President Obama argued Wednesday that America must “discredit violent ideologies” if it wants to counter recruiting efforts by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda here at home.
The president, in his keynote speech at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, aimed to strike a balance between addressing the risk of the radicalization of disaffected youths and the need to reassure Muslim Americans that their communities are not being targeted as a source of terrorist plots.
Critics of the president have questioned in recent days why the White House was not using the term “radical Islam” to describe the target of its counterterrorism efforts. Obama emphasized that “there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist. . . . It’s not unique to one group or to one geography or one period of time.”
“But we are here at this summit because of the urgent threat from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL,” he said, using a term to refer to the Islamic State. “And this week, we are focused on prevention, preventing these groups from radicalizing, recruiting or inspiring others to violence in the first place.”
A group of community leaders, law enforcement officials, philanthropists and representatives from the private sector gathered at the White House on Wednesday to discuss whether three pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul could serve as national models for averting radicalism among Muslim youths.
“Every community touched by violence faces the same questions, whether it’s Boston or Paris, Baghdad or Peshawar: How can we prevent people from embracing hateful ideologies before they turn to violence?” asked Lisa Monaco, adviser to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, just before introducing Obama. “This summit is a place where we’re looking to find answers to those questions and to develop action plans that hold all of us accountable as we move forward.”
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said in an interview that he and other leaders in Los Angeles are pursuing a strategy of “prevention, intervention and then ejection” in which civic leaders try to reach youths before calling in law enforcement as a last resort.
“There’s a division of labor,” he said, adding that moderate Muslims need to elevate their profile to counter the message of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. “Our goal is to take back Islam and expose” the extremists’ “moral bankruptcy and religious exploitation.”
Obama spoke repeatedly about the “need to be honest” about extremists and the diversity within the Muslim community, noting that many Muslim Americans have grown weary of hearing from federal officials on the issue of terrorism.
“Engagement with communities can’t be a cover for surveillance. It can’t securitize our relationship with Muslim Americans, dealing with them solely through the prism of law enforcement,” he said as the audience applauded in response.
The president outlined a multi-pronged approach to countering the pull of terrorist groups, which included not just highlighting the perspectives of moderate Muslims, but also addressing the economic and political grievances disaffected youths may have. It also includes bolstering the resources of local communities so that they can compete with the savvy social media campaigns the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are waging.
“And, by the way, the older people here, as wise and respected as you may be — your stuff is often boring,” he said, prompting laughter, “compared to what they’re doing. You’re not — you’re not connected. And as a consequence, you are not connecting.”
Several online initiatives are being launched in concert with the summit, including a digital communications hub that the United States and the United Arab Emirates are establishing to push back against the Islamic State’s propaganda and recruitment efforts, a “peer-to-peer challenge” that the State Department is unveiling so that university students across the globe can develop digital content to counter violent extremist messaging. The United States also is joining with social media firms to organize several “technology camps” in the coming months to highlight alternatives to radicalism and challenge terrorist groups.
The administration also has established a couple of new positions aimed at stemming radicalism in the United States, including the first full-time coordinator for countering violent extremism at the Department of Homeland Security and a special envoy for strategic counterterrorism communications at the State Department.
Even as the country wages this fight, Obama concluded that Americans should not lose sight of the fact that Muslims are an integral part of U.S. society. He recalled how he recently received a Valentine’s Day card from an 11-year-old named Sabrina who wrote to him,“I am worried about people hating Muslims. If some Muslims do bad things, that doesn’t mean all of them do.”
“And she asked, ‘Please tell everyone that we are good people and we’re just like everyone else,’ ” Obama said. “That is how we discredit violent ideologies, by making sure her voice is lifted up, by making sure she is nurtured, making sure that she is supported.”