What is “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE)?

“Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) is a campaign driven by national security, intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies that purports to steer people off pathways to “radicalization” or “extremism.”  However, CVE is not supported by sound evidence and is instead rooted in discredited theories that “radical” beliefs may predict propensity to commit politically-motivated violence.  In practice, it has operated to falsely legitimize discrimination against Muslims and dissidents.  CVE programs often recruit non-law enforcement professionals — including health professionals, teachers, imams and others — to engage in soft surveillance, reporting others as “extremists” or “vulnerable to extremism” and referring or subjecting them to “interventions” to change their political and/or religious views.

The White House defines “violent extremists” as “individuals who support or commit ideologically motivated violence to further political goals.”  CVE approaches — and the concept of “violent extremism” as opposed to “violence” — blur the line between actions and beliefs and may deem people with “radical” political views, who have neither committed nor made plans to commit violence, as more likely to commit violence.  CVE thus marginalizes views some governments find politically threatening, chilling their expression and restricting public debate. While promoted as a national security strategy, CVE operates as a social engineering campaign and has encouraged the viewing of certain political dissent or orthodox Islamic practices as pre-criminal (rather than non-criminal).

CVE campaigns, by placing outsized focus on individuals’ presumed “radicalization” as the root cause of political violence, tend to de-emphasize the role of state-sanctioned violence in perpetuating patterns of violent conflict.  In this way, CVE discourages conversations about the broader context of political violence and may obstruct or delay conflict resolution.

A component of many CVE campaigns is the extension of “soft surveillance” into non-profit institutions, mosques, and health, education and social services sectors.  CVE encourages institutions and trusted education and health professionals — often through financial incentives — to (1) assess congregants, patients, students and clients for supposed “vulnerabilities” to “violent extremism” and (2) refer individuals for, or subject them directly to, deprogramming (“interventions”).  CVE often directs communities to watch for indicators that are extremely common, such as “children…becoming confrontational,” providing an invitation to profile using implicit biases.

CVE has inflicted serious harms on Muslim communities — who are CVE’s clear target to-date, though other “suspect communities” and “radical” activists could easily face CVE targeting in future — as well as freedoms of speech, association, worship and privacy. In Massachusettsdeployment of CVE programs has divided communities and bred mistrust and fear.

The Muslim Justice League opposes CVE programs because we believe they will harm our communities. CVE’s underlying theories about the predictability of political violence, and the relationship of political violence to ideology, have been shown false by sound empirical research.  Because the basic assumptions driving the CVE approach are fundamentally flawed, MJL believes these programs cannot be sufficiently reformed to be productive or even benign.  Moreover, MJL opposes CVE programs because they:

  • Foment suspicion and fragment Muslim communities into “Good Muslims” and “Bad Muslims,”
  • Interfere with marginalized communities’ access to health care and education, by worsening bullying of Muslim students and eroding confidentiality in health services,
  • Endanger rights that are essential in free societies — including the rights to share and receive information, dissent, and worship as one chooses, and
  • May undermine attempts to hold states accountable for human rights abuses and counterproductive violence.


CVE in Greater Boston

In 2014, the White House announced that Boston would be the site of a CVE pilot program.  Los Angeles and Minneapolis were also designated pilot cities.  In 2015, federal CVE initiatives were expanded to additional cities through the Strong Cities Network — which includes Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver and New York City. In addition to funds made available through the Boston CVE pilot program, in January, 2017, a federal CVE grant through the Department of Homeland Security was awarded for policing in Boston.

Since the announcement that federal agencies were launching a CVE pilot in Boston, MJL has worked to educate our Massachusetts communities, press, state and local agencies and education and health professionals about CVE, and has continually raised our concerns with the agencies promoting CVE campaigns.  See MJL’s summary of concerns about CVE impacts on communities.

MJL and a coalition of Massachusetts advocacy groups submitted a letter expressing our concerns to federal agencies shortly before the White House convened  international CVE summit in February, 2015.  In response to federal CVE legislation sponsored by Representative McCaul (TX), we joined a national coalition letter opposing this dangerous legislation.

In 2016, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) granted CVE funds through what was called the “PEACE [Promoting Engagement, Acceptance and Community Empowerment] Project” to three Boston area non-profit organizations. On April 6, 2017, due to ongoing concerns about the CVE campaign, and following announcements that the Trump campaign plans to use CVE to focus solely on “Islamic extremism,” 39 organizations including MJL sent a letter to the Boston PEACE Project grantees urging them to decline these CVE funds.  MJL has also obtained public records from the Boston Police Department regarding a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded CVE program focused on “Developing Resilience to Violent Extremism in the Boston Somali Community” in which the Police Foundation, Boston Police Department, and two Massachusetts non-profits, the North American Family Institute, and the Somali Community and Cultural Association, are partnering.  Those public records are available here.


Commentary and Press on CVE from Boston

The Bay State Banner, Rights Groups Take Aim at Anti-terror Program.

The Boston Globe, Civil Rights Groups Protest Federal Program to Combat Extremism, Saying it Targets Muslims.

Associated Press, Boston Shooting Raises Questions About Anti-Extremism Plans.

Carol Rose (ACLU of Massachusetts) and Shannon Erwin (Muslim Justice League), Is Your Child’s Bad Attitude a Predictor of Terrorism? A New Federal Pilot Program in Boston Wants to Know.

Michael German (Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law), Stigmatizing Boston’s Muslim Community is No Way to Earn Trust.

Shannon Erwin (Muslim Justice League), FBI Uses Teachers as “Soft Surveillance.”


Further Resources on CVE

American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Countering Violent Extremism: A Flawed Approach to Law Enforcement.

Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, Countering Violent Extremism.

Countering Violent Extremism: A Briefing convened by Brennan Center for Justice and Campaign for Liberty: Panel One (on research related to CVE) Panel Two (on community impacts)

CAGE (UK), Prevent.

Institute of Race Relations (UK), Spooked: How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism.

Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum, Resources: Surveillance of Communities and Movements. 

National Union of Students (UK), Why I Won’t Be Working With Prevent (And How You Can Avoid It, Too.).