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Trump Reportedly Plans To Refocus Violent Extremism Initiative On Muslims

In his campaign, Trump criticized President Obama for his reluctance to use the words "radical Islamic extremism." The Trump administration may now want to refocus key programs on Muslim extremists.
Kamran Jebreili

During his campaign, Donald Trump criticized President Obama for his reluctance to use the words "radical Islamic extremism."

One of Obama's key anti-terrorism programs was just called "Countering Violent Extremism," with no reference to Islam. The Trump administration may now want to refocus that program exclusively on Muslim extremists.

The Obama program made no reference to Islam largely because it didn't want to suggest that terrorism, even by Muslim extremists, had its roots in religion.

Salam al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, took some credit for that Friday when talking about the terminology via Facebook Live.

"MPAC has been involved from the Bush administration years to say we cannot single out religion when we're talking about terrorism," Marayati says. "We cannot use religious labels when talking about terrorism."

The question now is whether the Trump administration will watch its words diligently. White House spokesman Sean Spicer was asked last week about reports that the countering violent extremism program will now be called countering Islamic extremism. He did not refute them.

"I don't think it should be any surprise that the president, when it comes to rooting out radical Islamic terrorism, which is what that initially was supposed to be focused on, he is going to make sure that that is a major focus of his — keeping this country safe," Spicer said.

The debate over whether to associate terrorism with Islam strikes author Graeme Wood as somewhat odd.

In his book The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State, Wood argues that ISIS is in fact a movement rooted in Islam and that it should be so recognized. On the other hand, he thinks the Trump administration's insistence on using the term radical Islamic extremism makes little sense.

"What we see now is a complete reversal from a strange and pointless refusal to describe ISIS in religious terms at all now giving way to an equally strange and pointless belief that by calling the problem radical Islamic extremism, that will have any effect on the problem itself," Wood says.

Except perhaps, Wood says, to make the problem harder to deal with.

"I think a lot of Muslims who were at least willing to work with the United States on some of these issues in a soft nonmilitary way will see this as yet another example of the Trump administration intentionally alienating them, that is, looking for ways to single out Muslims as uniquely threatening," he says.

For example, when the White House this week distributed a list of terrorist incidents, it included only those in which Muslims were involved, with no mention of white supremacist attacks.

The Obama administration's countering violent extremism program distributed money to mosques and other organizations that worked with Muslims. One goal was to support efforts with troubled youth who might potentially have been attracted by extremism.

Marayati says that kind of collaboration with the federal government may now be in danger.

"Some civil rights groups have said, 'We should not take the money,' and we're listening to them, but I assure you, other people — and it's about 50-50 — are saying, 'No, these are our tax dollars, and you should use it to help the community,' " Marayati says.

Marayati's group has taken federal government money, and he says it is now considering whether it should continue to do so if the Trump administration singles out Muslims and Islam in the way it is reportedly considering.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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