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The problem with labeling violence “domestic terrorism”

Credit: Anne Meador (cool_revolution) via Flickr Creative Commons

In working to stop white supremacist violence, we must not reinforce policies that criminalize Muslims and Black and brown people.

In the wake of the massacre in El Paso and other acts of racist violence, many well-meaning people have asked why white supremacist violence isn’t considered “domestic terrorism.” The question points out the double standard that has been applied by the media and the disproportionate amount of federal dollars spent on stopping “foreign terrorists” – while white supremacist violence has largely been allowed to flourish and even encouraged by the rhetoric of the Trump administration.

But there are serious problems with a label like “domestic terrorism,” which is part of the “war on terror” framework launched after 9/11 that has had damaging consequences for Muslims and Arabs. This framework is used as an excuse to surveil and entrap within the United States, and, outside the U.S., justifies detention without trial, torture, denial of due process, disappearances, and assassination. As an ally who works with Muslim and Arab communities, I’ve learned that those targeted by the government and often seen by the general public as “terrorists” have different views of this whole discussion.

If you think white supremacist violence should be regarded as “domestic terrorism,” here are a few things to consider:

1. You may be unintentionally reinforcing the dominant, harmful narrative on terrorism.

Although your intention may be to help shift how people think about white supremacist violence, you are ultimately tying these acts to negative stereotypes that target Muslim communities.

As Maha Hilal, co-director of Justice for Muslims Collective, points out, “When politicians and the media call on us to take white violence as seriously as violence perpetrated by Muslims, they actually reinforce the trope of Muslims as terrorists, injecting Muslims into a discussion that should have nothing to do with them.”

2. You may be adding fuel to the calls for expanded FBI power.

Some people argue that because there is no domestic terrorism statute, the FBI is somehow unable to stop these acts of violence. However, an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice has found that the FBI has all the powers they need to fight white supremacy – the agency just chooses to focus elsewhere.

One proposal being floated calls for a designated “Domestic Terror Organization” list, which would expose any donors to those groups to charges of material support for terrorism. It may sound reasonable to some, but many of us aren’t aware the designated “Foreign Terror Organization” list has had devastating consequences for Muslim individuals and organizations who participate in protected speech, resulting in ruined lives and wrongful convictions. In fact, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the FBI has a long history of infiltrating and targeting those working for social justice such as civil rights leaders, CISPES, Black Lives Matter, and even AFSC.

3. You may be helping to legitimize surveillance of Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, people of color, and activists.

Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has called for $1 billion to go toward Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, which were partially defunded under the Trump administration. However, these controversial programs have been found to target and criminalize Muslim and other communities, using faulty social science and recruiting trusted community members – including teachers and mental health professionals – as informants to identify those “vulnerable to radicalization.”

Expanding a bad program to include white supremacists will only give cover to continued targeting of marginalized communities. Says Hatem Abudayyeh from Chicago’s Arab American Action Network, “If more funding goes to the feds, that expansion of the state is going to go after us. It's going to come down on our communities — Arab, Muslim, Latinx, Black, Native — all the social justice organizers around the country who come under attack by law enforcement because we're resisting Trump's policies and trying to build a better world.”

White supremacism is real and violent, and it is understandable to want to find solutions that protect our communities right now. But ultimately, calls for more law enforcement in this moment only normalize the racist and militarist culture, policies, and practices that have led us to this moment.

Law enforcement solutions often put the communities that are targeted by white supremacy at more risk, and we must remember that white supremacism is sometimes tied to law enforcement and the military.

There is no quick fix to suggest as an alternative, but as allies we can:

About the Author

Mary Zerkel is coordinator of AFSC's Communities Against Islamophobia Project and has worked at AFSC for over 20 years. In addition, Mary is co-founder of the art collective Lucky Pierre, which works on political and social issues in a variety of forms. 

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