Suspects not Citizens: Criminalizing Muslims in the United States


In 2017, James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his silver Dodge Charger into counter-protestors at the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fields’ reckless yet intentional actions killed thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer and injured dozens more. Convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding, hate crime acts, and other federal and state offenses, Fields now faces a life plus 419 years sentence. 

Following Fields’ action, left-leaning commentary magazine The Atlantic examined “the road to radicalization in Charlottesville,” arguing that “violent extremism – whether in jihadist or white supremacist form – is often driven by the same processes.” By exploring radicalization – the perceived process by which terrorists are made – The Atlantic called on the United States to reinvest in antiterrorism initiatives like the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program to fight all forms of ideologically-inspired violence. To do so, many local CVE programs have mobilized community members and social service providers like mental health professionals to identify individuals exhibiting the risk factors of radicalization and then steer these vulnerable individuals off the path toward violence. Since the Obama administration formally launched CVE in 2015, practitioners have positioned CVE programming as a progressive alternative to more law enforcement-centric antiterrorism methods like sting operations. The Atlantic’s call therefore aligns with government interventions to prevent violence with less dependence on law enforcement and follows popular understandings of where violence comes from. 

Given their concerns with growing violence and past histories of racial profiling, governmental officials and community leaders alike have promoted CVE as a community-driven method to prevent homegrown terrorism. During my research study, I met many community leaders who eagerly participated in and advocated for CVE programming. One Muslim practitioner, for example, argued that CVE offered “a better way” to prevent terrorism than simply arresting individuals vulnerable to radicalization. A Somali practitioner similarly described CVE as a “mom and pop” solution to the problem of homegrown terrorism. Although some community members accused this practitioner of “selling out” and having “no soul” by collaborating with the government, he argued that “it’s better off with us at the table than someone else being at the table” because he could direct domestic security initiatives “on the community’s own terms.” For some Muslims cast out of US citizenship through their racialization, participation in these domestic security operations has offered an opening for their conditional inclusion in the political system, more direct control over antiterrorism initiatives, and a perceived alternative to more punitive counterterrorism methods. 

Despite these appraisals of CVE, Suspect Communities demonstrates that struggles to make US security regimes more liberal—“participatory,” “community-led,” and “ideologically ecumenical”—through initiatives like CVE have enhanced, not mitigated, the criminalization of Muslim communities while appearing to attenuate past practices of racial profiling, constant surveillance, and political exclusion. For example, by calling on mental health professionals, schoolteachers, and other social service providers to identify, report, and work with individuals perceived to be vulnerable to or in the process of radicalization, CVE transforms these “helping professionals” into terrorist watchdogs. This means that CVE facilitates a kind of carceral care work that encourages social service providers to take on the functions of the police through their daily interactions with their clients. In Maryland, for example, CVE-trained school staff reported Arab students experiencing “acculturation related stress,” “feelings of alienation,” and “economic stressors in their family,” which “suggest that they may be at risk of violent extremism.” By equating common experiences in the United States with violent extremism, school staff came to view their students as potential terrorists. Minneapolis Public Schools hired youth intervention workers to “spot identity issues and disaffection” believed to be the “root causes of violent extremism” among Somali youth. CVE programs thus can undermine the trusting and confidential relationships social service providers require to serve their clients, thereby enhancing policing and prisons through the provision of these resources. Through CVE, youth soccer leagues, therapists’ offices, schools, and other community spaces have transformed into key sites of national security. 

Suspect Communities also documents how social scientists have disproven the theories of radicalization driving CVE programming, noting that there is no single predictable pathway toward violent extremism and that there are no scientifically proven indicators, risk factors, and warning signs that can be used to reliably identify an individual at risk of or in the process of terrorist radicalization. This means that The Atlantic’s understanding of “the road to radicalization” is not supported by social science. CVE models, however, continue to encourage communities to use warning signs like “wearing traditional Muslim attire,” “increased activity in a pro-Muslim social group or political cause,” “disaffection,” “psychiatric disorders,” “outrage over US or western foreign policy,” “low trust in institutions and law enforcement,” “lack of access to healthcare and social services,” and a “desire for political or moral change” to identify individuals vulnerable to terrorist radicalization and recruitment. These warning signs either explicitly target Muslim communities (wearing traditional Muslim attire) or are so common (disaffection) that they only trigger suspicion when expressed by Muslim and other non-dominant communities. In her own research on antiterrorism initiatives in the United Kingdom, Charlotte Heath-Kelly has demonstrated how “schoolteachers and health-care providers are not immune to Islamophobic media discourses” and therefore can “apply their duties of suspicion unequally and replicate the stigmatization of brown bodies.” In fact, a Brennan Center for Justice review of federally funded CVE programs under the Trump administration revealed that at least 85% of federal-supported CVE programs, and more than half of CVE programs more generally, explicitly target non-dominant groups. The Denver Police Department, for example, argued that “the most at-risk population is one who is disenfranchised,” meaning its CVE program explicitly targeted “faith communities, Black Lives Matter, diverse communities, and LGTBQ communities, among others, facing disenfranchisement by society”—despite citing mass violence perpetrated by white, US-born young men as justification for its CVE initiative. 

Given these concerns, Muslim communities have argued against widening CVE’s aperture to include white supremacists like Fields. Fatema Ahmad, for example, assesses that “Expanding CVE to groups that claim to address white supremacy only provides further cover for CVE to profile and criminalize Muslims and other marginalized communities.” Broadening CVE does not address the flawed and discriminatory science driving this national security framework. Rather than study the “road to radicalization” to arrest white supremacist violence, community organizers like Ahmad work to “name[] and change[] the systems that simultaneously encourage and are reinforced by their hateful acts of violence.” Sociologist Katy Pal Sian similarly argues that by framing the violence of white actors like Fields as an abhorrent aberration, US media exceptionalize white supremacist violence as the behavior of “one particular racist rather than the problem of an embedded societal racism.” Meanwhile, CVE and other antiterrorism narratives criminalize entire Muslim communities as inherently suspect, without ever questioning the social contexts, such as US empire and the global war on terror, that organize political violence. These exceptionalizing narratives pathologize Muslim communities while providing an alibi for white supremacist violence. 

Citing concerns with the targeting of Muslim communities, the reliance on disproven theories of radicalization, and the mobilization of social service providers as terrorist watchdogs, community organizers called for a divest-invest strategy: disinvest in CVE programs and reinvest in community-based systems that support, sustain, and nurture communities, without law enforcement agencies, disproven radicalization research, or other antiterrorism/anticrime initiatives. As I document in Suspect Communities, Minneapolis college students demanded access to social services like culturally responsive counseling and youth soccer leagues as deserving citizens, rather than as ticking timebombs.  Although national security practitioners understandably want to prevent future violence, regardless of its idiom, the turn to CVE has legitimized and enhanced the very institutions that historically have criminalized, dehumanized, and demonized communities of color while appearing to learn from and attenuate past practices of racial profiling, coercive policing, and political exclusion. The movement to #StopCVE demands an end to the making of suspect communities through liberal antiterrorism initiatives like CVE and works to secure community resources and social services independent of law enforcement.

Nicole Nguyen is assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of Illinois–Chicago. She is author of Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror (Minnesota, 2019) and A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in U.S. Public Schools (Minnesota, 2016).

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