Defining the Enemy Within
In September 2015, ninth-grade student Ahmed Mohamed brought a homemade clock to his U.S. public high school. As a robotics enthusiast, Ahmed proudly showed his engineering teacher his latest invention, complete with a circuit board and digital display. Ahmed’s English teacher, however, later confiscated the clock and reported him to school administration. The principal escorted Ahmed to his office, where five police officers questioned him for ninety minutes. Believing the clock was a “hoax bomb,” the police arrested Ahmed and transported him to a juvenile detention facility for fingerprinting and additional questioning (Selk 2015). Ahmed’s story illustrates how anti-Muslim racism affixes the “terrorist” label to students perceived to be Muslim. Governing national security policies and discourses infused with anti-Muslim racism shaped how school staff responded to Ahmed as a potential terrorist.
Ahmed’s experience fits into broader national security fears, anxieties, and practices that position youth as incipient terrorists. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (2016d), for example, warns that “high school students are ideal targets for recruitment by violent extremists seeking support for their radical ideologies, foreign fighter networks, or conducting acts of targeted violence within our borders” (1). Given this framing of students, the FBI cautions that “high schools must remain vigilant in educating their students about catalysts that drive violent extremism and the potential consequences of embracing extremist beliefs” (1). Moreover, the FBI calls on teachers, guidance counselors, and other social service providers to “observ[e] and assess concerning behaviors and communications” indicative of “students embracing extremist ideologies and progressing on a trajectory toward violence” (3). Much like the growth of high school homeland security programs, the FBI’s call places teachers on the frontlines of the global war on terror.
Just a few months before Ahmed’s arrest, President Obama convened a global summit where he formally introduced a new “countering violent extremism” (CVE) initiative to facilitate “community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit, or incite to violence” (Office of the Press Secretary 2015, para. 1). Increasingly concerned about “homegrown terrorists,” the Obama administration promoted CVE as a new national security strategy to deter young people from joining “violent extremist” groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without abrogating their constitutional rights. The Obama administration designed CVE with the understanding that communities “are best placed to recognize and confront the threat” and therefore should serve as critical partners in “efforts to combat violent extremist ideologies and organizations that seek to weaken our society” (White House 2011, 3). In this new national security model, community members act as key national security operatives tasked with countering terrorist propaganda as well as identifying, reporting, and working with individuals perceived to be at risk of or in the process of radicalizing.
The CVE model has mobilized social service providers like Ahmed’s teachers as coproducers of national security in the domestic war on terror. In addition, local, state, and federal officials have called on “American Muslims,” “Somali-Americans,” “U.S. minorities,” “refugees and immigrants,” and “cities with significant Muslim Diasporas” to protect their children from terrorist radicalization by contributing to CVE programming. Working from the premise that Muslim, immigrant, and other nondominant youth are uniquely susceptible to terrorist radicalization, CVE actors have argued that this coproduction of national security offers a progressive alternative to conventional counterterrorism methods like FBI stings, preemptive prosecutions, and indefinite detention.
To develop this model, U.S. security experts used the United Kingdom’s comprehensive antiterrorism portfolio, CONTEST, as a blueprint for countering violent extremism in the United States (Thomas 2010). Launched in 2003, CONTEST relies on a four-pronged approach to combat terrorism: Pursue, Prevent, Protect, and Prepare. The Pursue, Protect, and Prepare initiatives work to prosecute terrorists, increase hard security measures like border enforcement, and mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack, respectively. To support these counterterrorism measures, Prevent strives to win the “hearts and minds” of British Muslims who “share core British values” and “stand up to terrorists and their extremist supporters” (U.K. Department for Communities and Local Government 2007). To stymie violent extremism, Prevent seeks to counter terrorist recruitment, persuade British Muslims to reject violence, identify and support individuals vulnerable to radicalization, and gather intelligence on Muslim communities.
To carry out Prevent, the United Kingdom has called on social service providers to detect and report individuals vulnerable to, or in the process of, radicalizing. Prevent’s Duty Guidance, for example, requires teachers and childcare providers to refer students to the government’s deradicalization program, Channel, if students express “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs” (Her Majesty’s Government 2015, 19). Legal scholars, civil rights advocates, and community members have contested Prevent, especially after teachers began reporting Muslim youth for benign discussions, behaviors, and political debates in the classroom. In a shocking but familiar incident, nursery staff referred a four-year-old Muslim child to Channel after he mispronounced the word cucumber as “cucker bum.” Nursery staff interpreted this mispronunciation as “cooker bomb” and therefore completed a government “Early Help Assessment” form, writing that the child’s drawings “have previously had violent tendencies” (Prevent Watch 2016). The child’s mother, however, explained that her son enjoyed watching Power Rangers and other popular media featuring superheroes, which informed his artwork (Prevent Watch 2016). Despite growing opposition to these referrals that disproportionately have targeted Muslim children, the Prevent program informed the design of the U.S. countering violent extremism policy framework. Like Prevent, CVE has served as one component of a multipronged approach to combatting terrorism.
Informed by Prevent, CVE initiatives intend to (1) counter online extremist propaganda, (2) identify individuals vulnerable to terrorist radicalization, (3) intervene in a “person’s pathway to radicalization before the line of criminal activity is crossed,” (4) rehabilitate and reintegrate individuals convicted of terrorism-related crimes or returning from combat with a violent extremist organization, and (5) prevent or “build resilience to” violent extremism through the provision of social services like culturally relevant counseling, soccer leagues, and religious training (Department of Homeland Security 2015, 2). Like Prevent, CVE has mobilized social service providers and community members as the “eyes and ears” and “foot soldiers” on the frontlines of the domestic war on terror (participant observation, October 27, 2017).
This national security approach has involved both “prevention” and “intervention” lines of effort. In the CVE policy environment, “prevention” refers to the proactive measures that “seek, as much as possible, to stop extremism and a pathway toward violence from arising in the first place” (Muslim Public Affairs Council 2014, 35). At the time of my fieldwork, these proactive community-wide measures included counter-messaging campaigns to thwart terrorist propaganda, after-school activities like youth soccer leagues to reduce feelings of disaffection and alienation, family programs to increase “parental involvement and supportive adult mentorship for youth,” and civic participation initiatives to “tap into that youthful energy” and “channel [it] in a positive direction” rather than toward an extremist group (Muslim Public Affairs Council 2014, 42; Susan Bailey, participant observation, May 16, 2017). These preemptive programs have worked to prevent youth from radicalizing.
To support this mission, the FBI (2016b) developed Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism, a preventative online learning module to “keep young people . . . from embracing violent extremist ideologies.” The FBI describes Don’t Be a Puppet as “an interactive website designed to educate teenagers on the destructive and deceptive reality of violent extremism and to strengthen their resistance to self-radicalization and possible recruitment.” Through Don’t Be a Puppet, young people learn to define violent extremism, recognize extremist propaganda, and identify “where to get help” if they know someone “in trouble.” These efforts have sought to prevent radicalization before extreme ideas take root.
Unlike prevention programs, intervention efforts have focused on individuals identified as already “‘at the edge’ of going down a path of violence, or moving dangerously close to it” (Muslim Public Affairs Council 2014, 56). The Muslim Public Affairs Council (2014), for example, encouraged communities to develop “crisis inquiry teams” to reach “troubled individuals” (62). Composed of imams, social workers, mental health professionals, teachers, law enforcement officials, and lawyers, these crisis inquiry teams identify individuals perceived to be vulnerable to or in the process of radicalizing and then conduct interventions like mental health treatment to “off-ramp” individuals from the pathway toward violent extremism. These teams intervene in the lives of young people when they exhibit the perceived indicators, risk factors, or early warning signs of violent extremism.
