For Muslims in the United States, it is easy to fall for the fallacy of “American Muslim exceptionalism.” Some Muslims view Muslim-majority countries as dark, corrupt, and authoritarian places while we in the United States are the light. As we have written about in various contexts, including Zakat abuse and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), the Muslim community’s leaders are capable of corruption and other abuses.
A few years ago, the federal government started to offer ways for Muslims to profit from the global war on terrorism. It started a race among the unscrupulous to show national security-focused agencies and even foreign governments, how they are best qualified to tame Muslims and Islam. In CVE, Islam was singled out as a problem religion and Muslims, a problem community, though they did not start out being explicit about this. There was strong opposition to CVE from Muslim communities and others and those who organized and worked hard to oppose it found success.
Many Muslims cared about the dignity of their community and their religion. We can be grateful for this. Unfortunately, there were exceptions. As a community, it is vital we hold our leaders accountable and correct things when they are wrong. Ali Al-Arian recently called attention to the CVE work of Dr. Sherman Jackson which was uniquely troubling among various CVE ventures for reasons I will discuss below. Jackson’s response was inadequate, and he needs to do better.
If I act wrongly, correct me
An Islamic Scholar is someone who holds a position of a sacred public trust. That requires public integrity. No Muslim is infallible and somehow incapable of making serious mistakes.
Abu Bakr , in his inaugural speech as Khalifah, reportedly said:
“O people, I have been appointed over you, though I am not the best among you. If I do well, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me.”
Those who honor our tradition should not be deferential to scholars and leaders when they do things that make no sense or are objectively harmful. Correct them and don’t be afraid of asking difficult questions.
Some Muslims, including some leaders, seem to think of Dr. Sherman Jackson as the Muslim Ummah’s grandmaster chess player (something he alluded to in his post). We may not understand what he is doing, but that is only because he must be several moves ahead of what our brains can process. I do hope those Muslims can stop thinking this way. Sometimes, even people whose work we admire can make severe errors in judgment. That is part of being sincere to the Muslim whose work you have benefited from.
Nobody likes to have their integrity questioned. But if someone in a position of trust collaborates with human rights abusers and mass-murderers to make the world a more peaceful place, a few Muslims may start raising their hands to ask a few questions.
Sherman Jackson and CVE
Dr. Sherman Jackson has been a player in CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) for several years. Unlike other CVE proponents in the Muslim community, Jackson did not speak in American Muslim spaces on the subject as far as I am aware. CVE is the now widely discredited, yet somehow still very much alive in various forms, project to move the war on terrorism to Muslim spaces, in schools, and in mental health. Jackson was a commissioner in the Council of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) CVE Commission in November 2016. You can read their CVE report online.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta co-chaired this CVE Commission. The report represents a consensus view of all commissioners, though they may disagree with certain aspects of it. Jackson was only one of two known Islamic scholars who lent their name to this project. We are not yet aware of any disagreement by Dr. Jackson with anything in the report.
This “comprehensive new strategy” was meant to be for the benefit of the next President of the United States, assumed to be Hilary Clinton. The person who ended up as President seemed uninterested in the advice provided mainly by supporters of his opponent.
Ali Al-Arian and Sherman Jackson
Al-Arian’s description of Jackson’s CVE efforts and UAE collaboration is sparse. Most of his article is not really about Jackson’s CVE work and UAE connections and outside my scope. Though it clearly made a big impact on Jackson.
Dr. Sherman Jackson corrects a few of Al-Arian’s minor mistakes and offers an emotional rebuttal. For example, Jackson is correct that he was not an “advisor” to the commission, but a commissioner himself. The product of the commission is Jackson’s product —as he was part of the consensus. Putting his name on it was his choice. Jackson is further correct in that CSIS is not a “right-wing” organization. They are worse than that, something I will get to below.
Other claims by Jackson were speculative at best (Tony Blair would not have wanted him on the commission) or require clarification. I hope Sherman Jackson will be able to clarify these from the questions below.
I am uninterested in engaging on Dr. Sherman Jackson’s racial politics and views on immigrants or Al-Arian’s preferred framing in the context of global empire and white supremacy as a system. Instead, it is more useful to look at white supremacy in the context of CVE. In the national media, CVE has come back into vogue as a way to address mass-shootings by white-nationalists. It came up recently after the El Paso shooting, for example.
Those who want to look to CVE as a way to prevent ideological violence in the name of white supremacy will find no help from the CVE Commissioners. The only CVE that Dr. Sherman Jackson co-signed is about targeting Muslims. The CVE Commission Report helpfully tells us what a “violent extremist” is. On page 2 of the report, the commissioners (including Dr. Jackson) tell us:
Throughout this report, we use the general term “violent extremism” to refer to the subset of violent extremist organizations that claim the religion of Islam as their motivating source and to justify their nefarious goals, and the term “extremist” to describe the ideologies and narratives deployed by these groups.
