US anti-extremism official resigns amid concerns over White House attitude towards Muslims
The departure of George Selim, who served under three presidents, was immediately welcomed by right-wing commentators who saw him as an holdover from former US president Barack Obama’s administration and accused him of funnelling government money to conservative Muslim groups in the United States
A senior US federal official who oversaw efforts to counter violent extremism has resigned amid continuing concerns about the Trump administration’s attitude towards terrorism and Muslims.
The departure of George Selim, who served under three presidents, was immediately welcomed by right-wing commentators who saw him as an holdover from former US president Barack Obama’s administration and accused him of funnelling government money to conservative Muslim groups in the United States.
However, others praised Mr Selim’s commitment to working with community organisations and warned his departure was a sign of a disconnect between Washington and Muslim Americans.
As such, his resignation illustrates the state of the debate over countering violent extremism (CVE) programmes, as American politicians grapple with the best way of preventing vulnerable people becoming radicalised.
“There were clearly political appointees in this administration who didn’t see the value of community partnerships with American Muslims,” Mr Selim told The Atlantic in his only public comments since details of his resignation surfaced.
For the past two years, he served as director of the Office of Community Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security. He was also head of the federal CVE Task Force.
His work came under intense scrutiny by the Trump administration and some congressional Republicans who wanted the programmes to focus on law enforcement rather than community outreach.
When Mr Trump took office, reports circulated that officials were planning to change the name of the programme to “countering Islamic extremism” to reverse what they saw as a policy mired in political correctness. As part of the reorganisation of the programme, it will no longer target white supremacist groups.
Then in May, the White House said it would reduce CVE’s US$50 million (Dh183.7m) budget to zero next year. It also froze $10m of grants that had already been announced for 31 organisations tackling extremism.
Several Muslim groups dropped out. And when the reassessed funding was announced, the majority of beneficiaries were police forces, sheriff’s offices and other groups with a law enforcement element.
That appeared to reflect the thinking of hard-line figures in the administration such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, whose uncompromising views have seen him labelled Islamophobic by critics and made him an outlier among terrorism researchers becoming deputy assistant to the president.
In March, he told NPR that previous efforts to prevent radicalisation were misguided, dismissing the programmes as “jobs for jihadis”.
“If poverty and lack of education were the cause of terrorism then half of India would be terrorists,” is how he put it.
Professionals working in the field admit there are deep divisions about how best to thwart extremist recruiters. Some Muslim campaigners also believe that CVE programmes are used for surveillance.
Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert who is part of a team at Harvard’s School of Public Health investigating the impact of such interventions, pointed out that since 9/11 almost three-quarters of deadly attacks have been carried out by white supremacists, anti-government, and neo-Nazi groups, although jihadi groups have killed more victims.
She added: “According to research by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and ICCT in The Hague, around one third of American recruits to jihadi groups are converts — we’re not going to get to those kids if our CVE policies target Muslim communities.”
Farah Pandith, who served as the first special representative to Muslim communities and is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said hard power alone was not enough. Defeating extremist groups meant thwarting their recruiting efforts by taking them on in a war of ideas.
“The form that we take with our strategy to defeat groups like Isis and other extremist groups — whether they be neo-Nazi or al-Qaeda or Boko Haram — we must build a strategy of not just law enforcement and hard power, but we must work diligently to ensure we have a robust and complete strategy around the ideologies that are seeping into our communities and our country and around the world,” she said.
In a statement, Elaine Duke, acting Homeland Security, paid tribute to the work of Mr Selim.
“His experienced and steady hand was important as he played a key role in advising me and senior DHS leaders,” she said. “The Department could not function effectively without the selfless service of career leaders like George Selim.”
Updated: August 2, 2017 10:44 PM