In addition to Don’t Be a Puppet, the federal government has allocated millions of dollars to support local CVE programs. Across the United States, city officials have used these funds to develop their own programs, often in partnership with other federal, state, and local entities like community organizations, school districts, and law enforcement agencies. Despite shared goals, cities have created and implemented different types of programs, depending on local understandings of CVE, available resources, level of community trust and participation, and demographics.
In Minneapolis, the U.S. Attorney led the development of CVE initiatives to “build resilience to violent extremism” through Somali community organizations and public schools while Rochester Institute of Technology students focused more broadly on Muslim communities in upstate New York through social media messaging that countered extremist propaganda (United States Attorney’s Office of Minneapolis 2015; Rochester Institute of Technology 2016). In Chicago, CVE actors mobilized mental health professionals to identify and work with individuals “who exhibit warning signs of radicalization,” while Los Angeles officials developed more robust community policing practices to prevent homegrown terrorism (Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority 2016, 2; Los Angeles Interagency Coordination Group in collaboration with community stakeholders 2015). Local conditions, therefore, have shaped the types of programming each city has developed, creating an uneven but connected geography of CVE initiatives that articulate with context-specific racial hierarchies, social histories, and institutional arrangements.
Despite the rapid proliferation of CVE programs across the United States, military experts, legal scholars, social scientists, and global leaders disagree on the benefits, harms, and effects of CVE programs. Like the FBI, some contend that CVE is the most effective strategy to combat the perceived rise of “homegrown terrorism” while safeguarding constitutional rights. Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah (2014b), however, warns that although the CVE approach “may sound innocuous,” it “sets American Muslim teenagers apart, stigmatizes them as potential terrorists, and drives a dividing line between them and their non-Muslim peers” (para. 5). In a statement endorsing CVE, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2016) expressed similar concerns, cautioning against “mindless policy” that “turn[s] people against each other, alienate[s] already marginalized groups, and play[s] into the hands of the enemy” (para. 11). By accelerating stigmatization, some worry that CVE programs both harm Muslim communities in the United States and fuel the very drivers of extremism they aim to combat.
Despite these concerns, some Muslim leaders have welcomed CVE as an alternative to more coercive antiterrorism programs typically deployed without community input or oversight. Others have cautioned that such collaborations have used Muslim leaders to intensify anti-Muslim policing, surveillance, and monitoring while appearing attentive to the civil liberties of targeted communities. These conflicting interpretations of CVE’s impetuses and implications have generated distrust, hostility, and resistance within communities, a defining feature that CVE actors have negotiated in their everyday work.
Toward a Critical Analysis of CVE
Given these competing narratives about the benefits and harms of CVE programming, I embarked on a two-year interpretive qualitative study to learn how CVE actors negotiated these contentious debates, responded to community concerns, and justified their controversial work. I traveled across the United States to participate in CVE trainings, workshops, and conferences; observe anti-CVE events; interview policymakers, practitioners, and community leaders; conduct a document analysis of CVE texts like formal policies and informal white papers; and contribute to a coalition of organizers working to end the criminalization of Muslim communities. Through this fieldwork, I came to understand CVE from the perspectives of those most closely affected by this new national security approach.
As a critical policy studies scholar conducting qualitative research, I understand the policy field to be “a socially structured and discursively constituted space, marked by institutional heterogeneity and contending forces” (Peck and Theodore 2012, 23). I also view policy actors and actions as historically embedded, politically mediated, and sociologically complex. Given these understandings, I locate CVE within the broader social, political, cultural, and economic contexts that have organized national security norms, practices, and effects.
Informed by this methodological orientation and corresponding fieldwork, this book examines how CVE actors have worked to increase community control over domestic antiterrorism programs while advancing a framework that has criminalized anyone perceived to be Muslim. By exploring how CVE actors made sense of and justified this contradiction, I investigate how the struggle to make domestic security regimes more liberal—“participatory,” “community-driven,” and “democratic”—has intensified racialized surveillance, policing, and confinement (Melamed 2011; Khalili 2013). More specifically, I examine how the U.S. security state’s mobilization of community leaders and social service providers as proxy national security agents charged with identifying, reporting, and working with individuals vulnerable to violent extremism has increased, not mitigated, racial profiling, coercive policing, and political exclusion.
Through this exploration, I argue that, to gain support for this racialized state project that casts Muslims as both terrorist threats and coproducers of public safety, the U.S. security state has incorporated Muslim leaders into the domestic war on terror. By offering political representation and cultural recognition through CVE collaborations, the U.S. security state has bolstered support for the very institutions that historically have criminalized Muslim communities. This pursuit of increasing Muslim participation in the domestic war on terror to attenuate racial and religious profiling, by design, has distracted from an “active politics of transformation” (Melamed 2011, 93). “Multicultural agendas focused on recognition and representation,” after all, “obscure the everyday forms of domination and exploitation internal to the normal politics of cultural pluralism that stabilize racialized capitalist democracy” (123). Through CVE programming, the U.S. security state has managed community objections to the domestic war on terror while enhancing its capacity to criminalize Muslims as incipient terrorists.
These tactics draw from the state management of other political dissidents seeking to dismantle, rather than reform, systems of oppression. During the mid-twentieth century Black freedom struggle, for example, some Black organizers “tempered” their political goals in response to the federal government’s unrelenting Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (K.-Y. Taylor 2016, 83). Facilitated by the coercive pressure exerted on Black political organizers, this shift represented a “pragmatic turn” toward guaranteeing Black civil rights as a “‘realistic’ alternative to the grassroots freedom struggle” (83, 102). The persistence of anti-Black poverty, police brutality, food insecurity, and educational inequities, however, demonstrates the limitations of political inclusion and cultural recognition as viable paths toward Black liberation.
Since the late 1960s, Canadian political leaders similarly have shifted from a “more or less unconcealed structure of domination” that sought the dispossession and eventual elimination of Indigenous peoples to a “form of governance that works through the medium of state recognition and accommodation” (Coulthard 2014, 25). Affirming the value of Indigenous life, cultures, and limited self-governance, however, “remains structured by a hegemonic framework that treats the relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples as nation-to-subaltern culture, and thus committed to attenuating—preventing—the renewed nation-to-nation status” (Shaw and Coburn 2017, para. 2). Through these arrangements, “the rusty cage [of colonialism] may be broken, but a new chain has been strung around the Indigenous neck; it offers more room to move, but it still ties our people to white men pulling on the strong end” (Alfred 2008, xiii). Political recognition has reformulated, rather than addressed, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and maintained state power. As these examples illustrate, North American states have developed both liberal and illiberal methods to temper political dissent while reaffirming their power and domination over dispossessed populations.
Despite these lessons, liberal struggles from gay marriage to land treaties “all too often agitate for recognition, thus inviting additive responses that are not of capable of transforming systems of power and oppression” (Meiners 2016, 97). Recognition, however, “is not an insignificant demand” as “to be seen, to be valued, and to be recognized are powerful affectively and, potentially, politically” (97). Yet organizing to “be understood and recognized by institutions and structures that have historically harmed, erased, or ignored these communities” does not lead to the reconstitution of power, the end of targeted criminalization, or freedom and justice (97). This means that the drive for Muslim recognition by, and integration into, the U.S. political establishment reinforces rather than disrupts contemporary racial hierarchies and national security regimes that harm Muslim communities and articulate with anti-Black, anti-Brown, and anti-immigrant policing.
