I HAD JUST STARTED high school in Cumberland, Maryland, when the September 11 attacks occurred. What I remember most about my freshman year is how classmates and neighbors harassed me, one of few Muslims in the area. By the time I graduated, I learned something much worse about my hometown – that most of the soldiers who tortured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib came from the 372nd Military Police Company based in Cumberland.
This year, the Department of Defense appointed a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) working group to address far-right and White nationalist “extremism” in the ranks. Given the scale of violence inflicted on Muslim-majority countries by the US military since 2001, the working group feels like it could be a perverse joke.
The DOD Countering Extremism Working Group, however, is no joke. It is part of the prevailing common sense that defines the problem of White nationalism as one of a few violent actors, namely the January 6 mob that stormed the Capitol. This understanding ignores the tens of millions who still believe that the 2020 election was stolen, that Muslim-Americans are a subversive threat to US culture, that we should “build the wall” between the US and Mexico, or that the Black Lives Matter movement is engaged in “terrorism.”
Many people, especially progressives, have pushed for CVE programming to address all types of violence, including the rise of White nationalism and White supremacist movements. There is no data that defends it. Convincing teachers, community leaders, and healthcare providers to conduct surveillance based on religion, race, and politics has not prevented the acceleration of violence in our communities and is not a “soft” alternative to counterterrorism policing. CVE only furthers White supremacy by relying on the Islamophobic theory of radicalization and promoting racial and religious profiling.
If you remember the story of a boy named Ahmed arrested and suspended for bringing a clock to school, then you can imagine how encouraging neighbors and colleagues to identify individuals who seem potentially violent will lead to increased racism for all communities deemed suspect. Before 9/11 and in the first decade of the War on Terror, Muslims predominantly faced undercover agents and informants from the Department of Justice invading our mosques and restaurants. Now, with the continued expansion of CVE, we are up against the people we should trust most in our community. Muslims have organized against CVE since the Obama administration first launched the effort. This opposition isn’t erased now that CVE also seeks to uncover White nationalists.
The desire to frame White nationalist violence as “extremism” or “terrorism” is understandable. After the long history of state violence, incarceration, and surveillance pointed at Black, indigenous, Muslim, and immigrant communities, there is a feeling that it’s finally time for law enforcement to pay attention to White nationalist violence. “Get-tough-on” laws – take your pick, “extremists,” “terrorists,” “drugs,” “crime” – not only erode everyone’s civil liberties, they are used disproportionately against the same communities targeted by White nationalism.
The provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (passed in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing) were deployed not to fight White nationalism, but to harass and persecute vulnerable communities. And what was true of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act is all the more true of the legion of laws and policies established after 9/11 focused on the domestic Muslim community, including CVE.
Beyond how easy it is for equal opportunity surveillance to backfire, the “extremism” frame is counterproductive for thinking about White nationalism because its apolitical language ignores the role of the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and other government agencies, politicians, and institutions in creating the rhetoric and policies that fuel the fire.
Focusing on individuals conceals a common sense defense of the status quo institutions that produced not just Trump, but the whole series of failures—from mass incarceration to the War on Terror—that have landed the country in crisis after crisis. Pathologizing White supremacy through CVE allows the carceral state to shift the focus onto individuals rather than its own systems of violence.
So what do we do about growing White nationalist violence? Rather than focus on a handful of “extremist” individuals, we must address the root causes of the resentment and anxiety driving this movement – the economic insecurity, national security rhetoric, and the historical context, starting with the decades of endless and borderless war waged abroad and the domestic policies connected to it.
Fatema Ahmad is the executive director at Muslim Justice League of Boston.