Tariq Ramadan’s boycott of one of the largest Muslim gatherings in the United States last year brought up many important not least among them being the role of protest in Muslim American discourse. Perhaps partly because a prominent (male) leader challenged attempts to silence speakers into political quietism, this year’s ISNA convention featured a notably more politicized program. ISNA, the largest Muslim umbrella organization in the United States, holds the convention annually, bringing spiritual, religious, activist, and political leaders from around the world to speak and hold workshops with thousands of attendees.
Organizations like the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative hosted talks on the Muslim identity formation – “Does critiquing issues of injustice in the United States make a Muslim less American?” and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank directed by former Presidential advisor Dalia Mogahed, hosted a debate on the State Department’s controversial Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program.
Despite this uptick in politically conscious programming, the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, Dr. Maha Hilal, does not think the level of discourse is at where it needs to be. Almost as if to demonstrate this fact, she led a group of activists in silent demonstration to protest Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s speech and the State Department’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program during a plenary session of the ISNA convention last week.
I sat down with Dr. Hilal to talk about their demonstration, the CVE program and the role of protest more broadly in Muslim American discourse:
Dr. [Tariq] Ramadan protested the ISNA convention last year because they were calling him to political quietism. What role should protest play within these types of gatherings, within the Muslim community or in American society at large?
There has to be protest. Even with the changes [this year], there has to be a mainstreaming of social justice issues before many Muslim organizations will even approach certain topics. This displays that many organizations are out of touch with affected communities – Muslims that are targeted by programs like the CVE program. For example, we’re finally having debates around CVE but 15 years after 9/11. The fact that you can invite Jeh Johnson to a Muslim convention and there is no uproar is very troubling.
That’s a very good point. Tell me about the CVE program. What is it? Why is it so problematic?
The CVE program is packaged as an outreach effort to connect to the Muslim community and help root out terror threats. In reality CVE seeks the securitization of the Muslim community by employing Islamophobic assumptions – treating us as a means rather than an end. It is Islamophobic because it assumes that Muslims are pre-disposed to violence and so they need to be monitored and tracked. The program is directed almost exclusively towards Muslim communities despite the fact that they are only responsible for a small percentage of terrorist attacks in the US.
What is an alternative narrative to the CVE narrative?
Well first of all a counter narrative cannot simply be a negation of a dominant narrative. It’s not enough to say ‘Well the dominant narrative claims Muslims are predisposed to terrorism, and so the counter narrative is that Muslims are not’. A true counter narrative allows Muslims to create their own identity through their own histories and experiences and not through the lens of terrorism.
So how does last night’s demonstration fit into all this?
Our goal was to question the rationale of having a government official from the Department of Homeland Security at a Muslim conference. First, we wanted to bring attention to Johnson that there is dissent within the Muslim community towards the government’s counter-terrorism policies, and second, to bring attention to a mostly affluent Muslim community that was in attendance that the broader community has suffered greatly under these policies. We wanted people to know that these are not just abstract policies that we disagree with, but that they affect real concrete people within our community.
How did you gauge attendees’ responses to the demonstration?
ISNA didn’t reprimand us at all- no ISNA officials approached us- but this of course could have been deliberate- another way of silencing us. Most of the audience members looked on, but some individuals approached us and reprimanded us. Some told us we had a good cause but that this was not the best way, that our demonstration was disrespectful, or that they were annoyed that we were blocking their view. In general, many Muslims seem to want to distance themselves from the targets of post 9/11 policies either out of genuine fear and/or internalized Islamophobia.
How do you gauge the Muslim communities understanding of the CVE narrative?
The larger Muslim community is largely unaware- with the exception of specific communities that have been hit hardest by these policies like Minneapolis and Boston. In general, there is a slight awareness that Muslims are being targeted- for example at TSAs at airports, but not much awareness regarding particular policies [like CVE]. There is also a large degree of internalized Islamophobia- many continue to believe that if there is targeting of Muslims then it must be justified- a certain degree of Muslim guilt.
You’ve executed a successful demonstration and helped sparked conversation about it- it was even covered briefly in the New York Times. What are next steps?
We will continue to push back against CVE policies. This has become more difficult, especially with the introduction of CVE grants that many smaller Muslim organizations in need of funding find hard to turn down. Thus, our work will also focus on the role of accepting grant money in the perpetuation of the myth of disproportionate acts of terrorism stemming from the Muslim community. We will also continue to track communities where CVE programs are implemented, like Minneapolis for example, and to document the impacts this has had on the local community.
If you would like to learn more about CVE and Tariq’s work with the National Coalition to protect civil freedoms, you can visit www.civilfreedoms.org
This article was written by Zakarya Mitiche