Furthermore, I argue that by posing as a community-driven alternative to coercive counterterrorism practices like FBI stings, CVE has functioned as a “reformist reform” that maintains state power while appearing to solve the problems of governmental overreaching, spying, and intelligence gathering. A reformist reform like gay marriage leaves intact institutions of state violence by “reject[ing] those objectives and demands—however deep the need for them—which are incompatible with the system” (Gorz 1967, 7). Although the recognition conferred by the state through gay marriage provides important rights and protections, it does not contest the violences imposed by institutionalized heteropatriarchy, including the police killings of transgender women of color (Ritchie 2017). Similarly, “building a jail for transgender people is a form of recognition, but this difference strengthens and builds systems that continue to harm communities” (Meiners 2016, 99). Non-reformist reforms like the deinstitutionalization of marriage and prison abolition, however, “reduce the power of an oppressive system while illuminating the system’s inability to solve the crises it creates” (Berger, Kaba, and Stein 2017, para. 3). Non-reformist reforms strive to eradicate, not improve, institutions of state violence, without appealing to the state to adjudicate justice.
Conforming to reformist reforms, CVE actors sought liberal solutions to anti-Muslim national security policies like promoting Muslim advocates to political office, collaborating on national security initiatives, and policing more radical forms of political dissent. As former DHS senior policy advisor Sahar Aziz (2015) explains, “In allying with the government, these leaders believe they can restrain government overreaching through established relationships that over time educate government officials that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in America do not support terrorism.” To rein in the domestic war on terror, some Muslims willingly “comply with the very structures of law enforcement that demonize and devastate their constituencies” and “act according to the archetype of the palatable Muslim American, practicing its faith within the contours of US respectability” (Kazi 2017, paras. 15–17). These institutional arrangements, however, “produce an unspoken quid pro quo” whereby the protection of civil liberties and the provision of social services depends on Muslim cooperation with the security state “beyond what is expected of any other communities within America” (Aziz 2015). Although these transactional agreements affirm Muslim cultural identities and facilitate their greater inclusion into U.S. society, they do not redistribute power or dismantle the institutions, discourses, and logics that criminalize Muslim communities.
Because these political contexts are not overdetermining, this book also explores how CVE actors negotiated dominant discourses and institutional arrangements forged in the name of national security. Sociologist Avery Gordon (1997) reminds us that “even those who live in the most dire circumstances possess a complex and oftentimes contradictory humanity and subjectivity that is never adequately glimpsed by viewing them as victims or, on the other hand, as superhuman agents” (4). This analysis thus offers a mediation on the intentions, effects, and contradictions of CVE policies and practitioners, taking seriously the complex and often fraught contexts that organize national security work.
Given these arguments, I ultimately contend that studying CVE provides insight into how the drive to bring liberal reforms to contemporary security regimes through “community-driven” and “ideologically ecumenical” programming has further institutionalized anti-Muslim racism in the United States. More specifically, I argue that the U.S. security state has designed CVE to legitimize and shore up support for the very institutions that historically have criminalized, demonized, and dehumanized communities of color, while appearing to learn from and attenuate past practices of coercive policing, racial profiling, and political exclusion. CVE therefore has functioned as an additive reform incapable of transforming oppressive systems and invested in maintaining state power. By undertaking this analysis, this book offers a window into the inner workings of the U.S. security state and provides new understandings of anti-Muslim racism, documenting openings ripe for political contestation and reimaginations.
Reframing Islamophobia as Anti-Muslim Racism
On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed Congress in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In his remarks, Bush (2001a) declared that “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” Under the direction of President Bush, however, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a 2003 fact sheet that ordered a ban on racial profiling, except for the purposes of “terrorist identification” (5). If, for example, “U.S. intelligence sources report that Middle Eastern terrorists are planning to use commercial jetliners as weapons by hijacking them at an airport in California during the next week,” DOJ guidelines permitted security personnel to subject “men appearing to be of Middle Eastern origin” to “heightened scrutiny” (Department of Justice 2003, 6). President Bush authorized racial profiling for the purposes of national security simultaneous to his affirmation that “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”
Echoing Bush’s 2001 remarks fifteen years later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called for the rejection of any language that “promotes an ‘us and them’ narrative of division,” including “jihad,” “sharia,” and “Muslim world” (Homeland Security Advisory Council 2016, 13). Under the Obama administration, DHS suggested that these shifts in vocabulary militated against terrorist recruitment fueled by the charge that the West is at war with Islam (12–13). At the same time, the FBI’s (2016a) racial profiling guidance referred to “the reality of common ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin among criminal and terrorist groups” (4–12). This reality permitted the use of racial profiling if such consideration was “relevant to an identified criminal incident, scheme, or organization” (4–13). One law enforcement official, for example, expressed the need for a “well-balanced all-hazards approach” to national security while noting his agency’s “bias right now” with “the Muslim kind of concept” (personal communication, November 8, 2016). Like Bush, Obama affirmed Muslim communities while authorizing racial profiling in the name of national security.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election ruptured the thin veil masking the nation’s deeply entrenched anti-Muslim sentiments, policies, and practices. In March 2016, for example, presidential candidate Donald Trump stated, “I think Islam hates us. There’s something there that—there’s tremendous hatred there.” A few days later, Trump responded to three suicide bombings in Belgium by commenting, “We’re having problems with the Muslims, and we’re having problems with Muslims coming into the country” (as quoted in Johnson and Hauslohner 2017). These narratives strategically conflated Islam with terrorism and revivified the racist clash of civilizations thesis that naturalizes the “Muslim world” as an existential threat to the West (Huntington 1996).
This charged anti-Muslim rhetoric has been institutionalized through President Trump’s policies, including his two Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States executive orders and Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats presidential proclamation (colloquially known as Muslim Bans 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0). By temporarily suspending the entry of immigrants from predominately Muslim countries in the name of national security, President Trump reinforced racist fears that Muslim immigrants posed a unique and imminent terrorist threat, despite continued mass shootings carried out by white, U.S.-born young men. As these policies illustrate, “the projection of danger onto what is already recognizable as different—as different from the familiar space of home and homeland—allows violence to take place: it becomes a mechanism for the enforcement of boundary lines that almost secure the home-nation as safe haven” (S. Ahmed 2000, 36). Whether under the Bush, Obama, or Trump administrations, racism drives anti-Muslim fears, giving rise to national security policies and discriminatory legislation that criminalize Muslim and “Muslim-looking” communities in the United States (Love 2017).
Given this context, Steven Salaita (2006) calls for the reframing of Islamophobia as anti-Arab racism, noting that the “dislike” of Arabs “is actually based on more than religious acrimony” (11). Reducing discussions to “distortions about Islam” misses the structural forces that historically have marked Muslims and Arabs as civilizational threats. Islamophobia, therefore, “is best understood as a racist ideology that requires a structural analysis” rather than as a series of individual prejudices or hatred (11). In fact, the focus on individual prejudices oftentimes obfuscates a structural analysis of Islamophobia and its historical antecedents that shape commonsense understandings of terrorism.
Although Salaita (2006) views Islamophobia as a “valuable word,” he prefers anti-Arab racism because the term “contextualizes misrepresentations of Islam within a wider culture of prejudice, hatred, and oppression that continually capitulates a modernized form of the traditional American metanarrative of racism” (11). This means that “the word racism needs to be part of our vocabulary if we are to successfully juxtapose Arabs with other victims of that metanarrative” (11). Anthropologist Nadine Naber (2008) similarly uses the term anti-Arab racism to “locate Arab American marginalization within the context of U.S. histories of immigrant exclusion (e.g., the history of Asian exclusion, anti-Mexican racism, and Japanese internment) in which the racialization of particular immigrants as different than and inferior to whites has relied upon culturalist and nationalist logics that assume that ‘they’ are intrinsically unassimilable and threatening to national security” (31). Rather than frame these oppressive processes as a byproduct of the September 11 attacks, these scholars tie anti-Arab racism to a “longer, global history of U.S. imperial policies in West and South Asia” and situated “in relation to other, domestic processes of criminalization, regulation, and elimination of racialized peoples by the U.S. state” (Maira 2016, 5).
