In his speech at a mosque in Baltimore earlier this month, the president reiterated that if we are to succeed in defeating terrorism, communities and government must work in partnership: “I want you to know that from the president to the FBI director, to everybody in law enforcement, my directive and their understanding is that this is something we have to do together.  And if we don’t do it well, then we’re actually not making ourselves safer; we’re making ourselves less safe.”

Unfortunately, the main flaw of the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program was exactly that it was a government-led program and not a true partnership with non-governmental organizations. Communities can do a better job than government in preventing radicalization toward violent extremism; and violence prevention initiatives that arise from within communities are more impactful and effective. 

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In 2011, as part of its CVE strategy, the White House released a Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) titled, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.”  One of the objectives was to “enhance engagement with communities.” 

The SIP outlined the specific roles and responsibilities of the lead agencies and departments. The US Attorney’s Office was to take the federal lead on CVE-related community engagement, while other agencies, such as DHS, NCTC, FBI and DoJ, were to be responsible for implementation.

One of the stated goals in the SIP was to “work to increase support for local, community-led programs and initiatives to counter violent extremism by identifying opportunities for incorporating CVE as an eligible area of work for public safety, violence prevention and community resilience grants.”  The aims were to engage communities and build networks between public and private sector programs, to create intervention programs, and to focus on societal-level concerns impacting communities.

The reality today is that with all the emphasis on community partnerships and support for community-led initiatives, the community aspect is still missing from the final picture. The government-led CVE program has, thus far, been vague and has left communities believing that CVE is the government’s Trojan horse for wider surveillance and harassment of communities. 

For more than a decade, American Muslim communities have developed and led initiatives to keep our nation safe. The Muslim Public Affairs Council created a national program, the Safe Spaces Initiative, which directly aims at empowering communities in order to promote civic engagement, public safety and healthy identity formation. An important component of Safe Spaces is the bolstering of vibrant communities with access to resources, namely mental health support and counseling services.

Safe Spaces is about creating safe environments for people to engage in healthy dialogue, whether it’s about social, political or religious issues. The violent extremists who are our enemies seek to lure the disenfranchised into joining their online cult of hate by detaching the vulnerable from their families and their communities. Then the individual is enticed to build and belong to a new society in places like Iraq, Syria or Somalia.

Community-led initiatives like Safe Spaces are effective because they create a division of labor between the community, whose job it is to deal with social, political and religious issues, and government and law enforcement, whose roles are limited to addressing criminal behavior.

President Obama was right in saying that we cannot securitize the entire relationship between government and law enforcement and American Muslims.  In the end, successfully countering violent extremism will require building trust and mutual respect between law enforcement and communities.  It is imperative that we keep our communities strong and united,  and out of the shadow of suspicion from the very government agencies they should be partnering with.  American Muslims understand the responsibilities they bear.  It is time for government to understand its role in helping us in this critical effort.

Ricci is the c hairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California. Issa is the president of Café a la Fikr based in Charleston, West Virginia. Fakhoury is the president and CEO of Fakhoury Leadership International based in Ocala, Florida.