Quite simply, for purposes of US Government policy, the CVE Commission was advocating that Muslims and Muslims alone can be capable of violent extremism. Nobody from any other religion or anyone with a secular ideology could be a violent extremist.
A stylistic departure for CVE
For the CVE Commission, this was a stylistic departure from the Obama Administration CVE policy, which claimed to address other forms of extremism. However, it was always clear that while there was no real intention to address white supremacy. The war on terror involved spying on Muslim students going rafting but the government did not even know who the armed white supremacist groups were. CVE was always meant to single out the Muslim community, like the rest of the war on terror.
The CVE Commission would have done away with any Obama-era window dressing. Leaving CVE as the preferred term to not offend partners, who may not sign up for a program called “Countering Islamic Extremism” (a term Republicans preferred). In a sense, it was more honest than the Obama Administration policy. Another bout of honesty from the CVE Commission is that CVE is not an alternative to the war on terror. It is part of the war.
Dylann Roof was not a violent extremist because he was not Muslim
In 2015, the year the work of the CVE Commission started, Dylann Roof walked into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine worshipers. Violence by white supremacists had a long history in the United States before 2015, a fact Dr. Jackson had known. White nationalist violence has continued since.
Dr. Jackson, who has proclaimed himself to be the most “explicit” and “eloquent” scholar on white supremacy, co-signed a report that failed to include the murder of black people in a church by a white supremacist in the definition of “violent extremism.” Indeed the document with his name on it failed to mention white supremacy even once while claiming to be a “comprehensive new strategy.” It appears Dr. Jackson was unable to be either “explicit” or “eloquent” on white supremacy when it may have mattered.
The co-chairs dismissed “extremism” by non-Muslims as something we should worry about by stating that “we must be clear-eyed about the nature of the enemy.” That makes sense: CVE is an extension of the war on terror.
The Value Proposition
The CVE Commission report, other than to commit exclusively to the perceived Muslim problem, something Republicans already did in the CVE Grants Act in 2015, was not groundbreaking. The document recycled tropes and jargon from prior CVE documents. The commissioners failed to offer any solutions other than providing more funding to programs that are “proven.” Objectively, there have never been any proven CVE programs. The report included “enlisting” technology, religious and other sector leaders, getting the White House to lead, and other meaningless gobbledygook. None of this was actionable as policy, except the funding part.
How do governments fight ideologies they don’t like without getting into thought policing? Is there a way to know if someone is about to become a terrorist in the future? How do we prevent CVE from merely becoming code for political repression? You won’t find answers to any of this in the CVE Commission report.
CVE was never able to live up to its promise of being a solution to anything. According to an FBI study, for example, there is no way to tell by looking at someone’s ideology that they are more likely to commit violence. CVE was always a corrupt and fraudulent enterprise. It was junk science attempting to convince policymakers and the public that soothsaying can be actual public policy.
It seemed clear that for CSIS, the CVE Commission was mainly a fundraising play. The donors were getting something though: a narrative that reflects their values, and loyalty. The UAE, for example, engages in thought policing and political repression. In the UAE, peaceful protest of government policies falls under the terrorism law and can lead to the death penalty. If the UAE or other seriously sick regimes fund you, it makes sense to sidestep difficult issues and discuss the things they want to hear.
The CVE Commission report was emphatically not scholarship. It was political hackery for money. Dr. Jackson stated he consulted with “Washington insiders” before accepting. The end product seems to reflect the quality of the counsel he sought. It was garbage in, garbage out.
Why Credibility with the UAE matters
It is impossible to separate Sherman Jackson’s work on the CVE Commission from his UAE affiliation. To CSIS’s credit, they disclose the United Arab Emirates is one of their largest government donors. Though CSIS credits funding for the report itself to Mark Penn, a Clinton pollster who has since become a pro-Trump pundit on TV, and Fred Khosravi, a businessman who reportedly once told his cellmate he was a “freelance consultant for the FBI.” Both of these individuals were also commissioners alongside Jackson. Defense contractors and oil companies are also prominent funders for CSIS. That guy from your local masjid who generously donates every Ramadan is likely not on CSIS’s fundraising mailers.
If you are going to fundraise for a commission report, you want to name commissioners the donors like and trust. Tony Blair is best known for lying his country into a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, nearly all of them Muslim. For the funders, he had the requisite credibility and moral authority to co-lead his fellow commissioners. This seems especially true when it comes to the UAE.
Islamic Scholars “clean and…vetted”
In 2015, we learned the UAE donated $1,000,000 to the NYPD’s Intelligence Division through a foundation three years earlier. This agency had an aggressive anti-Muslim surveillance operation. In 2014, the UAE, through a cabinet-level decision, absurdly designated the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS), “terrorist” organizations. Both are entirely American organizations that have nothing to do with the UAE.