These racial logics bear on the present, evident in how President Trump has intensified palpable fears of Muslims by declaring “radical Islamic terrorism” a civilizational threat. For example, when a federal judge’s temporary restraining order halted the first “Muslim ban,” Trump tweeted, “The judge opens up our country to potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests at heart. Bad people are very happy!” In a speech three weeks later, Trump (2017) defended the ban, arguing that the “obligation is to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States” by “taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.” Falsely citing Department of Justice data, Trump insisted that “the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country. We have seen the attacks at home, from Boston to San Bernardino to the Pentagon and, yes, even the World Trade Center.” Trump warned that, without the “extreme vetting” of Muslim immigrants, a “beachhead of terrorism” could “form inside America.” To prevent the United States from becoming a “sanctuary for extremists,” Trump reaffirmed his commitment to “improved vetting procedures” to “keep out those who will do us harm.” Trump’s rhetoric and subsequent nativist policies have further institutionalized anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant racisms in the name of national security.
These renewed forms of anti-Muslim racism “represent a recurring process of the construction of the Other within U.S. liberal politics in which long-term trends of racial exclusion become intensified within moments of crisis in the body politic, as in the contexts of World War II and the aftermath of September 11, 2001” (Naber 2008, 31). Anti-Muslim legislation pulsates through ever-present nativist histories of immigrant exclusion enacted and enhanced through narratives of the unassimilable and threatening outsider. I therefore consider CVE to be tied to these longer racial histories and generative of new social imaginaries, logics, and practices that reproduce dynamic regimes of power on both domestic and global fronts.
To account for the various bodies racialized as Muslim, I use the term anti-Muslim racism rather than anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim racism seeks to capture the heterogeneity of U.S.-based Muslims as well as those (mis)racialized as Muslim, such as Sikhs and Christian Arabs. As a conceptual frame, anti-Muslim racism denotes the public policies, institutional practices, and cultural discourses that maintain racial hierarchies and subject anyone who “looks Muslim” to state and vigilante violence (Love 2017). Given its emphasis on structural inequality rooted in a longer history of U.S. empire, the term anti-Muslim racism also draws counter-topographical connections between anti-Muslim surveillance, histories of immigrant exclusion, hyperincarceration, and global counterterrorism operations.
Like Cainkar and Selod (2018), who acknowledge the “complexities of naming the wide group of people caught in the war on terror racial project,” I recognize that the term anti-Muslim racism risks reifying the state’s racial logics by erasing “multiple subjectivities, positionalities, and sites of belonging,” including Black Muslims, who are “surveilled both as Blacks and as Muslims,” as well as non-Muslims like Sikhs misidentified as Muslim (173). Somali college students, for example, noted that they lived at the intersections of anti-Black and anti-Muslim racisms, pointing to how CVE uniquely criminalized them as Black Muslim refugees. Unfortunately, the U.S. security state indiscriminately uses the “Muslim” marker as a blunt instrument to racialize and criminalize targeted groups as terrorist threats. Profiling, after all, “does not work through accuracy but through its broad racial effects that are terroristic,” ultimately catching a “broad group identified by religious, gendered, and racial characteristics produced by histories of racialized imperialism” (Grewal 2017, 12). These linguistic limitations mirror the racializing technologies used by the U.S. security state to advance its agenda. In this way, “there is no single racial naming of this made-up group of people, except that they are understood by the state and the public to be threats: terrorists and potential terrorists” (Cainkar and Selod 2018, 166). By acknowledging the dangerous limitations of the term anti-Muslim racism, I invite readers to consider how social phenomena are often more complex than, and sometimes defy, the names we give them.
Rather than treat anti-Muslim racism as a byproduct of the global war on terror, I center these dynamic racial formations within a longer genealogy of colonial warfare, state repression, and coercive policies. This racial project is rooted in the politics of empire, as the diasporic dislocations produced by colonial warfare facilitate imperial regimes within the United States. As Deepa Kumar (2012) explains, “When the United States goes to war against a foreign enemy, it inevitably makes war on the perceived enemy within” to “win consent for an imperial agenda through a process that orchestrates fear of the enemy within and preempts criticisms of empire-building” (Kumar 2012, 158). U.S. empire therefore articulates “not just through military or global policing but also through ‘soft power,’ exercised transnationally by particular sets of subjects and processes that gain traction because of histories of white racial, masculinized sovereignty” (Grewal 2017, 17).
The assumption that anti-Muslim racism emerged out of or consolidated through the September 11 attacks also misses the longer history of anti-Muslim racism in the United States. This history includes the forced arrival of enslaved African Muslims, the 1978–1979 Iranian revolution and subsequent mediated panics about Islamist politics in the United States, the rise of the Nation of Islam when “the figure of the Muslim became racialized,” and the turn to “differentialist racism” whose “dominant theme is not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences” (Balibar 1991, 21), thereby “sweeping Arabs and Muslims (along with South Asians, Iranians, and many more nonparallel categories) together into one ill-defined group of Others” and deeming them a threat to U.S. public safety (Abu El-Haj 2015, 12). Given these enduring histories, September 11 is a “turning point, as opposed to the starting point” in anti-Muslim racism in the United States (Naber 2008, 4). Organized by enduring social, cultural, and political histories of U.S. empire, the CVE policy framework reproduces, consolidates, and remakes the racial formations that have enabled and justified the daily operations of the U.S. security state, from targeted criminalization to indefinite detention to military invasions.
Today’s most urgent issues “are features of our current global landscape whose etiologies are steeped in the colonial histories of which they have been, and in some cases continue to be, a part” (Stoler 2016, 3). “Security,” for example, “has long been the conceptual and political nexus of the expulsions and containments in which imperial formations invest. They are decidedly not the same as—but they are embedded in—the consolidated and honed technologies of security that thrive today” (31). In this way, the colonial past “is imagined to be over but persists, reactivates, and recurs in transfigured forms” (32–33). Given these historical connectivities, this book locates the logics, norms, and discourses CVE actors used to make sense of their work within the dynamic genealogies of imperial formations, racial hierarchies, and freedom struggles. These genealogies haunt contemporary security regimes.
Gendering Anti-Muslim Racism
Anti-Muslim racism articulates with heteropatriarchy, particularly in the social construction of the Muslim male terrorist. U.S. security debates focus on “the dark-skinned, bearded, Muslim male as representative of the primary threat to national security,” a stereotype that “consume[s] the (predominately male) government’s anxious attempts to prevent the next terrorist attack” (Aziz 2012, 194–95). As a part of this social construction, the U.S. public indicts Muslim men’s sexual deviancies as drivers of their terroristic aggression. For example, “We often hear the idea that sexually frustrated Muslim men are promised the heavenly reward of sixty, sixty-seven, or sometimes even seventy virgins if they are martyred in jihad,” a corrective to their otherwise failed heterosexuality (Puar and Rai 2002, 124). These racist constructions of deviant Muslim masculinities (re)activate aggressive heterosexual patriotism among white men, noted in the dramatic calls for war after the September 11 attacks and the popular anti-queer poster depicting the Empire State Building anally penetrating, and emasculating, a “turbaned caricature” of 9/11 mastermind and al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden (126). The U.S. security state thus pursues, profiles, and prosecutes Muslim men as sexually deviant, inherently barbaric, and, ultimately, incipient terrorists, even though white men and boys have committed more acts of mass murder in the United States (Shane 2015; Craven 2015b; D. A. Graham 2015).
Although U.S. media historically have portrayed Muslim women as victims in need of saving from oppressive Muslim men, new narratives construct hijabi women as “representatives of the suspicious, inherently violent, and forever foreign ‘terrorist other’ in our midst” (Aziz 2012, 192). As a presumed marker of religiosity and thus political ideology, the hijab marks Muslim women as the dangerous enemy who threatens U.S. national security. More specifically, contemporary images and prosecutions frame Muslim women as the daughters, sisters, or wives—supporters and enablers—of terrorists.
