THE MAGAZINE

Building a Tenuous Trust

By Matthew Harwood

Radicalization experts and Muslim-American leaders who work on fighting jihadism within their communities welcome a White House strategy promising more federal support and partnerships on countering violent extremism (CVE). If the partnerships are to succeed, they say, federal partners must build real trust within the community, remain in the background, and not oversecuritize those relationships.

Last year, the White House released its national strategy and implementation plan for “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” While the strategy seeks to fight all violent extremist ideologies, it’s particularly focused on al Qaeda-inspired jihadism and, thus, local Muslim communities within the United States.

“Protecting American communities from al-Qa’ida’s hateful ideology is not the work of government alone,” President Barack Obama wrote in an introductory letter accompanying the strategy. “Communities—especially Muslim American communities whose children, families and neighbors are being targeted for recruitment by al-Qa’ida—are often best positioned to take the lead because they know their communities best.”

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of community outreach for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, says that the strategy’s focus on supporting local leaders, communities, and parents is correct in theory, but he has not always been happy with how it plays out in practice. “The FBI comes to me after the fact and tells me what’s going on, rather than making me a partner in interdicting individuals who are going the wrong way,” he explains.

Abdul-Malik says that one of the most helpful things the federal government could do is share the warning signs of radicalization with Muslim leaders so that they can educate the community to identify these young men going down “a slippery slope” and “walk them away from the ledge” before it’s too late. “That would be some useful information to lay out to the leadership within an ordinary community [behind a] closed door,” he says.

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