MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — About 40 Muslim groups in Minnesota are voicing concern about a federal program designed to fight terror recruiting, according to a statement sent out Friday by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The statement, which contains the names of several mosques, student groups and other Muslim organizations, asks the Department of Justice to discontinue the program, saying it unfairly singles out members of the state's large Somali community for their nationality and religion.
"While we support the right of all Americans to live in democratic communities free of violence, we cannot in good conscience condone or help refine programs that are fundamentally discriminatory and are likely to further subject our community members to additional civil rights abuses," the statement said.
Minneapolis is one of three cities participating in a pilot program designed to prevent terror recruiting by creating opportunities for youth and those considered at-risk. While the government says it's a community-led initiative and supporters see it is a way to fight extremism, some activists have expressed concern that it will amount to government surveillance of Muslim communities. Similar concerns have been raised in Boston and Los Angeles, the other cities in the program.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota, which has spent months explaining its outreach to local Somalis and religious leaders, has said repeatedly that its pilot program is separate from its investigative and prosecutorial duties.
The pilot program in Minnesota is focused on the state's Somali community, which has seen more than two dozen youth leave in recent years to join the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia or militants in Syria. Community members who have long sought help in stopping recruiting initially embraced the pilot program as an opportunity.
Fifteen community members are on a task force that's working on implementing the program. In a recent op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, members of the committee cast aside suspicions that the program would be used for surveillance. "These rumors are not true — the project has broad support of the community and it is a Somali community-led initiative," the op-ed said.
The group said the pilot project "is needed now more than ever."
Ben Petok, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota, said his office is working with the task force, and reiterated that it is led by the community.
"The Somali-American Taskforce has been working diligently to secure corporate, foundation and government funding for programs designed to provide services to the Somali Minnesotan community, a group we all agree is vastly underserved," he said.
But CAIR-MN's executive director Jaylani Hussein said the pilot program isn't the most effective way to work with the state's Somali community and Muslims. He said a program that comes from the federal government won't be trusted by some, and those who work with authorities are often viewed as spies and lose their credibility in the community.
"We believe empowering our community to address this issue and building trust with our community by treating them as partners is far better and more effective than treating our community as a collection of potential suspects," Hussein said in a news release.
In the statement, the groups listed their own recommendations. Among them, the statement said, the government should support a Muslim community-based task force that these groups are forming, and resources should come from foundations, corporations and state and local governments — and be separate from counterterrorism and law enforcement.
Abdimalik Mohamed, the chairman of the pilot project's task force, said CAIR-MN is calling for a committee that already exists and is already doing these things.
"We are a group of members of the Somali community," Mohamed said. "We will not allow a civil rights violation to happen."
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