Despite shifting perceptions of Muslim women’s capacity to commit acts of mass violence, U.S. media still portray Muslim woman as “incapable of developing their own beliefs and protestations” and, instead, as guilty by association through their marriages to presumed terrorist husbands (Aziz 2012, 193). Noor Salman, for example, faced prosecution for knowingly aiding and abetting a designated foreign terrorist organization and obstructing justice (Mazzei 2018). The state pursued these charges on the presumption that Salman had helped her husband, Omar Mateen, commit his 2016 Pulse nightclub attack in Florida. Although a jury acquitted Salman, the state’s prosecution of Salman in the absence of any credible evidence sought to scapegoat her and hold her accountable for her husband’s actions.
Given the role of gender in the making of the U.S. security state, this book explores how these heteropatriarchal processes of responsibilization have conscripted Muslim women into local CVE programming. The nonprofit organization Futures Without Violence, for example, views Muslim women as possible “supportive wives and mothers to the next generation of extremists,” “propogandists, fundraisers, and suicide bombers,” and/or “integral stakeholders within the field of countering violent extremism” since they are “uniquely skilled in building trust with local communities and networks, leading to a more collaborative environment between locals and officials” (A. Alexander 2017, 2–3). The call for women’s inclusion in the CVE policy environment has depended on gendered assumptions about women’s roles, capacities, and “unique skills” as patient, collaborative, and trustworthy women, despite their propensity to aid their terrorist husbands or sons. In this context, women’s empowerment has functioned as a critical security concern rather than an issue of gender justice. As we will see, CVE has relied on racialized and gendered images of the terroristic Muslim man and the aiding and abetting Muslim woman who can be reprogrammed and empowered to prevent violent extremism in the home.
On June 17, 2015, twenty-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire in a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine parishioners in the name of white supremacy. Police apprehended Roof at a traffic stop some 245 miles from the murder site after a nightlong search. Roof sustained no injuries during the police pursuit, capture, and arrest. In fact, Roof enjoyed the protection of a police-issued bulletproof vest immediately following his arrest and, after expressing hunger, on a brief trip to Burger King. In January 2017, Roof was convicted of thirty-three federal hate-crime charges, including nine counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder, and one count of possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony. Convicted on all counts, Roof was sentenced to death.
Although Roof faced federal prosecution for hate crimes, he was not charged with terrorism. FBI director James Comey defended the exclusion of terrorism charges in the federal indictment of Roof, arguing that the murders did not qualify “as a political act,” despite Roof’s declaration that he sought to provoke a “race war” (McCormack 2016). Roof’s racial privilege protected him from wholesale disposability as a “terrorist.”
The failure to charge Roof with terrorism informs, and is informed by, legal and public framings of what counts as terrorism. Referencing recent massacres carried out by white men in the United States, legal scholar Glenn Greenwald (2013) observes that “the word ‘terrorism’ was almost never used to describe that indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people, and none of the perpetrators of those attacks was charged with terrorism-related crimes” (para. 2). Both U.S. courts and public media reserve the “terrorist” label for perpetrators of color. Despite increasing research concluding that white supremacists commit more acts of mass murder in the United States than ISIS (Craven 2015b), the U.S. public insists that white shooters are “good kids” from “good communities” rather than products of a violent white supremacist culture (Anderson 2013; Mason and Zucchino 2013; Wise 2001). These justificatory narratives of the wayward or troubled white shooter persist simultaneous to the continued pathologizing of youth of color as inherently violent.
Legal scholar Leti Volpp (2002) notes that white shooters do not “produce a discourse about good whites and bad whites” because we come to know them as “individual deviants” or “bad actors” (1585). Insulated by “the privilege of individual culpability,” this response stands in sharp contrast to the “collective punishment” of all Muslims for the September 11 attacks, “irrespective of the fact that they did not perpetrate them” (Cainkar 2008, 52). This collective punishment divides targeted communities into “good” and “bad” Muslims, differentially deserving of constitutionally protected civil liberties and civil rights. In this racial context, “unless proved to be ‘good,’ every Muslim [is] presumed to be ‘bad,’” thereby obliging Muslims to “prove their credentials by joining in a war against ‘bad Muslims’” (Mamdani 2004, 15). Racial privilege, however, shields white communities from such collective blame and subsequent demands to cooperate with the government in the domestic war on terror. In this context, “the political act of labeling certain forms of violence as terrorism is also usually a racialized act” (Kundnani 2014, 22).
Following historical precedent, Roof’s act of white supremacist violence did not qualify as “terrorism,” according to both the U.S. public and its legal system, nor did it generate an “examination of the roots of these actions in cultivated racial hatreds and essentialized, civilizational discourses” (Cainkar 2008, 52). Instead, U.S. media and politicians framed Roof’s violence as an aberration, an individualizing interpretation that “exceptionalizes racism” as the behavior of “one particular racist rather than the problem of an embedded societal racism” (Sian 2012, 295). Framing Roof as an individual racist ignores the persistence of institutional racism that produces anti-Black structural, symbolic, and subjective violence in and through the United States.
Despite the centrality of white supremacy in Roof’s actions, many discussions have sidestepped a racial analysis of his targets (Black parishioners), his intent (instigating a race war), and his own racial (white) and gender (male) privilege. The devaluation of criminalized populations, like Roof’s victims, means that some acts of violence and their perpetrators are considered less criminal than others. What counts as terrorism is necessarily defined by who enacts this violence and who the subject of such violence is. Under this rubric, anti-Black violence committed by white actors does not qualify as terrorism.
As a part of these discussions, news outlets reported that Roof was “radicalized” online, “absorbing violent white supremacist beliefs from the internet” (Berman 2016). Legal scholars, national security experts, and academics scrutinized Roof’s written manifesto to better understand his path toward radicalization. In his manifesto, Roof described his Google search of “black-on-white crime” as pivotal to his own understanding of U.S. race relations and a key motivating factor for his massacre.
Given Roof’s declaration, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) pressured Google to alter its algorithms to limit the influence of white supremacist propaganda. SPLC security expert Hannah Martin argued that changing Google’s algorithms could stymie the circulation of white supremacist propaganda by burying racist websites. For Martin, conducting a Google search “was how Dylann Roof came to the conclusion that he needed to get a weapon, he needed to arm himself, and he needed to shoot Black people. He believed essentially he was protecting the white population from out of control violence” (participant observation, October 7, 2016). In this framing, Roof’s violence stemmed from his immersion in online white supremacist propaganda rather than from a white supremacist society that has normalized anti-Blackness and encouraged anti-Black violence through its institutions of education, police procedures, popular culture, and national security policies.
These analyses treat Roof’s white supremacist violence as an abhorrent anomaly rather than a symptom of “embedded societal racism.” In fact, SPLC’s advocacy framed Roof as a victim of online radicalization, targeted by sophisticated white supremacists who drew the young man into their propaganda and, eventually, violent cause. This type of “collective denial of ongoing racism” allows the United States “to classify the deaths of nine people killed in a church as the alleged victims of a mentally ill individual rather than a racist terrorist” (Thrasher 2015, para. 5). Mental health often is used as an alibi to justify massacres waged by white shooters, eschewing more complex discussions about the primacy of white supremacy as an organizing frame for violence while criminalizing individuals with psychiatric disability labels. Positioning Roof as a self-radicalized, lone actor ignores the centrality of white supremacy in violent U.S. racial formations, from its settler colonial origins, to the transatlantic slave trade enforced by vigilante violence, to President Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Symbolic, structural, and subjective violence was, and continues to be, a key tool in the maintenance of racial hierarchies in the United States.
