This fall, the School of Foreign Service will host a class titled “Community-Based Terror Prevention (INAF-262-01).” The course description refers to the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which was started by former President Barack Obama’s administration. By offering this course, the SFS is wrongly legitimizing CVE’s framework, which punishes misperceived threats of “radicalization,” as an acceptable form of intervention for the sake of national security.
CVE was developed to bring religious and civic leaders together with law enforcement, health care professionals, the FBI, U.S. attorneys and other state and federal officials to identify and prevent “radicalization” in their communities. Though the program purports to target “extremism” at large and not Muslims, the program has, in practice, overwhelmingly and disproportionately targeted Muslim communities as a form of state surveillance. The Obama administration issued only one CVE grant to a group combatting white supremacists. The recipient, Life After Hate, also claims to be fighting “Jihadi radicalization.” Under President Donald Trump, the organization’s funding was revoked.
The research is very clear: CVE is used for surveillance on Muslims under the guise of community development. The CVE model uses unsound science and a theory of “radicalization” that has been debunked by many prominent scholars and journalists from the Brennan Center, Muslim Advocates, Muslim Justice League, Vice, The Intercept and ACLU. Signs of “radicalization” that CVE identifies have included specific kinds of dress, increased religiosity, critiques of U.S. foreign policy, changes in mood, feelings of isolation and being the target of bullying. Such criteria are breathtakingly broad, and, as the above organizations found, none are actual measures of a move toward violence. Furthermore, the program presupposes that Muslim communities in the United States are hotbeds of “violent extremism.” This premise is dangerously Islamophobic.
The instructor of the course, Mehreen Farooq, and her involvement as vice president at the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), which conducted a CVE program in Montgomery County, Md., also raises concerns. In 2014, the Justice Department gave WORDE $500,000 to carry out a CVE program in Montgomery County. The program worked with mental health care professionals and social workers to talk to Muslim youth and community members through a counseling approach that shared information they found with law enforcement. Not only is this tactic dangerous for its disproportionate stigmatization of Muslim youth, but it stifles the free speech, religious expression and political efficacy of Muslim individuals and communities, making them afraid to express their constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and religion. Despite the Montgomery County executive rejecting CVE’s model in January 2018, the Montgomery County Model continues to be listed as a CVE model on the Department of Homeland Security website.
In order to bring these issues to the attention of the administration, I organized a meeting with the SFS Dean’s Office and other community leaders. Dean Daniel Byman heard our concerns, offered clarification on the nature of the class as an experimental course that was in response to interest from students on the CVE program and echoed our concerns that the CVE model is potentially problematic, particularly for the Muslim community. We asked Dean Byman to cancel the class — or, at the very least, add a second professor who understands the detriments of CVE’s framework.
A few weeks later, I received an email informing me that the class will continue as planned. Dean Byman did not explain why, despite the concerns we raised, the class was still being carried out. He did express that a class on the impact of counterterrorism on Muslim communities is in progress for the spring and that he was in conversation with professor Farooq to give her feedback on her syllabus based on his conversation with us. While this is a marginally positive step, it certainly does not justify the SFS’ insistence on teaching a course based in flawed theories.
Moreover, this course does not exist in a vacuum. SFS courses often teach counterterrorism models like CVE that operate under the pretense of national security to vilify and undermine the civil rights of Muslim communities. Georgetown must teach more about Islam as a religion and about Muslims as a diverse, complex group of people, not communities of potential radicalization.
The SFS has been my home for the last three years at Georgetown and always welcomed me as a Muslim student. However, it is in these details and policies that institutional Islamophobia exists. We cannot forget that Stephen Bannon graduated from the school’s master’s in security studies program and Frank Gaffney and Kirstjen Nielsen from the undergraduate program. If the School of Foreign Service truly wants to be supportive of the Muslim community, especially in this critical political moment, it must cancel this class and drop support for the Islamophobic CVE model as a viable solution.
Aly Panjwani is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.