Anti-terror plan allies White House with Muslim groups

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House’s new plan to curb home-grown Islamic extremism calls for partnerships between local governments, various non-profits, and U.S. communities of Muslims. But critics say those partnerships often include Islamic groups whose ideology spurs terrorism.

Federal agencies are already using their “convening power to help build a network of individuals, groups, civil society organizations, and private sector actors to support community-based efforts to counter violent extremism,” according to the new strategy document, titled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.”

But administration policymakers have not worked with pro-American Muslim groups, said Zuhdi Jasser, president of the Phoenix-based America Islamic Forum for Democracy. “The [groups] they work with are the wrong ones,” Jasser told TheDC.

Muslims in the United States “tend to be pro-Western and pro-American [but] the leadership of the mosques and the Islamic centers tend to be influenced by Islamists overseas,” said Andrew McCarthy, who successfully prosecuted Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven other terrorists in 1995. Rahman had earlier created a terror group in Egypt.

Instead of partnering with Islamic groups, the federal government should use routine policing and civil-rights laws to protect individuals in Muslim communities from being intimidated by politicized Muslims, many of whom are tied to the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood, McCarthy said.

Federal protection would ease assimilation by people from Muslim countries and also undermine Muslim ideologies that spur terrorism, adds McCarthy, who now runs the Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

The White House’s new strategy was applauded by advocacy groups including the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The way the plan is rolling out is very much in line with a community partnership model, and we believe that is very useful,” said Salam Al-Maryati, president of MPAC

According to a statement from CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad,“Programs that build trust between law enforcement authorities and the communities they serve are crucial … Our government must also engage with American Muslim institutions and individuals proven to enjoy community support.”

The U.S. Department of Justice designated CAIR an unindicted conspirator in the successful 2008 prosecution of several U.S.-based Muslims for smuggling funds to the Hamas terror group.

The administration’s strategy comes almost 10 years after Al Qaeda’s attack on New York, and after what MPAC says were at least 48 additional attacks or terrorist plots by observant Muslims.

The terror threat “is not coming from the [Muslim] communities,” Al Maryati insists, but from “individuals that communities can help us detect and rehabilitate.”

U.S. government officials “have bent over backwards to be respectful to Islamists, which is not helpful,” McCarthy argues. And Americans would be safer if government policy encouraged “a natural assimilation of pro-Western Muslims — there are many in the United States — and [made] clear that the law of the United States is the supreme law, and we’re not ceding territory or legal jurisdiction” to local Islamic activists.

A recent survey of Gallup polling data showed a large segment of Americans with a Muslim background actually have few connections to Muslim groups. Only about half of self-identified Muslims in the United States go to a mosque, and almost half — 48.5 percent —declined to name a Muslim advocacy group that most represented their interests.

Only 11.5 percent of Muslim respondents said CAIR most represented their interests, 3.5 percent chose MPAC, and 13 percent cited groups that the report did not identify. The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, which is supported by the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi, issued the survey on Tuesday.

The administration’s new policy document offers no details on implementation plans, but is closer to Al Maryati’s preferences for federal cooperation with Islamic groups than to McCarthy’s recommendations for a focus on individuals’ rights.

For example, the report says the federal government “must use a wide range of good governance programs — including those that promote immigrant integration and civic engagement, protect civil rights, and provide social services — that may help prevent radicalization that leads to violence.”

Communities that do try to discourage terrorism should be praised and be given extra government support, said the report. “Where communities have been active in condemning terrorism and confronting violent extremism, we must recognize their efforts; help them build upon their work; and connect them with other communities and stakeholders in order to share best practices.”

The report is silent about criteria for choosing U.S. groups to be supported by the government.

It also discourages criticism of Muslim groups, even when they share common beliefs with terrorists. “Strong religious beliefs should never be confused with violent extremism … [and] officials and the American public should not stigmatize or blame communities because of the actions of a handful of individuals.”

The report does not discuss the ideologies or motives of Islamic terrorists, except in noting that Al Qaeda terrorists “all believe: (1) the United States is out to destroy Islam; and (2) this justifies violence against Americans.”

“The government needs to think through how and with whom it partners … sometimes we do that well, and more often, we have not,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Sometimes the largest and loudest groups get most attention, but the most grassroots and effective groups do not,” he said.

Advocates from MPAC, CAIR and other Muslim advocacy groups have met with Obama administration officials during the last two years, but leaders in Jasser’s council of Western-oriented Muslim groups say they were frozen out of government discussions.

In July the American Islamic Leadership Council urged the administration to “engage non-Islamist Muslim groups to help develop and implement effective counter-radicalization programs, which affirm the principles of liberty and individual rights, within an Islamic narrative.”

The July draft of the administration’s strategy “provides no criteria for determining with which Muslim groups the Administration will conduct its outreach programs … [and] focuses narrowly upon al-Qa’ida as the enemy,” said the council’s recommendations. Council members include Jasser’s organization and 24 other individuals and groups, few of which have staff or offices.