Just two years before Roof’s massacre, police captured and arrested Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who hid in a boat following his participation in the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon, alongside his brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in the subsequent police pursuit. While in hiding, Tsarnaev etched a manifesto onto the boat’s wall with a pencil. In his manifesto, partially obscured by bullet holes, Tsarnaev declared:
The US government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that. As a M [bullet hole] I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all, well at least that’s how Muhammad (pbuh) wanted it to be [bullet hole] ever, the ummah is beginning to rise/awa [bullet hole] has awoken the mujahideen, know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that. We are promised victory and we will surely get it. Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [bullet hole] it is allowed. (Bever 2015)
Although Tsarnaev’s manifesto offered a window into the political context that fueled his participation in the Boston bombings, it only received cursory media coverage. Unlike Roof’s own writing, I never observed news outlets, conference presentations, or security experts publicly scrutinize Tsarnaev’s manifesto. A sustained evaluation of Tsarnaev’s near-death declaration would have necessitated an analysis of U.S. foreign policy decisions that informed how Tsarnaev and his brother came to view violence as a valid strategy to arrest U.S.-sanctioned war. This approach would compel the U.S. public to confront the Boston bombings as a form of political violence organized around clear grievances and goals rather than as an inexplicable act of evil waged by evildoers. Despite the intense scrutiny of Roof’s manifesto to understand what drove him to violence, the U.S. public quickly applied the “terrorist” label to the Tsarnaev brothers, a conclusion that required no additional analysis.
Although U.S. media debated whether Roof’s actions constituted terrorism, prosecutors quickly charged Tsarnaev with thirty federal counts, including unlawfully using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, a criminal code classified as terrorism. Like Roof, Tsarnaev was convicted and sentenced to death. Recognizing the uneven application of the terrorist label evident in the differential prosecutions of Roof and Tsarnaev, Julia Craven (2015a) concludes that “Dylann Roof wasn’t charged with terrorism because he’s white.” Given the racialization of human value, the criminal-legal system makes it difficult to recognize young white men as terrorists and racially motivated violence as terrorism. The failure to indict Roof on terrorism charges demonstrates that “terrorism is increasingly being defined by the cultural and religious affiliations of the people committing the acts and not necessarily by the acts themselves. In other words, the labeling of an individual as ‘Muslim’ determines if such acts fall under the definition of terrorism or just random acts of violence” (Bakali 2016). This racial contract exempts Roof’s anti-Black violence from the terrorist label and reaffirms the conflation of Islam with terrorism. Unfortunately, broadening the scope of what counts as “terrorism” to include white shooters like Roof merely reinforces, rather than questions, the term and the carceral solutions it authorizes.
These racialized interpretations of the terrorist threat have organized national security policies and programs targeting Muslim, Arab, Somali, and other immigrant populations. The Denver Police Department (DPD), for example, applied for a 2016 Countering Violent Extremism grant funded by the Department of Homeland Security. In its application, the DPD proposed a “CVE-mentoring program” in school districts with “a large number of refugee students,” despite referencing three “instances of high profile violent extremism” involving white, U.S.-born actors. Although the DPD (2016) suggested that “Colorado has been the site of recruitment efforts made by foreign terror groups including ISIS,” it only referenced the investigation of “five potential incidences of homegrown violent extremism” as evidence (2, emphasis added). Even though white, U.S.-born young men committed the most recent acts of mass violence in Colorado, the DPD’s proposal defined the “most at-risk population” as individuals who are “disenfranchised and not integrated into their communities” like immigrants (2). DPD also broadened its “target communities” to include “faith communities, Black Lives Matter, diverse communities, refugee communities, and LGBTQ communities, among others, facing disenfranchisement by society” (3). This approach assumes that disenfranchised communities are more susceptible to violence than other groups like white, U.S.-born young men.
As a specifically anti-Muslim policy framework, CVE articulates with and enhances anti-Black, anti-immigrant, and anti-queer policing, evident in the DPD’s broad targeting. Contemporary security regimes develop new forms of racialized criminalization, surveillance, and monitoring, which can be (re)directed toward other populations. Social media monitoring tools to identify and report possible gang-involved youth, for example, have been utilized by CVE actors who cull social media accounts to detect potential terrorists. Although these technologies of control activate different racial logics and outcomes, their crossover provides entry points to develop cross-racial social movements that take seriously these racial formations as distinct but co-constitutive ordering systems.
Informed by these differential responses to perceived national security threats, Congressman Keith Ellison—the first Black Muslim congressperson—warned that CVE’s laser-focus on, and criminalization of, Muslim communities missed the “Dylann Roofs of America.” Ellison argued that the preoccupation with Muslims dangerously diverted attention away from the violence committed by white supremacists and police officers, which occurs at substantially higher rates than “ISIS-inspired” attacks. Citing Roof’s guns and white supremacist memorabilia, Ellison incisively asked, “Are we going to do countering violent extremism in his community?” (participant observation, August 18, 2016). Guided by Ellison’s caution, this book examines how the racialized assignment of social value has organized CVE policies and programs, thereby marking certain bodies as potentially terroristic, “disposable and violable,” and “legitimate targets of state and vigilante violence,” from Muslim youth to Black organizers (Cacho 2012, 40).
Despite its narrow focus on “disenfranchised communities,” the Denver Police Department never justified its targeting, primarily because scientific studies routinely demonstrate that there is no single profile of a terrorist and no proven indicators of violent extremism. Given these scientific shortcomings, I argue against “equal opportunity” CVE inclusive of all populations like the “Dylann Roofs of America.” As we will see throughout this book, the scientific limitations of, and discriminatory impetus driving, CVE programs render this approach both ineffective in addressing the perceived problem of violent extremism and harmful to Muslims continually treated as suspect communities. Recognizing how enduring racial hierarchies organize contemporary definitions of the terrorist, this book explores how CVE actors interfaced with these governing logics and managed community concerns related to the flawed and discriminatory science of CVE.
From Terrorism Studies to Radicalization Theories: The Global War on Terror Comes Home
Today, political pundits, academics, think tanks, and politicians publicly debate and discuss the definition, drivers, and roots causes of terrorism. Yet, the field of terrorism studies only began emerging in the 1970s, evident in the gradual rise in publications, conferences, and journals on this political topic. The massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics has been “inscribed in popular and expert histories of the problem alike as the spectacular event that inaugurated the era of modern terrorism,” ushering in new ways of understanding political violence (Stampnitzky 2013, 21). During this event, a group of Palestinians kidnapped Israeli Olympians, demanding the release of 230 Arab political prisoners before killing all eleven hostages. Hundreds of journalists contributed to the first televised crisis broadcast across the globe and described as an act of terrorism. Following the televised events at Munich, “terrorism began to take shape as a problem in the public sphere and as an object of expert knowledge” (Stampnitzky 2013, 23). The U.S. government contributed to the field’s development by funding terrorism-related research, organizing conferences, and sponsoring emerging experts.
Prior to the formation of terrorism studies, experts conceptualized the type of violence waged at the Munich Olympics as political violence with clear motives, objectives, and underlying grievances. The new discourse on terrorism, however, “tended to characterize terrorists as evil, pathological, and irrational actors, fundamentally different from ‘us’” (Stampnitzky 2013, 50). In fact, in 1979, “an entire conference was devoted to the notion of terrorism as psychopathology” (66). The rise of terrorism studies facilitated the reframing of political violence as irrational and immoral acts that defied explanation.
President George W. Bush strategically etched this conceptualization of terrorism into U.S. popular imagination by describing terrorists as “evildoers” throughout his two presidential terms. After the September 11 attacks, for example, Bush (2001c) effused, “Make no mistake about it. This is good versus evil. These are evildoers. They have no justification for their actions. There’s no religious justification, there’s no political justification. The only motivation is evil.” In a meeting with Muslim leaders the following day, one guest asked President Bush if bin Laden maintained any political goals. President Bush (2001b) abruptly responded, “He has got evil goals.” This charged rhetoric reduced the horrific September 11 attacks to irrational acts of violence waged by evildoers with no moral or political compass.
