Legalizing Othering: Interview with Muna Sharif


September 08, 2017

Muna Sharif: Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Programs   

Muna Sharif is a Palestinian-American organizer based in Anaheim, California. She is currently a Field Organizer for Amnesty International USA, and formerly served as the Director of Jibreel Project, a campaign designed to inspire community action and resist state oppression through the mobilization of students via education, engagement and action. Muna received her Master’s degree in Public Policy and Nonprofit Administration from California State University Long Beach with an emphasis in Urban Affairs.

Q1: What kind of work do you do?
I’m a Field Organizer for Amnesty International and I organize within eight states in the South-Western region. My work is centered around our priority campaigns, which are the People on the Move campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis, the America I Believe In campaign, which is an anti-Islamophobia and anti-xenophobia campaign, and the Police Accountability and Deadly Force Campaign, so those are the three priorities that we have running at the moment. I’m also the National Vice General Coordinator of the Palestinian Youth Movement, US Chapter.
Q2: What in your opinion are the root causes of Islamophobia?
There are many contributing factors to Islamophobia, the obvious one is what the media chooses to showcase, showcasing stories that ignite fear in people or peek their interest. Islamophobia is really an ambiguous and arbitrary term that was created to describe a phenomenon of people being afraid of “the other”, which is not something new. The concept of “the other” is something that imperialism is built on.  Islamophobia legitimizes US intervention in the SWANA region [South West Asia and North Africa]. Any US intervention in the SWANA region can be legitimized by framing the people of those countries as being scary, a security risk, different from “us”, having radical ideals etc., and that’s obviously the common rhetoric that we’re hearing in the media.
Q3: What are the connections between Islamophobia and the surveillance of Muslims?
The surveillance of Muslims is meant to perpetuate this idea that Muslims are “the other”, and that Muslims are to be feared, which also serves to perpetuate American intervention abroad. Surveillance was created as a means to uncover information that would justify the American government’s claims of people of color, but in all these years of research, whether we look to COINTELPRO or Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), there hasn’t been a single surveillance policy that has actually produced results that show that Muslims, or any of these populations, are a population that is to be feared. In some 5,000 cases of surveillance against Muslims only 12 cases met the government’s standards for someone at risk to violent extremism. Even with that number being significantly low, it brings into question what are the standards for somebody to be identified as violently extreme.
In the Countering Violent Extremism language, and the research documents that led to the development of the CVE program, the characteristics for violent extremism were ambiguous and [to name a few] were identified as someone who regularly attends the mosque, someone who openly wears Muslim clothing, someone who has had a shift in ideology, someone who presents radical ideals, someone who openly looks Muslim, and someone who has a beard of a certain length. These were considered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as legitimate indicators for someone to be a threat, or susceptible to committing violent acts of terror. From this, you can gather that there is a direct, and intentional, link by the government to connect violent extremism to Muslim individuals or people who look a certain way. The same governmental department is setting the standards, perpetuating the CVE program, and instituting it, and if the department can only find 12 cases out of 5,000 then there is no real threat. If the standards are as ambiguous as someone who regularly attends the mosque, you would think the government would find more than 12 out of 5,000 people who would fit that indicator. But really, it’s a testament to the fact that Islamophobia is nothing but rhetoric, and the question then becomes who is this rhetoric benefitting and why does it exist?
Q4: What is the Countering Violent Extremism Program, who is it intended for, and why is it problematic?
Countering Violent Extremism is a program that was conceptualized after the Boston Marathon bombing, and it was introduced as House Resolution 2899 (HR 2899), or the CVE Act, after conversations around ISIS became more prevalent. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the DOJ and DHS were desperately looking for someone who fit the description of a Muslim attacker. They were looking for someone who was Muslim who could have perpetuated or created the incident, and they used the Boston Marathon bombing to kick-off the development of the CVE Program. If the attacker was Muslim, it would provide a link to the Muslim community, and it was at this time that DHS wanted to start the CVE program. However, the CVE program as explained by proponents and HR 2899, claim that the program does not specifically target Muslims, and yet the behavior for at risk individuals of violent extremism, and those targeted by the CVE program, were predominantly those with Muslim characteristics. In the CVE Act, the only concrete method of surveillance listed is social media surveillance, and this is the first surveillance policy instituted by the United States government that actually uses social media in their terms. The government legitimized a need for such a stipulation by arguing that ISIS was using Twitter to recruit people, so there was a need for the government to surveil social media accounts. Whether or not the government is able to surveil social media accounts, and whether or not they have been successful is another conversation, however, it was also within this resolution that DHS and the DOJ outlined their definition of radicalism and violent extremism.
