Speaking at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) on Wednesday, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) denounced the United States' targeting of Muslim populations and argued that by failing to prosecute hate crimes against Muslim communities the U.S. government is only furthering extremists' cause.
Referencing the recent shooting of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina last week, and official reluctance to question the shooter's motive, Ellison told the assembly, "It’s important that law enforcement prosecute hate crimes against Muslims....It’s important that we at least admit that what happened in Chapel Hill probably was not only about a parking space."
He added, "This defies our sense of logic and common sense."
Ellison, who is the first Muslim elected to Congress, said that the incident is emblematic of how the United States' targeting and prosecution of Muslims only reinforces extremist behavior.
"This actually helps to support the false narrative of violent extremism; [extremists] want to make the case that America hates you, is against you, join us," he said.
"Razan, Yusor and Deah—the three victims—were living, walking, breathing examples of countering violent extremism until their lives were taken away," added the congressman. "Let us not slip into a mistaken idea that terrorism is somehow a Muslim idea."
The summit was born from President Obama's CVE program, which was initiated five years ago. In 2011, the Obama administration released a strategic plan for the initiative, which places the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and FBI at its helm.
According to a White House statement, the purpose of the event is to "highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence." However, details about the program and summit have been vague.
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Ahead of the summit, which runs from Tuesday through Thursday this week, civil rights advocates raised concern that the event would contribute to the unjust stigmatization, surveillance, and targeting of Muslim-American communities at a highly sensitive time.
The group Muslim Advocates released a statement Tuesday saying it is "deeply troubled" by CVE's focus on American Muslims.
"While the facts show that perpetrators who are Muslim comprise a very tiny fraction of extremist violence in the US, a summit and CVE programs that focus on Muslims send the false and dangerous message to the American people that their Muslim neighbors are a threat to their safety," the group said.
Listing some of the recent anti-Muslim hate crimes—including the Chapel Hill murders, vandalism at a Rhode Island Islamic School and the killing of a Kansas City Muslim teen in December—the group notes that, "with rising anti-Muslim bigotry, young American Muslims have become targets for hate crimes and discrimination."
At the summit, Ellison also criticized recent moves by U.S. banks to stop all money transfers between the U.S. and Somalia.
"On February 6, our financial services system stopped working with Somali money-wiring services to send money to Somalia," said Ellison, whose home state has the largest Somali-American population in the country. "This is important because in the region, the violent extremist wants to be able to say 'See, they won’t even let your relatives send you money.' They want to be able to say that and we have got to be able to stop them from saying that."
"The violent extremist makes the case that America is at war with Islam and Muslims, and we have to assert that this is not true; not just in word, but in deed," he said.