Defining terrorism as illegitimate acts of violence carried out by evildoers with “no justification” for their actions marshalled a post–September 11 “politics of anti-knowledge” (Stampnitzky 2013, 187). The “root of the politics of anti-knowledge” is that if “terrorists are evil and irrational, then one cannot—and indeed, should not—know them” (183). In this explanatory framework, terrorists use violence because of their inherently evil nature. As an act of evil, such violence defies logic and thus cannot be studied or rationalized.
Through “highly exaggerated stereotyping” that blames Islam for terrorism, U.S. media facilitate these interpretations as “much of what one reads and sees in the media about Islam represents the aggression coming from Islam because that is what ‘Islam’ is” (Said 1997, xi, xxii). This means that media “obliterate” the “local and concrete circumstances” that drive political violence (xxii). “Covering Islam” therefore is a “one-sided activity that obscures what ‘we’ do, and highlights instead what Muslims and Arabs by their very flawed nature are” (xxii). By conflating terrorism with Islam, the U.S. public need not pursue more complex understandings of political violence. Islam-as-evil furnishes a politically expedient understanding of terrorism that requires no additional explanation or analysis.
Despite the primacy of these interpretations, nonstate perpetrators of political violence cannot be reduced to evildoers or religious fanatics; they must be recognized as strategic political actors, particularly by “understanding the social forces driving them, the worldly goals they pursue, and the antagonisms they face” in the pursuit of “capturing state power” (Li 2015, paras. 23–24). Rather than demonize violent extremists or reduce terrorism to an irrational response to foreign policy, the United States must “take radicalism seriously as a political orientation, whether its idiom is Islamic, communist, or anarchist” (Li 2015, para. 14). In the aftermath of September 11, however, the image of the evil terrorist gained prominence, silencing all efforts to pursue a more complex rendering of the violence waged against the United States. As an epistemic project, the politics of anti-knowledge both refuses any critical inquiry into terrorism and depicts the struggle to understand this problem as itself an evil and traitorous act.
Draped in a sense of “absolute morality,” these accounts render those who wage attacks against the United States as “terrorist monsters” who “must be destroyed” (Puar and Rai 2002, 118). As President Bush declared on September 20, 2001, the United States would use “every necessary weapon of war . . . to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network.” President Bush (2001c) promised “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen” using “dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.” Perceived “acts of evil” justified the use of “every necessary weapon of war.”
Given the evil nature of terrorists, the U.S. response to September 11 need not address the underlying political orientation, goals, and grievances that organized the attacks. Instead, the United States deployed decisive military action to eliminate the “global terror network.” By reaffirming the constant threat of a terrorist attack conducted by irrational evildoers, Bush justified aggressive “kill or capture” military operations.
Beginning in 2004, however, policymakers, academics, and military strategists questioned this account of terrorism and the general strategy to kill or capture terrorists. The U.S. security state therefore needed a new framework to guide its changing global war on terror strategy and to respond to new domestic terrorist threats. During this time, the concept of “radicalization” emerged, offering new methods to “explore the process by which a terrorist is made” and to “provide an analytical grounding for preventative strategies that [go] beyond the use of state violence” (Kundnani 2014, 116). Presented as “the wiser, more liberal alternative to simple accounts of terrorism offered immediately after 9/11,” radicalization research has examined how and why individuals become terrorists and facilitated the development of new tactics to disrupt this process (116–17).
Departing from culturalists who understand Islam as inherently opposed to Western values, radicalization scholars have approached terrorism as a perversion, not a product, of Islam. Rather than dismiss terrorists as evildoers, these scholars have examined the culture, psychology, and theology of known terrorists to “understand the radicalization process and devise strategies to prevent its reaching the point of violence” (Sageman 2008, 71). The rise of radicalization studies germinated from both a rejection of culturalist thinking and the “evolution of the threat to the West,” which “comes from the inside, from ‘homegrown’ terrorists, most of whom have never traveled abroad for training or indoctrination” (71). Because the perceived terrorist threat now “comes from the inside,” the United States could no longer rely only on hardening its borders and warfighting to prevent terrorism. In this context, explorations of the radicalization process now dominate terrorism studies and guide new national security strategies like CVE to fight “homegrown terrorism.”
Unfortunately, as the radicalization turn in terrorism studies gained prominence, these new theories often have reduced political violence to individual pathologies, religious fanaticism, and cultural deficits. In this framework, “individual psychological or theological journeys, largely removed from social and political circumstances, are claimed to be the root cause of the radicalization process” (Kundnani 2014, 117). The rise of radicalization studies has shifted the scale of analysis to the individual, meaning law enforcement officials, social service providers, and community members could learn to identify and work with individuals vulnerable to, or in the process of, radicalizing. This scalar shift, therefore, has ushered in new ways of addressing the problem of terrorism and new roles for the U.S. public to perform.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush affirmed that, to “better secure our homeland,” “America will continue to depend on the eyes and ears of alert citizens.” Bush (2002) argued that these actions would “make America not only stronger, but, in many ways, better” as security advancements could improve public health, create safer neighborhoods, and combat illicit drug use. Given the mediated panics about domestic terrorist threats, Bush mobilized the U.S. public as exceptional citizens who take responsibility for maintaining the U.S. security state, ultimately making the nation “stronger” and “better.” Echoing President Bush, CVE policymakers have called on Muslims to serve as “our eyes and ears on our frontlines” in the domestic war on terror (Clinton 2016).
As risk and insecurity continue to define the meaning of citizenship, the “good citizen is a citizen who suspects rather than is suspect, who watches out for departures from ordinary life in the imagined space of the neighborhood” (S. Ahmed 2000, 28, emphasis in original). The U.S. security state conscripts its subjects as “good citizens” who take on the work of preventing terrorism by “watching out for” suspicious individuals. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, runs a trademarked campaign, “If you see something, say something.” Urging the U.S. public to participate in domestic security operations, DHS (n.d.) insists that “if you see something you know shouldn’t be there—or someone’s behavior that doesn’t seem quite right—say something. Because only you know what’s supposed to be in your everyday” (para. 1). Framed by a securitized definition of the “good citizen,” these demands deputize community members as proxy national security agents tasked with looking for, and reporting, potential threats. As DHS concludes, “Informed, alert communities play a critical role in keeping our nation safe” (para. 1). For some Muslims “cast out” of U.S. citizenship through their racialization, participation in these domestic security operations has offered an opening for their conditional inclusion as “good citizens” (Razack 2008).
Despite continued calls to protect the nation, “the good citizen is not given any information about how to tell what or who is suspicious in the first place” (S. Ahmed 2000, 29). The “see something, say something” campaign, for example, assumes the good citizen already knows when a person’s behavior “doesn’t seem quite right.” A behavioral threat assessment trainer similarly argued that the “uh-oh feeling” a “suspicious” person may arouse serves as an important national security technology that protects good citizens from danger. This trainer asserted that suspicion, experienced as an “uh-oh feeling,” is an objective yet instinctual reaction that ensures survival (participant observation, February 7, 2017).
The activation of the “uh-oh feeling,” however, depends on the good citizen already knowing a person is suspicious. Our “uh-oh feeling” is “shaped by cultural histories and memories” that calibrate the “eyes and ears of alert citizens” to certain racialized cues that signal an imminent threat and arouse fear (S. Ahmed 2004a, 7). Rather than treat suspicion as an instinctual reaction, this book recognizes how racial formations, cultural histories, and social memories inform who and what are considered suspicious and trigger our “uh-oh feeling.” Given the protean nature of racism and the sociality of emotions, this book explores the continued and shifting social construction of the suspect and subsequent cultivation of the “uh-oh feeling” through security initiatives like CVE.
