Community-led approaches to countering violent extremism in the United States

Editor’s Note: As part of this year’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum, many of our participants are writing posts on Markaz to share their thoughts on one of the diverse topics discussed at the Forum. We hope you will join us by watching live webcasts from Doha, Qatar, on June 1-3, 2015, or following the conversation on Twitter with #USIslam15.

In recent months, there have been several high-profile arrests of American Muslims seeking to engage in violent action in support of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Some arrests have been controversial—many individuals appeared to have mental disorders and may have been coaxed into criminal activity through the use of paid informants in sting operations.

These arrests raise two questions. First, how serious of a threat were these individuals? Second, given the questionable mental state and young age of several suspects, is it possible to have violence prevention alternatives to surveillance and arrest?

With growing support from federal and local law enforcement agencies, American Muslims are working to broaden their public safety partnerships to include community-led violence prevention and intervention programs. This shift in attitudes is largely due to federal agencies recognizing that they can neither go it alone without community support, nor “arrest their way out” of this challenge. It is also based on communities’ growing recognition of how dangerous ISIS and al-Qaida propaganda can be to Muslim youth and converts to Islam.

One example of this new community-based approach is the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) Safe Spaces Initiative. MPAC’s strategy is to treat violent extremism as a public health matter, in a similar fashion to efforts to prevent other forms of targeted violence.

Safe Spaces is based on three pillars. First is prevention, or nipping the problem in the bud by building healthy communities. Multiple studies on radicalization point out that the process overwhelmingly occurs outside of the mosque, often online or in small groups at peoples’ homes, without the presence of some sort of authoritative mentor. Consistent in its faith-based perspective, Safe Spaces advocates making the mosque and other community institutions into centers of social and spiritual comfort where people can talk about issues that affect their daily lives, without fear of social stigma.

Second is intervention, which is akin to crisis counseling for specific troubled individuals. Bringing together a multidisciplinary group of experts in mental health, social services, religious affairs, and law, this team seeks to embody a “whole community” approach to addressing individuals at-risk of engaging in violence.

Should prevention or intervention efforts fail, Safe Spaces recommends notifying law enforcement. Importantly, calling the police is meant to be an option of last resort, only after other approaches have been ruled out.

Ultimately, the goals of Safe Spaces are to protect individual community members from the recruitment tactics of violent groups, safeguard the liberties of larger communities by providing powerful alternatives to surveillance and arrest, and continue to contribute to the safety and security of our nation by reducing the risk and threat of terrorist violence.

To help achieve these objectives, the 2015 U.S.-Islamic World Forum will convene international countering violent extremism (CVE) experts and practitioners from around the world to discuss how MPAC can fine-tune the Safe Spaces strategy. We hope to learn from their experiences in carrying out grassroots community-level interventions so we can successfully launch Safe Spaces pilot projects in multiple sites in the United States later this year.