Imagine going to school, or a club or program when your classes are done for the day. Sure, your behavior is being watched by teachers and program leaders — but imagine if some of them were also asked to report any supposedly suspicious behavior to the police.
For some of those impacted by a government program called Countering Violent Extremism, this is not imagination, it’s real life. CVE is a government program started by the Obama administration in 2014, that builds initiatives meant to prevent radicalization with regard to terrorism, and does so by building partnerships with organizations, programs, and faith leaders, while funding, monitoring, and collecting information on these endeavors. And yes, youths are affected by this, too. In Minneapolis in particular, where CVE’s main target is the Somali community, which is comprised largely of refugees who are black and Muslim, one partner of the program is Minneapolis Public Schools.
However, as a recent report from the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice claims, CVE programs are “built on two shaky premises”:
The first is that extremist ideology is a precursor to, and driver of, terrorism. While this proposition has some intuitive appeal, it has been disproven by decades of empirical research. Many people hold views that can be described as “extreme and never act violently; the reverse is also true. The second premise is that there is a predictable path toward terrorism with clear markers that can be used to identify potential terrorists. This notion has also been repeatedly debunked by empirical research.
This program is also accused by many groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), of targeting Muslims in particular. “Observers note that CVE is generally driven by news events, that the current program exclusively targets American Muslims and find that claims that the government is targeting all forms of violent extremism are inconsistently supported,” CAIR writes on its website. “There are arguments that the current CVE initiative undermines our national ideals, such as government not having a role in the free exercise of religion.” And as the Brennan Center for Justice report points out, “teachers and psychologists have sounded the alarm about CVE. The nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers objected strongly to an FBI CVE program, describing it as ‘ideological profiling and surveillance’ that would have ‘a chilling effect on our schools and immigrant communities, jeopardizing children’s sense of safety and well-being and threatening the security and sense of trust of entire communities.’” Teen Vogue reached out to the Department of Justice for comment regarding these allegations.
CVE follows a legacy of counter-terrorism programs and policy, including the National Security Exit-Entry Registration System (or NSEERS), which was a program created in 2002 by the Bush Administration and officially axed by President Obama during his final days in office that was meant to prevent terrorist attacks by tracking male immigrants from 25 mainly Muslim-majority countries. And consider that CVE resembles former FBI programs like COINTELPRO, which is a domestic counterintelligence program that lasted from 1956 to 1971 and initially started to “disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States,” according to the FBI’s website.
Community members, like youth organizer Ayaan Dahir, believe CVE not only engages in profiling, but that they are also dehumanizing. And, according to a secret FBI report, as The Intercept reported out in 2016, “It can be difficult, if not impossible, to predict for any given individual what factor or combination of factors will prompt that individual’s radicalization or mobilization to violence.”
In Minnesota, a nonprofit organization named Youthprise is in charge of managing and redistributing CVE money through grants. However, in February of this year, Youthprise was the target of protesters challenging the organization’s participation in CVE. When asked about this, Youthprise told Teen Vogue: “We are committing to continued investment in the Somali community. We are committing to working with Somali youth to make decisions about what these investments should look like. We are committing to helping dismantle Islamophobia and to supporting Somali youth. We are committing to seeking funds aligned with our values rooted in positive youth development. We are committing to not seeking funding that is tied to deficit-driven anti-radicalization purposes.”
In the Twin Cities, it is Somali youth who are making noise against CVE. Two youth groups doing this work include the Young Muslim Collective and the Anti-CVE Campaign. Young Muslim Collective, started in February of 2016, is a coalition of students from the Twin Cities area, and was started to create change and address the struggles of marginalized Muslims in Minnesota. They have done this by hosting community events about CVE, organizing actions around CVE and Islamophobia, and hosting vigils for victims of Islamophobia.
Meanwhile, the Anti-CVE Campaign is an initiative started in June 2016 predominantly by Minneapolis-area high school students. They, too, have organized protests around CVE, and taught workshops about the policy and Islamophobia around the Twin Cities. Both of these groups, are majority black, entirely Muslim, and all youth.
Most recently, in June, Young Muslim Collective hosted a vigil in honor of Nabra Hassanen, Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, and the victims of the Finsbury Park attack and Grenfell Tower fire. In addition to organizing panels and protests, they also celebrate the beauty in being young, black, and Muslim by hosting Iftars (the meal that breaks fast at sundown during the holy month of Ramadan), classes, and hosting events to dissect all the ways race and faith intersect.
“[CVE] directly affects my community, because of the pilot programs that were brought into my community and into the nonprofits that directly affect my community,” Anti-CVE Campaign leader Mahamed Salad, a rising senior at Minneapolis South High, tells Teen Vogue. “Systematic Islamophobia or oppression has affected me my whole life, in regards to just me day to day being questioned and being asked like why I am in America or why I am doing the things I do.” He adds that obstacles are ever-present in his organizing — “as a Muslim, for sure, and as an immigrant, those two things definitely affect me,” he says.
“Because of my age, people kind of look at youth and say, oh these kids only care about the latest iPhone, or sports, and things like that, and sometimes it’s true. But they don’t see that we also have intellect and insight, and bright ideas and bright minds … and that we are just as much a part of this community as anyone else,” he adds.
Ayaan Dahir of Young Muslim Collective, tells Teen Vogue that the best advice she would offer young people wanting to make a difference in their community is to educate themselves about the problem first. “I know when you first really understand an issue and you start uncovering something that is not obvious, there is an overwhelming urge to move and act. But your action needs to be coupled with education. You can’t undo a system you don’t understand,” Ayaan says. “Read, read, and read again. Be critical of everything you read and let your personal experience inform your education. And then act. There is no blueprint, no how-to guide, or GPS on what you should do in your exact moment. The only way to learn what works is to learn what doesn’t.”
Don’t fear taking missteps, Ayaan adds: “If you’re a human being, you are 100% likely to be wrong on something. It is up to you to choose how you will apply your knowledge to the movement and what role you want to take on.”