There are individuals in the Muslim community who also perpetuate and legitimize the CVE program, as DHS can’t outrightly say that someone with a beard of a certain length is potentially a radical extremist, but the community programs and partners that they reach out to can disseminate that message for the government, and there have been instances of that happening in Muslim communities. Regarding CVE, on one hand you have an argument being put forth that for the sake of national security we need to talk about radicalism and violent extremism to protect our own, so the program uses the term national security as a pass to violate any type of human rights, and rights to privacy that Muslim Americans have. We’ve seen this time and time again, where if the term national security is thrown into the loop by the US government, people’s rights essentially get tossed out, and it’s a violation of human rights in the name of national security. Amnesty actually has a program called the National Security and Human Rights program which addresses this issue and how human rights violations are committed in the name of national security all the time. This is why Islamophobia is so big right now, because the government can perpetuate programs like CVE, COINTELPRO, Stop and Frisk, using fear to legitimize such programs. When the fear is there, people are willing to give-up their rights thinking that they are getting protection in return. But who is this really protecting? Through my own research, I’ve found that the US Department of Homeland Security says you can identify someone who will commit an act of violence, while academic research shows the opposite, you can’t actually tell when someone is about to commit an act of violence.
Q5: How do the CVE programs work with the local communities?
Before the official launch of CVE, the Department of Homeland Security made a targeted effort and chose three cities in which the CVE program would be piloted, selecting Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. When the CVE program was launched in Los Angeles, I began working as the director of a campaign against the Countering Violent Extremism program. In the press releases about CVE there was a list of organizations that DHS intended to partner with, or to contact about the program, and all of these organizations were either South West Asian, North African, or Muslim community serving organizations, some of whom were really enraged because they didn’t even know their organization was listed in the press release. Some organizations saw the CVE program as an opportunity, and there is something important I would like to mention here; CVE and the general conversations that were happening at DHS around violent extremism placed a very heavy emphasis on mental health resources. There was a $10 million grant that was given to the Department of Homeland Security, and they were going to offer grants to organizations that would be willing to partner with them to fund mental health projects. The idea behind funding mental health programs was that if someone is going to commit an act of violent extremism, you must have a mental health issue. Around this time, I was working for a local non-profit which provides resettlement and acculturation services, including mental health services, and it became clear that DHS was preying on organizations within the Arab and Muslim community that provided mental health services to collaborate on CVE work. To ensure that these organizations accepted the grant funding, DHS convoluted the stipulations and language of the grant, making it unclear as to what would be expected of the organizations if they were to accept the funding.  
The CVE program was also intentionally targeting communities that are typically underfunded. A lot of the SWANA or Muslim organizations are underfunded, and the stipulations to receive the funding appeared to be relatively simple, all the organization had to do was accept the grant from the Department of Homeland Security, and report anything suspicious. The organization I was working for at the time was offered a DHS grant, and if accepted, the funding was going to be used to expand the mental health department. Many of the mental health professionals at the organization had huge problems with the program, as it would have stigmatized people with mental health issues, and anyone who came to us for mental health services was going to feel like they were being added to a watch list. This may or may not have been the case, but in my opinion, it makes sense, if the Federal government is giving an organization a grant to fund their department, and asking for nothing in return except that they report somebody that meets a specific set of characteristics. This is one example of an attempted community partnership, and in the end my organization ended up not accepting the grant.
Q6: How do CVE programs affect Muslim communities?
What’s interesting is that of the three launch cities, Boston and Minneapolis have been the most successful in implementing the CVE programs, and the implementation might not actually look like what one might expect a Countering Violent Extremism Program to look like because the programs manifest in different ways. In Boston and Minneapolis, a lot of Muslim organizations have unfortunately been more receptive to the idea of working with the American government to self-police their own communities, which only serves to reiterate and perpetuate this stereotype and stigma against Muslims and Muslim communities. I can’t explain why that is the case in those cities, however, the CVE program in Los Angeles has been widely rejected with the exception of a few organizations. How the Anaheim community has been affected by the CVE program is that there now exists a hyper awareness of people’s identity. Not to say that this didn’t exist before, but Anaheim has a large Arab and Muslim population, and I feel like before everyone in some way felt safe here, but now when we have local organizations that are engaging with law enforcement and bringing this very dangerous reporting program into our community, everyone is a little on edge. I think the community is trying to make a conscious effort to make sure that they aren’t being reported, and it’s really unfortunate because there are several stories and instances of FBI agents in our local mosques and many mosques have now installed security cameras, so there is a huge shift in the culture here in Anaheim, or in Southern California specifically.
**Interview edited for clarity