After Trump, US Muslim groups reject grants to fight extremism

Organisations cite political changes under new administration for turning down more than $2 million in aid from a scheme launched by Barack Obama.

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WASHINGTON // An Islamic school in California wanted to keep an open mind before Donald Trump took office. But less than a month into his presidency, the school has rejected $800,000 (Dh2.9 million) in federal funds aimed at combatting violent extremism.

The decision by the Bayan Claremont graduate school’s board to turn down the money – an amount that would cover more than half its yearly budget – capped weeks of sleepless nights and debate. Many members felt Mr Trump’s singling out of Islamic extremism and his travel ban affecting predominantly Muslim countries had gone too far.

The school is the fourth organisation in the United States under the Trump administration to reject funding for a programme created under former president Barack Obama known as countering violent extremism, or CVE, which aims to thwart the ability of extremist groups to recruit would-be terrorists.

Bayan Claremont was given the second-largest sum among the first 31 organisations, schools and municipalities to receive CVE allocations in the dwindling days of the Obama administration. The school had hoped to use the money to help create a new generation of Muslim community leaders, with $250,000 earmarked for more than a dozen local non-profits doing social justice work.

But the fledgling school’s founding president, Jihad Turk, said officials felt that accepting the money would do more harm than good.

“Our mission and our vision is to serve the community and to bring our community to a position of excellence,” Mr Turk said after the school board’s decision on Friday. “And if we’re compromised, even if only by perception in terms of our standing in the community, we ultimately can’t achieve that goal.”

The school’s debate is emblematic of handwringing among grassroots and nonprofit organisations involved in the programme in recent weeks.

At Unity Productions Foundation of Potomac Falls, Virginia, officials said they would decline a grant of $396,585 to produce educational films that challenge the justifications for extremist ideologies and violent extremism “due to the changes brought by the new administration”.

And in Dearborn, Michigan, Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities said last week it was turning down $500,000 for youth development and public health programmes because of the “current political climate”. Ka Joog, a Somali nonprofit organisation in Minneapolis, also turned down $500,000 for its youth programmes.

All told, more than 20 per cent of the roughly $10 million awarded by the Homeland Security Department has been rejected.

Mr Turk said Bayan Claremont school officials already had reservations about the CVE strategy during Mr Obama’s presidency because they felt there was no clear or proven pathway to violence for someone with a particular extreme ideology. The group went ahead, despite worries by some activists that the programme equated to government surveillance, because it believed the previous administration was not hostile to their faith.

But amid what Mr Turk called Mr Trump’s “fixation on the American Muslim community”, it became clear that the president’s actions were more than campaign-trail rhetoric, he said.

“It was becoming more and more apparent that he’s actually looking to carry out all the scary stuff he said.”

* Associated Press