Department of Homeland Security staffers have spent a decade convincing community organizations and non-profits that their effort to “counter violent extremism” was an opportunity to help, and not a covert program to spy on Muslims. Three weeks into the Trump administration, some worry it was all a waste.
Four community organizations have declined $2 million in funding over concerns that a “countering violent extremism,” or CVE, program under Trump would unfairly put Muslim communities under surveillance. Other groups are unsure if they will follow suit. A third set—primarily focused on deradicalizing white nationalists and other domestic extremists—is unsure whether they will ever see any of the promised funds. After all, the Trump administration is expected to change the name and focus of the effort to concentrate solely on Islamic extremism.
Meanwhile, the tight-knit group of DHS staffers is “anxious and worried” about Trump’s rhetoric on Islam and CVE, a former homeland security official who worked on counter-radicalization programs told The Daily Beast. They spent years cultivating relationships with community partners, but inflammatory language from the Trump administration may all but torpedo ties with those best equipped to carry out the effort.
CVE expansion under the last administration culminated in a $10 million grant program for community organizations, local governments, and local law enforcement agencies. Thirty-one grantees—many of whom had long-standing relationships with DHS—were announced in January, days before Trump took office. But four grantees have already turned down the funds amid Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
DHS staffers have been trying to dissociate CVE from a compulsive focus on Islam since the George W. Bush administration, the ex-official said.
“One, you didn’t want to play into the [jihadist] narrative… that the West is at war with Islam and you as a Muslim are targeted,” he said. “And then number two, looking at that violent extremism is carried out in all forms, and now in this country. Unfortunately, we’re seeing violent white supremacists, violent sovereign citizens, violent neo-nazis, and even violent anti-fascists” all threatening acts of political mayhem.
But Trump’s administration is stocked with people like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who play into the clash-of-civilizations narrative. Bannon, who now sits on the principals committee of the National Security Council, once even outlined a movie that warned of an Islamic takeover of the United States. And Gorka, now an adviser focusing on national security, wrote for Bannon’s far-right Breitbart News and declared that ISIS was using refugees to funnel jihad into America.
And organizations devoted to the communities they serve don’t want to damage that relationship by accepting money tainted with bias or suggestions of surveillance. But now, those who went out on a limb to trust DHS and apply for a grant might get burned, the former DHS official said.
The grants and grantees are currently under review in Secretary John Kelly’s office, according to the former official. Whether they’ll be disbursed or returned to the drawing board remains unclear.
The Department of Homeland Security did not return a request for comment.
The first to pull out of the DHS program was a Dearborn, Michigan-based non-profit called Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities. It was granted $500,000 to run youth development programs. The executive board voted to pull out early—the day before Trump announced his controversial executive order. And they have no regrets.
“We’re very thankful for the decision that we made,” Suehaila Amen, an executive board member for LAHC, told The Daily Beast. “What matters first and foremost to our organization are the communities that we serve.”
The Virginia-based Unity Productions Foundation told donors it was turning down $396,585 “due to the changes brought by the new administration.” Its director of programs, Daniel Tutt, declined to comment further to The Daily Beast.
Ka Joog, an non-profit that works with Somali-American youth in Minneapolis, turned down another half-million-dollar grant after Somalia appeared as one of the seven countries restricted by the executive order.
“I know it’s a lot of money but it all comes down to principle. They are promoting a cancerous ideology that is promoting divisions and we don’t want to be a part of that,” director Mohamed Farah told a local TV station.
And most recently, an Islamic graduate program at Claremont Graduate University turned down $800,000, a sum that’s more than half of its annual budget.
“[It’s] a heck of a lot of money, (but) our mission and our vision is to serve the community and to bring our community to a position of excellence,” Bayan Claremont president Jihad Turk said. “And if we’re compromised, even if only by perception in terms of our standing in the community, we ultimately can’t achieve that goal.”
Other organizations skeptical of the Trump administration’s approach told The Daily Beast that while they haven’t yet turned down the grant, they’re not certain if the promised money will even materialize.
“We have not received any funds,” Salam Al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told The Daily Beast. “We have not even received any direct communication on those funds.”
Al-Marayati said MPAC is awaiting an official change in the administration’s policy to decide what to do. But the purpose of their grant, nearly $400,000, was to create state-level teams of social workers, mental health professionals, and religious leaders to create a safe, non-law enforcement space.
“We cherish the program, we don’t want it to be tainted by the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Trump administration,” Al-Marayati said. “And that’s why we’re keeping all options open—legal, political, and legislative.”
Tony McAleer, Executive Director of Life After Hate, a grantee that focuses on white nationalist and far right movements, worries more about whether his group will actually see any of the $400,000 they’ve been awarded for facilitating interventions through social media.
If the Trump administration decides to reserve funding exclusively for groups concentrated on Islam, they may never see a penny of it, McAleer told The Daily Beast from a CVE conference in Berlin. He rattled off a list of violent far right supremacists—Dylann Roof, the man who carried out the Oak Creek massacre, and the recent mosque shooting in Canada—to illustrate the need for interventions in that sphere.
“The overarching guiding principle that we use when we look at this is, does this help or hinder us working with the people that we’re trying to serve? And it’s easy for me to see that for some groups taking the grant would actually hinder their ability to serve,” McAleer said. “Dealing with the far right side, I don’t think taking the grant would have that much of a difference.”
Long-time skeptics of counter-radicalization efforts, on the other hand, are saying the new developments are no surprise.
“This was clearly to be expected once the Trump administration suggested that it was going to switch from targeting extremism of all types […] to exclusively targeting Islam and Muslims,” Council on American Islamic Relations spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told The Daily Beast. “It was quite a natural development to reject what could perceived as a single minded attack on Islam and Muslims.”
The organization has been a vocal opponent of all types of CVE programing, even under the Obama administration, and is a frequent target for critics of Islam on the far right.
“Even the previous program, it was kind of a wink and a nod, we’ll throw in a few white separatists,” Hooper said. “But now the veil has been torn off this facade.”