The White House’s Countering Violent Extremism summit opened in Washington today with criticism from both sides – those who thought the administration’s effort was “stigmatizing” Muslims, and those who objected to the conference’s wide breadth beyond radical Islam.
It wasn’t even clear who was participating in the summit, besides representatives from more than 60 countries, according to the White House. State Department press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that she’d try to get a list.
On the Wednesday schedule: a late afternoon address from President Obama. On Thursday, Obama will speak again to official ministerial delegations. Secretary of State John Kerry will take center stage Thursday in “outlining the action agenda and moderating the third section which is about getting senior-level perspective on the changing threats of violent extremism, which comes in many forms,” a senior administration official said.
The administration organized the conference in reaction to the January terrorist attacks in Paris. They did not send an administration-level representative to the unity march called by French President Francois Hollande afterward, and stopped using the term “radical Islam” to describe terrorists.
A senior administration official responded Monday to a question about whether the Islamic element of extremist attacks was being glossed over with an answer about Marxist rebels in Colombia.
“I think obviously we want to be taking into account the current concerns that different countries are facing. But as I think will be clear from the variety of presentations and case studies that are mentioned — to include some of the media that we have organized to help catalyze the discussion that features some of the longer-running terrorist threats that people sometimes forget about in the current context, such as the FARC in Colombia, which is now in negotiations, but has been a designated terrorist organization for some time, responsible for countless acts of violence,” the official said.
“I think we will see through the complexity of the discussion that violent extremism is a broader trend, and that everyone will be approaching it through their own lens of their immediate concerns, but there are lessons to be learned across all forms of efforts to counter different types of violent extremism. And again, as was just mentioned, the interventions themselves must be specific and localized even if they happen to be falling under the same umbrella category. So I think we’ll see in the context of the meeting itself the diversity that reflects the reality of recent history.”
Another official said on background that those “who perpetrated the terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere are calling themselves Muslims and their warped interpretation of Islam is what motivated them to commit these acts — they’re not making any secret of that, and neither are we.”
“But we are very, very clear that we do not believe that they are representing Islam. There is absolutely no justification for these attacks in any religion, and that’s the view of the vast majority of Muslims who have suffered huge casualties from the likes of folks like ISIL or al-Qaeda. So you can call them what you want,” the official continued. “We’re calling them terrorists. And the president is absolutely resolved to confront this threat. He’s made it clear that we’re at war with terrorist groups and he’s taken scores of high-level terrorists off the battlefield.”
“So we are not treating these people as part of a religion. We’re treating them as terrorists. We call them our enemies and we’ll be treating them as such.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, though, held a press conference in Minneapolis today asserting that the Justice Department’s Countering Violent Extremism pilot program just raises concerns.
CAIR prepared a brief last week stating that “CAIR is a natural enemy of violent extremists” and arguing the administration’s initiatives, including one announced in September as a way to counter “homegrown” terrorists, are not the “most effective use of public resources.”
CAIR issued the following recommendations to the U.S. government:
— “The U.S. government should avoid practices that stigmatize American Muslims and Islam.”
— “U.S. government entities should discuss violent extremist threats in proportionate, non-existential terms.”
— “The Department of Justice should issue guidelines, similar to Good Samaritan laws, to protect those who act in good faith to prevent violent extremism by engaging with those considering it in order to dissuade them. DOJ policies should make clear that those who intervene to help others should not suffer for it by being subjected to prosecution, watchlisting, or surveillance because of their association with a potential violent extremist.”
— “The U.S. Congress should hold hearings, similar to the Church Committee, to investigate the federal government’s overbroad surveillance of mosques and American Muslims, absent evidence of criminal activity.”
— “In any government driven CVE program, there must be clear standards and safeguards to prevent abuses.”
Attorney General Eric Holder quipped at the National Press Club today that “whenever you’re getting criticized by both sides, it probably means you are probably getting it right.”
“You know, it’s — we spend more time, more time talking about what you do call it as opposed to what do you do about it. You know? I mean really, you know. You know, if Fox didn’t talk about this, they would have nothing else to talk about, it would seem to me. You know, radical Islam, Islamic extremism, you know, I’m not sure an awful lot is gained by saying that,” Holder said.
“…What we have to do is defined not by the terms that we use, but by the facts on the ground. And you know, so I don’t worry an awful lot about what the appropriate terminology, you know, ought to be. You know, and I think that people need to actually think about that and think about, really, we’re having this conversation about words as opposed to what our actions ought to be?”