“Follow the CVE Trail”: Mapping the CVE Policy World
Given the urgent call to “better secure our homeland” using our “uh-oh feeling” and other available community resources, one practitioner encouraged me to “continue following the CVE trail” to learn from those most involved in, and affected by, this emerging national security approach. Drawing from my experiences on this trail, I explore how the concept of countering violent extremism, and its attendant national security vocabularies and logics, came to be institutionalized and operationalized through the everyday work of CVE actors, from high-level national security workers to local community members. Rather than document an exhaustive or evaluative study of CVE policies, I investigate the often fraught and contradictory policy environment that CVE actors, community members, and protesters negotiated in a concerted effort to keep their children safe. Such an analysis can inform public understandings of new security regimes and community responses to shifting domestic war on terror tactics.
This book stages this exploration through four lines of inquiry: (1) how terrorism studies scholars developed radicalization models that have enabled and constrained how CVE actors conceptualized national security; (2) how CVE actors applied these radicalization models to their daily work; (3) how these models furnished understandings of youth as a “generational threat” in need of psychosocial programming to protect them from terrorist recruitment; and (4) how CVE actors managed public objections to their work. These inquiries provide insight into the epistemic struggle to taxonomize terrorists, the racial hierarchies CVE reconfigured and reinforced, and the processes by which Muslim leaders advanced these national security projects as “good citizens.”
Rather than use this analysis to arbitrate what political strategies Muslim leaders should undertake—that is not for me to say—this book examines what the U.S. security state has sought to accomplish through its engagement with Muslim communities. Facing mounting resistance to racial profiling, coercive policing, and political exclusion, the U.S. security state has offered CVE as a “community-driven” and “ideologically ecumenical” alternative to its conventional counterterrorism practices, thereby legitimizing and shoring up support for the very institutions that treat communities of color as the enemy within—internal threats to U.S. national security. The introduction of CVE programs strategically has strengthened, not mitigated, the surveillance, monitoring, and policing of Muslims across the United States while appearing attentive to the civil liberties and civil rights of targeted groups. Such insight offers new ways of understanding the institutionalization of anti-Muslim racism through liberal initiatives that grant Muslim communities cultural and political recognition without redistributing power.
To develop this analysis, chapter 1 introduces readers to the organizing research questions and creative methods I employed to investigate CVE by studying powerful actors within the U.S. security state. I examine the ethical issues I encountered when I interviewed CVE actors, some of whom were Muslim, Arab, Somali, and/or South Asian. Their elite status in, or associations with, the U.S. security state could not insulate them from everyday anti-Muslim racism, generating ethical, methodological, and analytical questions I needed to consider reflexively throughout the research process. In addition, powerful actors contribute to “huge bureaucracies” whose policies and perspectives may conflict with the diverse views of those who work there (Ron Stuart, interview, February 17, 2017). This chapter explores these methodological provocations, paying particular attention to the complex power relations that shaped this research study. Rather than gloss over these issues, I directly address how power and authority organized the research encounter. This analysis contributes to methodological debates about the politics and ethics of studying powerful institutions and their workers.
Chapter 2 examines how policy documents, practitioners, and community members defined CVE in opposition to previous antiterrorism practices. To make sense of these understandings, I excavate the rich genealogies of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and community policing paradigms that have informed contemporary countering violent extremism policies. In addition, chapter 3 explores the radicalization theories that have guided the making of CVE and the associated methods used to “inoculate young people from the ideology of violence” (Tanvir Rahman, interview, November 10, 2016). Lastly, I locate these radicalization models in prior practices of identifying, classifying, and correcting “abnormals” or social deviants who purportedly posed an imminent security threat. By approaching radicalization scholarship as a reformulation of previous ways of knowing “abnormals,” I invite readers to question how they might think differently about terrorism, agitating against enduring imperial taxonomies that organize contemporary security regimes (Foucault 1999).
Chapter 4 investigates how CVE actors negotiated competing national security approaches, contentious community critiques, and conflicting radicalization scholarship. I document how CVE actors interrogated their own understandings of their work, shifted local programming in response to new information, and/or dismissed, responded to, and critiqued community concerns. Through this exploration, I analyze the narrative strategies CVE actors used to manage public objections to their work and maintain the viability of this national security approach in their communities.
After examining these negotiations, chapter 5 documents how the CVE policy framework has defined Muslim youth as the “generational threat.” More specifically, I explore how CVE actors viewed Muslim youth as “searching for belonging, navigating their identity, and looking for emotional connectivity,” all “fertile soil” for terrorist recruitment (Homeland Security Advisory Council 2016). I investigate how these urgent narratives have marshalled a series of educational initiatives to protect children from terrorist influences.
Next, I examine how CVE programs like global citizenship education have encouraged Muslim youth to subordinate their racial, cultural, and religious differences to an identification with the global (Bartlett and Lutz 1998). I also investigate other educational initiatives that have conscripted students into the CVE industry, like training youth to identify peers at risk of terrorist radicalization and developing youth-led social media campaigns that counter terrorist propaganda. This chapter thus addresses the national security narratives that have organized prevailing understandings of the generational threat and the educational practices these narratives have authorized.
In the concluding chapter, I revisit this book’s central arguments to theorize the relationship between anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant racisms and their everyday expressions and manifestations. I examine how anti-Muslim national security narratives that authorize the blanket surveillance of “Muslim-looking” populations enhance the U.S. security state implicated in the killing of unarmed Black people, the ongoing detention and deportation of immigrants, and the hyperincarceration of racialized populations. Studying CVE helps conceptualize anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant racisms as distinct yet co-constitutive state projects that generate different but interrelated forms of violence on local populations. Rather than evaluate one form of violence as deadlier than another, this concluding chapter thinks through the relationship between these forms of racialized state violence to imagine the possibilities for cross-racial solidarity in ways that eschew “deceptive solutions” (A. Y. Davis 2016, 90).
By examining the fraught tensions CVE actors negotiated in their daily work, this book identifies pressure points ripe with political possibility to contest these national security practices in ways that do not concede radical imaginations for liberal reforms. More specifically, I consider how the U.S. security state strategically has used CVE to offer Muslim communities political representation and cultural recognition through their participation in local initiatives. By shoring up support for the very institutions that historically have criminalized Muslim communities, the U.S. security state has enhanced its domestic war on terror operations while appearing to rein in racial profiling, coercive policing, and political exclusion. As college student Hodan Hassan concluded, “There is no middle ground between CVE and nah. There is no reform for something that says your humanity is subpar” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). By centering the perspectives of CVE actors and targeted communities, this book examines how CVE “says your humanity is subpar” and considers alternative solutions that refuse the “middle ground between CVE and nah.”
Through this exploration, I document how CVE has been forged through interwoven epistemic, political, and cultural projects that cultivate particular ways of knowing and being that service the U.S. security state and restrict radical resistance. As imperial logics articulate through new national security policies, we must ask: What kind of national security projects do we want to pursue? How do we determine who and what is dangerous? How do we respond to these formulations of danger? What new ways of knowing might generate less violent futures for racialized populations, too often integrated into the political establishment to advance, rather than arrest, abusive systems of power? What role do Muslim communities play in maintaining, negotiating, and/or contesting these systems? How might CVE practitioners from targeted communities excavate histories of radical activism, continuously suppressed but never destroyed, to demand new forms of national security and public safety independent of oppressive institutions? How do we develop, fund, and deliver resources that build healthy communities, without an antiterrorism lens and without police involvement? By studying the conditions that shape, and have been shaped by, CVE, this book seeks to imagine new political possibilities informed by radical struggles that have sustained criminalized communities across history.