NYC joins global network of cities to 'counter violent extremism'

Civil rights groups and Muslim organizations fear move could lead to law enforcement abuses

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at the United Nations on Tuesday that his city will join an international coalition of municipalities that share information and best practices in order to counter violent extremism.

Civil rights advocates and Muslim organizations in the United States, however, worry the move to join the Strong Cities Network (SCN) could lead to abuses by law enforcement, especially against the Muslim community

Twenty-one organizations sent the mayor’s office a letter on Sept. 21 urging de Blasio to meet with them to discuss the program, Politico reported.

The letter said that previous initiatives in other cities have stigmatized “Muslim communities as suspicious and in need of special monitoring,” and have transformed “the relationship between Muslims and schools and social service providers into security-based engagements.”

SCN is the brainchild of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank that says the network of cities will "facilitate systematic sharing of knowledge, expertise and lessons learned on building social cohesion and community resilience to prevent violent extremism … through both regional workshops and international conferences."

The effort has the endorsement of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who on Monday called the Strong Cities Network a “vital tool.”

In signing up for the program New York joins almost two dozen other cities, including London, Paris, Mumbai, Denver, Minneapolis and Oslo. The U.S. State Department will provide money through 2016 to develop the network. After that, charities will take over funding of the program, ISD said.

ISD policy and research head Jonathan Birdwell told Al Jazeera the network will be sensitive to the concerns of Muslim communities and won’t neglect the dangers of right-wing groups. Since the network is launching now, he asks civil rights groups to give it a chance.

But rights organizations told de Blasio that “the reality is that CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) is targeted overwhelmingly at Muslims. … Indeed, we are not aware of a single CVE outreach program in the U.S. that is aimed at any other community.”

The mayor’s office told Politico that de Blasio only decided to join the information-sharing initiative Tuesday, and that he understands the groups’ fears. The mayor’s office had not responded to a request for further comment at the time of publication.

Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, said the NYPD has established criteria for radicalization that make expressions of faith grounds for suspicion. She pointed to a New York City Police Department document called “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” which says that “giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes; Wearing traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard; Becoming involved in social activism and community issues” are all indicators that someone is developing a violent interpretation of Islam. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.

De Blasio “shares the same ideology of the last administration, where violent extremism and terrorism is only associated with Muslims. You are no different than [Ray] Kelly [the former NYPD police commissioner]. If you are going to run a Countering Violent Extremism program, you can’t tell me you’re different,” Sarsour told Al Jazeera.

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