In the years since, the UAE has prosecuted an aggressive and unflinchingly violent foreign policy in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. In Yemen, the UAE reportedly operates a network of dozens of sites dedicated to engaging in systematic rape and torture. Moreover, it has been a champion of domestic political repression and oppression of the Uighurs and Kashmiris. Indeed, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the butcher of Gujarat and currently in the midst of shocking actions in Kashmir, was just given the UAE’s highest honor. India’s fascist government and the UAE’s rulers deserve each other. More troubling is that some prominent American Muslim scholars, including Sherman Jackson, appear to have no problem with the honor of being considered “clean and…vetted” by the UAE so that their actions are consistent with UAE’s overall foreign policy goals.
A Question of Values
When Muslim scholars find reasons to affiliate with such a foreign government so dedicated to oppression, it deserves some communal self-evaluation.
US Muslim scholars, including Dr. Sherman Jackson, continue to attend a conference hosted by the UAE’s government on, and this is seriously the name, “Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.” Getting American Muslim scholars in the UAE’s corner to grant themselves religious legitimacy is part of UAE foreign policy. That all of this seems cartoonishly absurd mockery of their religion does not stop Muslim scholars from collaborating with the UAE’s government. Worse though, Muslim scholars in the United States who have nothing to do with the UAE have not done anything to self-police this servile and propagandistic sham.
It is not at all surprising someone like Tony Blair aligns perfectly with CSIS donor UAE’s values. But do Islamic scholars in the United States have values similar to the UAE’s shaykhdom? Do American Muslims? What are those values?
I don’t agree with everything the mafia does
Dr. Jackson notes he spoke twice about the problem of religious violence as well as the problem of “the problem of government repression, mass imprisonment, and torture.” Neither the CVE Commission or the Muslim Council of Elders (MCE)- the UAE sponsored body Jackson is part of, has any project to address these things. Reciting platitudes about human rights is not synonymous with moral courage. The UAE itself publicly and repeatedly proclaims itself as a champion of human rights. That does not make it one.
In his post, Dr. Jackson notes that just because he works with a UAE sponsored entity, it does not mean he agrees with everything the UAE does. Dr. Jackson wants the Muslim community to hold him to a meaningless ethical standard. Nobody agrees with everything anyone does.
If a scholar joined a mafia-sponsored effort to give itself religious legitimacy, “I don’t agree with everything the mafia does” won’t work as a moral defense. It should not work when collaborating with the UAE government either. Dr. Sherman Jackson gets to decide who he associates his name with. That is a moral choice.
Benefit and Harm
What we need to do is evaluate the benefit to be gained by the community versus the harm Dr. Jackson may be causing even with the best of intentions.
There is significant harm from scholars to providing religious legitimacy to regimes that have foreign policies dedicated to oppression and murder in multiple countries. There is further harm because the UAE stages it’s religious scholars as props in a way that makes a mockery of religion and religious authority. It is undignified and far below the station of any scholar of Islam to play in such farces, yet, there they are.
The CVE Commission in the United States was merely an extension of this game. Use religious leaders to give cover to policies meant to harm people who follow that religion. Dr. Jackson’s participation in the CVE Commission shows there is virtually no bottom to what you can get a prominent Islamic scholar to co-sign. Islamic Scholars are little more than dancing bears for the national security state. The dignity of the religion of Muhammad deserves better.
Benefits of this display to the Muslim community are not clear, at least not to me. I hope Dr. Jackson can explain why the immense cost of his participation is worth it.
So again if I act wrongly, so correct me.
I have a few questions for Dr. Sherman Jackson, but if readers have their own, leave them in the comments:
- Outside of your own contributions, do you agree with any portion of the CVE Commission Report? If so, please share with the Muslim community what parts you agree with and why. And what do you disagree with, and why? If you repudiate this report in full, please tell us.
- I understand you signed on to the CVE Commission to prevent a product with undue bias. However, why did you agree to include your name on the final product that excluded Dylann Roof from the definition of “violent extremist”?
- Do you believe CVE is not fraudulent and actually works? If so, do you have any evidence of this?
- You mentioned in your post you told scholars that people who disagree with CVE should protest outside. Did you ever inform them or anyone about where and when the largely secret meetings were so that they can organize protests?
- Have there been any concrete benefits to oppressed Muslims anywhere because of your affiliation with the UAE-based MCE?
- What benefits have you personally enjoyed as a result of your affiliation with the CVE Commission and the UAE?
- Do you believe Tony Blair should be charged, and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in Iraq?
- Do you believe the senior leadership of the United Arab Emirates should be charged for war crimes and crimes against humanity?
- What value do you believe you are offering the government of the UAE’s rulers by serving on the MCE?
The post Sherman Jackson, Tony Blair CVE, UAE And Some Questions appeared first on MuslimMatters.org.