how other government countering violent extremism programs might look. A number of Muslim organizations in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis were signatories of the open-statement expressing concern over the new countering violent extremism bill.
“There were concerns raised that it’s only Muslims at the table,” Saylor said. “We know white supremacists and anti-government militias are consistently rated as greater concerns to law enforcement than violent extremists who claim Islam,” he said.
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What Muslim leaders and government officials do agree on is the urgency of combatting the violent extremism espoused by the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL. Hoda Hawa, director of policy and advocacy at the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said ultimately local leaders must be empowered to address issues within their own communities.
“The number of people who are joining ISIS or traveling overseas is very small, but the reality is the impact is big for our community, and the repercussions are big,” she said. “What we stress is communities should be empowered, resources should be provided for communities to address the range of issues that affect them."
More than 100 U.S. residents are believed to have traveled to Syria to fight with militant groups such as ISIS in recent months. Security officials fear the real threats to the American homeland, however, are lone-wolf extremists inspired by ISIS’ repeated calls for attacks around the globe who might be influenced to carry out violent acts within the country.
In Tennessee, a man of Kuwaiti origin fired at military sites in Chattanooga on Thursday, leaving four Marines dead. His motivation was not immediately known.
“The threat is here,” said Phalen, the House Homeland Security Committee’s spokeswoman. “It is real, and we need to protect our children and all Americans from terrorists and other hateful propaganda designed to recruit and radicalize our citizens to head down a path to violence.”