The Trump administration is planning to remove the scrutiny of white supremacist groups from a government program designed to counter all violent ideologies, focusing instead only on Islamist extremism.
First reported Wednesday by Reuters, which attributed the story to “five people briefed on the matter,” the idea has alarmed some anti-hate groups, as they consider the solo focus on extreme Muslim-inspired ideologies limiting and misguided.
The administration wants to change the name of the program, Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, to Countering Islamic Extremism or Countering Radical Islamic Extremism, the sources told Reuters. It would no longer target white supremacists like the ones who carried out such attacks as the 2014 shooting at a Kansas Jewish campus that claimed three lives and the 2105 shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine people were killed.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for not using the term “Islamic extremism” in the battle against terrorism, and called Obama’s fight against the Islamist State, or ISIS, “weak.”
The CVE program, which was launched under Obama, offers federal grants to nongovernmental organizations and institutions of higher education to carry out programs countering violent extremism, and partners with other government agencies to provide training and technical assistance to those involved in counter-extremism efforts.
On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security web page for the program still described its mission as countering “domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists in the United States, as well as international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL,” an alternative name for ISIS.
The program has been criticized as counterproductive by groups like the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which said that despite its broad mandate, the program risked stigmatizing Muslims, “facilitating covert intelligence-gathering, suppressing dissent against government policies and sowing discord in targeted communities.”
In 2015, the Jewish social justice group Bend the Arc and 17 religious and civil rights groups said the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that year was focused too narrowly on Islamist extremism. The criticism came prior to the summit.
Nevertheless, the Southern Policy Law Center, which tracks white supremacist activity, called the reports that the CVE would exclude scrutiny of white supremacist groups “dangerously misguided.” It asserted that singling out extremism within a particular religion would leave the impression that the United States is at war with Islam, a centerpiece of ISIS and al-Qaida ideology. It would also leave Americans more vulnerable to attacks by homegrown extremists, SPLC said.
“We can only surmise, given that Trump has repeatedly taken cues and talking points from anti-Muslim extremists and that his chief strategist is a champion of the white nationalist movement, that this is a politically motivated decision,” Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said in a statement referring to Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon. “The bottom line is that rather than making us safer, it increases the risk.”
The Trump administration did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.