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Critic: Extremism Summit Focused Too Narrowly On Muslims

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Glenn Katon has been attending the White House summit on violent extremism. He's the legal director for the group Muslim Advocates, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

GLENN KATON: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: Now to begin, your organization has actually been quite critical of the focus of this summit even before it started, right? Tell us what your concerns are.

KATON: Yeah. The summit is part of a broader countering violent-extremism initiative that the administration has been undertaking for some time, and we have been critical of those efforts. And we've been critical of what we expected the summit to be, because ideological or religious violence in this country is definitely a problem.

But there's a common misperception that Muslims are the main perpetrators of these acts of violence. And the way that the administration addresses the issue through visiting almost exclusively Muslim communities and talking about the problem in terms of al-Qaida or referring to specific incidents of violence committed by Muslims - it perpetrates this misperception, when the reality is that only about 6 percent of acts of violent extremism in this country are carried out by Muslims. And when the media and the administration portrays it as really a Muslim issue, it places a stigma on Muslims.

CORNISH: The White House initiatives talk about working with community groups and existing programs to help prevent the potential of radicalization. What are some of the objections you have to this approach, working with these existing groups?

KATON: The first one is that the term radicalization isn't really defined, and there have been some attempts to describe it that have been debunked. Another huge component of this - that the purveyors of this radicalization idea say that, you know, you need to look for signs of radicalization, such as growing a beard and becoming more devout and things that are just akin to practicing the Muslim faith.

And it was interesting that when President Obama opened his remarks yesterday, the first thing he said is there's no way to predict who's going to become radicalized. And that's what the real science shows. And there's really no empirical evidence on what types of efforts to counter violent extremism are effective.

CORNISH: You've raised questions here about the concept of radicalization. What's your response to people who say that al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - while they don't represent the majority of Muslims, they do represent a dangerous and religious-based movement that is actively recruiting. What is the counter to that? What can governments do?

KATON: Well, I mean, of course those organizations are dangerous, and I'm glad that the government is doing things to try and stop them. In terms of how best to address that, I'll leave that to the experts. But my objection is when I see that what they are doing does not correlate to the actual threat and that it stigmatizes Muslim communities. And, you know, if this was a summit on how to stop ISIS and al-Qaida, we wouldn't really have an objection to that. The problem is that when you talk about violent extremism, it really shouldn't be a conversation about Muslims if you want to be intellectually honest and accurate and develop good policy. But unfortunately, the discussion in the summit was not 100 percent, but almost entirely about Muslims.

CORNISH: Glenn Katon is the legal director for Muslim Advocates. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KATON: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.