US nonprofits reject funds to fight extremism due to Trump

Suehaila Amen
In this image from video, taken Feb. 1, 2017, Suehaila Amen, a board member of the Dearborn, Mich.-based nonprofit Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Dearborn, Mich. LAHC was awarded federal grant money to combat violent extremism, but is rejecting the money. (AP Photo/Mike Householder)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nonprofit groups are rejecting federal grant money to combat violent extremism because of what they described as President Donald Trump’s actions against the Muslim and Arab community.

The Obama administration in its final days awarded 31 grants through the Homeland Security Department worth a total of about $10 million. Those agreements haven’t been signed, and no money has been distributed.

Now, two groups said they were rejecting the money they already had been offered, and a third objected to Trump’s plans. Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities in Dearborn, Michigan, said it was turning down $500,000 for youth development and public health programs because of the “current political climate.”

Ka Joog, a leading Somali nonprofit in Minneapolis, rejected nearly $500,000 for its youth programs. “Our nation’s new administration and their policies which promote hate, fear, uncertainty and even worse; an unofficial war on Muslim-Americans and immigrants,” the group said in a statement.

The Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to phone messages from The Associated Press.

Trump has endorsed extreme vetting and ordered a temporary ban on refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Charities that already have worked with the U.S. government, including the CIA, Justice Department and Homeland Security Department, said they were reacting to discussions within the Trump administration to exclusively target “radical Islamic terrorists” under a U.S. program to counter violent extremism.

A U.S. official with knowledge of the discussions said the Trump administration has been discussing a change in policy, which would change the Obama administration program’s name, established in 2014, to some iteration of “countering Islamic extremism.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to speak publicly.

Most of the 31 federal grants were promised to municipalities, but also to nonprofit groups such as Life After Hate Inc. in Chicago, which received $400,000 for its work with former white supremacists — a large portion of which will also go to a partner group to work with al-Qaeda and Islamic State group inspired individuals.

The U.S. official said it was unclear whether a group such as Life After Hate would continue to receive funding or be included in any future program.

The co-founder of Life After Hate and a former white supremacist, Christian Picciolini, said such a change would be troubling and “sends a message that white extremism does not exist, or is not a priority in our country, when in fact it is a statistically larger and more present terror threat than any by foreign or other domestic actors.”

White supremacist groups saw renewed interest during the presidential campaign that many credited to Trump’s candidacy. Picciolini said a change to focus on Muslims would “further marginalize them and strain an already shaky relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities.”

Picciolini said that since the group had not received its funding yet, “I suppose it’s possible it could be rescinded altogether.”

The nonprofit Washington-based Muslim Public Affairs Council has been working on a new intervention program to bring teams providing social services, mental health counseling and religious educators to communities in at least 10 cities, including Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta and Chicago. It had encouraged the Muslim community to give the countering violent extremism program a chance.

“If there’s a policy change that basically in effect tells us we have to fight our own religion, then this is a fundamental violation of our constitutional rights and we will consider all possible actions for redress, ” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Councils. “A policy change that stigmatizes the Muslim community and treats them as a suspect community (means) we have to rethink everything in terms of our whole approach toward policy engagement toward this administration.”

He said there was such disarray throughout federal agencies that “nobody knows where this is going.”

“To implement the program takes a lot more and has to have the right environment to help it succeed. Now with this toxic vitriol coming out of the White House … this administration may undermine everything we’ve been working on for the last 10 years,” Al-Marayati said.

Suehaila Amen, a director for Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities, said members voted unanimously Jan. 26 to reject the funds and were influenced by recent discussions of a possible name change.

“What’s most important is we protect our community and their needs and concerns,” she said. “Our patriotism isn’t tied to a grant, and at the end of the day we need to continue to serve our community (and) ensure is transparency and trust, and we’re not willing to compromise that.”

Amen, who worked with the Bush and Obama administrations to help build outreach to minority groups domestically and internationally, said she told U.S. officials this past week that she will no longer be participating in discussions around countering violent extremism with the Trump administration.