What's in a name? Governments recast anti-extremism efforts
Charles Krupa/AP File Photo
Mahdi Ahmed Ali, vice president of the Somali Council of New England, listens to a video presented to Muslim, Christian, minority and government leaders, as part of the "Countering Violent Extremism" program, during a gathering at Roxbury Community College in Boston in 2015. The U.S. government is toning down efforts to prevent violent extremism from taking root.
BOSTON — Government efforts to prevent violent extremism from taking root in the U.S. are getting new, less polarizing names.
Massachusetts this month recast its controversial Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, program in Boston as Promoting Engagement, Acceptance and Community Empowerment, or PEACE.
The move comes after Minneapolis — another city where such efforts are underway — rebranded its program last year as Building Community Resilience. The Department of Homeland Security also created the Office of Community Partnerships to advance CVE efforts.
Pilot programs in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles were launched to fanfare by President Barack Obama in 2014 as a modest part of his administration's broader strategy to combat extremist thinking before it results in violence.
George Selim, who heads the Office for Community Partnerships and an interagency CVE task force, said that the federal government isn't shying away from the CVE moniker and that he's fine with local efforts adopting names they feel best reflect their intentions.
"I don't think that waters down the CVE mission because, at the end of the day, CVE is largely a Beltway Washington term," he said. "What Boston is doing is a good progression of what they set out to do a couple of years ago."
Experts say the name changes are in part recognition that CVE and other similarly named programs in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have generated strong opposition among some civil rights activists who feel they unfairly target Muslims.
"The term CVE has become a distraction, a catch-all phrase that is defined by both sides of the debate as either the cause of or solution to all society's problems," said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
The changes also show how counter-radicalization efforts in the U.S. are gradually evolving from a criminal justice question to one focused on public health, said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council.
"The name change reflects a significant shift in the policy from a 'rooting out radicals in communities' frame to an 'empowering communities' frame," he said. "Government has heard our concerns. Non-law enforcement agencies are taking the lead. It's about civic engagement, honest conversations in communities and providing mental health support where needed."
But other Muslim activists worry the programs — whatever their names — are still too focused on Islamic extremists.
Shannon Erwin, director of the Boston-based Muslim Justice League, said the programs will still lead to profiling, monitoring and intelligence gathering of Muslims. The PEACE moniker, she said, only obscures how controversial the program is.
Michelle Hillman, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office for Health and Human Services, which is overseeing Boston's PEACE project, declined to respond to Erwin's comments or say how the agency came up with the new moniker.
But the program's intent to address violent extremism as a public health issue hasn't changed, she said.
PEACE's central aim is to "prevent people from joining organizations that promote, plan or engage" in violent extremism, according to a request this month for project proposals
Boston, like the other two pilot cities, was given about $220,000 in federal money to help kick-start local CVE-related efforts. Proposals for using the money are due mid-September.
In Los Angeles, where the mayor's office is leading efforts, grant money also has not yet been distributed, Al-Marayati said.
Minneapolis, which remains focused on addressing terrorist recruitment among its sizeable Somali community, awarded portions of its money to six community groups this year.
The federal Office for Community Partnerships, meanwhile, announced last month it was making available another $10 million to support up to 60 different initiatives across the country.
It is calling that effort the Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program.