Protecting Rights as a Counterterrorism Tool: The Case of American Muslims

7 Pages Posted: 11 Sep 2012

See all articles by Sahar F. Aziz

Sahar F. Aziz

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - Rutgers Law School

Date Written: September 10, 2012


Developing effective strategies to counter violent extremism (CVE) has proven to be elusive. Despite the plethora of conferences, reports, and expenditures, governments continue to struggle to find the right formula to decrease politically motivated violence. Because the underlying causes of violent extremism are complex and country specific: no one size fits all solution. Each nation must consider its unique economic, political, and social circumstances when seeking to protect its citizens from violence perpetrated by extremists. But government officials should be careful that their CVE strategies do not exacerbate the underlying marginalization, discrimination, and disenfranchisement that create fertile grounds for terrorist recruitment.

This paper argues that America’s domestic CVE practices create a paradox: law abiding citizens and residents who openly and legally express their oppositional views or orthodox religious practices are targeted by the state in the form of surveillance, infiltration, investigation, entrapment, and prosecution. Thus, targeted communities reasonably suspect that the campaign against homegrown terrorism is not so much about public safety as it is about irrational bigotry. Members of these communities become less willing to cooperate with law enforcement because they view CVE as merely political scapegoating at the expense of their liberty and livelihoods. When contextualized within America’s aggressive police tactics in the 1960s and 1970s against civil rights, Black Nationalist, and anti-war groups and coupled with the disproportionate focus on African Americans in the ongoing War on Drugs, such suspicions are not far-fetched.

Accordingly, this paper makes three recommendations that address the paradox of punishing the innocent for openly expressing grievances shared by the guilty, or worse merely sharing the same immutable characteristics. First, an effective program to counter violent extremism must prioritize protecting the ability of individuals to exercise civil and human rights without fear of state retribution. Second, the American governments must balance the tight rope between engaging Muslim communities to protect them from hate crimes or bolster public safety and heightened attention to Muslims that signals to the public that Muslims warrant extra scrutiny from the state. Selective engagement risks a backlash where the majority resents what it perceives as favoritism towards Muslims or interprets engagement efforts as legitimizing suspicion of Muslims. Either response often leads to private acts of discrimination or violence in employment, schools, mosques, and public places. Third, CVE programs that empower communities as stakeholders in preserving public safety and protection of rights must be careful not to perpetuate existing disparities within Muslim communities along gender, age, class, and race. Insensitivity to internal tensions risks placing the government as an enabler of intra-community gender bias, intra-community ethnic conflicts, and class divisions.

In the end, the legitimacy of CVE policies hangs in the balance. The extent to which governments are able to uphold individual rights while preserving public safety directly contributes to defeating the use of violence as a means of seeking justice.

Keywords: countering violent extremism, CVE, community policing, Muslims, Counterterrorism, community outreach, 9/11, post-9/11, terrorism, civil rights, civil liberties

Suggested Citation

Aziz, Sahar F., Protecting Rights as a Counterterrorism Tool: The Case of American Muslims (September 10, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Sahar F. Aziz (Contact Author)

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - Rutgers Law School ( email )

Newark, NJ
United States


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