BOSTON — Some Muslim and civil rights activists are calling on Massachusetts health and human service agencies to stop participating in a federal pilot program meant to combat terrorist recruitment in the U.S.
The Massachusetts chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, among others, delivered a petition this week calling on Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders to cut ties with the "Countering Violent Extremism" program.
They say continued involvement will only breed mistrust among Muslim and other underserved communities and will undermine her agency's credibility and effectiveness. "Decreased trust in service providers will also decrease health outcomes and prove costly," the petition says.
The state agency said it is working to address the concerns as it develops local programs.
The Executive Office for Health and Human Services "believes all concerns, recommendations and feedback related to the development of this grant program are valid," spokeswoman Michelle Hillman said in a statement.
Countering Violent Extremism was launched in 2014 in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles to develop new ways to prevent the recruitment of extremist group followers in the United States. It represents a small part of President Barack Obama's plan to combat global extremism.
Activists in Los Angeles and Minneapolis say they are watching the Boston debate but note that the petition's concerns, for now, are somewhat unique.
They say local human service agencies in their cities don't currently have any direct role. The program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, is run by U.S. attorneys in the two cities. To introduce a non-law enforcement approach, Sudders' office took the helm of Boston's pilot in late 2015 through a cooperative agreement with the Massachusetts U.S. attorney's office.
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said he supports a public health approach like what Boston is pursuing. But he wants to assure a "wall of separation" between law enforcement and social services is maintained.
"There is confidentiality with every client, whether you are a lawyer, social service worker, doctor or counselor," Al-Marayati said. "If the policy compromises that value, we oppose it."
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR's Minnesota chapter, said he wouldn't want to see social service agencies involved at all.
"They've already got enough to work on to address disparities in education, employment and health," he said of his state's human service agencies. "We have real issues. What are they doing to address those? That's their job."
Mehlaqa Samdani, founder of Critical Connections, a Massachusetts nonprofit working to improve understanding of the Muslim world, said public health agencies need to play a role but agreed there's a lot of wariness within the Muslim community to overcome.
"This might not be perfect, but what's the alternative?" she said.