The Danger of Imams Being Involved in CVE

At the recent Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference in Chicagoland, I participated in a debate pertaining to the federal government's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program which seeks to work with American Muslim leaders to curb the threat of radicalization within our community. The debate consisted of respectful arguments about if CVE presents net harm or net benefit for the American Muslim community being actively involved with it. I argued that the program poses far greater harm than benefit especially when religious leaders are active participants (Watch the debate, courtesy of ISPU, here).

There is no doubt that American Muslim scholars and shuyookh should be involved in refuting deviant interpretations of Islam which includes extremist ideology of groups like Daesh. It is equally true that our community leaders should have healthy lines of communication with government officials. My major concerns outside of the civil liberties realm pertaining to CVE have to do with the disempowerment, and in fact breach of trust, that CVE poses to Islamic religious leaders who collaborate with federal law enforcement with the generality of the community.

Religious leaders who collaborate with CVE via Shared Responsibility Committees (SRC's) are in effect de facto deputized to be involved in soft counter-terrorism work by reporting suspicious activities to their counterparts in law enforcement as well as provide information about the community. In other words, religious leaders are being courted to play the role of adding to the obtuse intelligence gathering efforts that are currently taking place by the multiple law enforcement entities. Muslims should be free to share their problems and frustrations without fear that confidentiality will be violated by leaders sharing information with federal agents. The only ethical responsibility that imams have is to report imminent threats. Thus being involved in such endeavors will ultimately erode the trust of adults to share serious concerns or send their children to religious leaders out of fear that doing so may lead to them being added to government watch lists and/or summoning informants to come to them.

Besides the perceived breach of confidentiality, religious leaders involved in CVE literally alienate themselves from being contacted by youth who would most likely join extremist organizations or commit lone wolf extremist acts. Part of the narrative of Daesh is that most Islamic scholars have sold out the Ummah and are pawns of oppressive governments. The extremist group used the term "coconuts" to describe Muslims who are Brown in skin tone yet but White, meaning subservient to Western governments, on the inside. Although talking with government officials in and of itself in general is not selling out, those with valid political grievances regarding oppression from Western governments who are on the edge of doing something extreme would be the least likely persons to contact imams who are involved in CVE. Participation in CVE literally brings into question the street cred of imams involved which actually leads to them excluding themselves from the possibility of so-called deradicalizing those on the brink.

CVE also allows the federal government to indirectly shape the interpretation of Islam, which effectively defines who are the "Good Muslims" or "Moderate Muslims" and who are the bad Muslims. This is done through CVE presenting "counternarratives" to Muslims which includes through teachers and preachers of Islam. George Selim testified before Congress in 2015 that CVE is "to develop and amplify content that resonates against ISIL, Al-Qaida, and other violent extremist groups." It is not part of the federal government's narrative that the illegal invasion of Iraq, support of Ethiopia's bloody incursion into Somalia, the high percentage of drone strikes that kill civilians and other highly flawed policies are a primary fuel which lit the fire of extremism recruitment among alienated young men who know little to nothing about Islam. Thus Muslim leaders end up becoming messengers of counternarratives that are not designed to challenge underlying grievances, while at the same time being in cahoots with an endeavor that violates the American value, both socially and legally, of the federal government staying away from intervening in religious affairs and interpretation.

The early great scholars of Islam displayed high levels of integrity and did not wish to give the appearance of being compromised in their religious interpretations by governments. Hence those great personalities would advise governmental leaders when necessary, yet kept their distance from taking positions or accepting to act as de facto agents. Abu Hanifah, Malik, ash-Shafi'i and Ahmad bin Hanbal (may Allah have mercy upon them) advised sultans and spoke truth to them – Abu Hanifah and Malik were beaten for doing so while all four of those imams ended up being tossed in jail for keeping their independence. As our scholars and teachers must counter deviant interpretations of Islam, that endeavor should be done independent of reporting to the federal government, being influenced by it and/or taking funds from it under the framework of reporting to law enforcement. It is not an issue of disengagement from keeping our country safe but rather an issue of protecting our sacred tradition, community integrity while also helping to keep our country and our community safe on our own terms.