President Barack Obama on Wednesday will host a summit bringing together police, religious leaders and others to confront extremism in American neighborhoods.
The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism will look at domestic and international efforts to go after the root causes of extremism and find ways to stop young people in America and elsewhere from joining terrorist groups like the Islamic State.
The January terrorist attacks in Paris raised concerns enough for Obama to schedule the long-postponed summit. In recent statements condemning extremism, he has been careful not to name Islam, but rather religious intolerance in general, as a culprit.
“One of the best antidotes to the hateful ideologies that try to recruit and radicalize people to violent extremism is our own example as diverse and tolerant societies that welcome the contributions of all people, including people of all faiths,” he said.
It is sometimes in America’s tough, gang-infested neighborhoods that this vision seems endangered.
A YouTube video put out by the FBI showing an Islamic State fighter speaking in North American English has heightened U.S. officials' concerns that marginalized young Americans may be vulnerable to recruitment.
Anti-gang and outreach efforts by forces like the Los Angeles Police Department are serving as a model for ways to stop radicalization among American youths, and police from Los Angeles and other urban areas will be part of the discussion.
“There are communities in this country where law enforcement officials have worked successfully with community leaders, many in the Muslim community, to counteract those efforts to radicalize vulnerable young people, in most cases," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "And so this would be an opportunity, a forum where the president could discuss those efforts with community leaders and law enforcement officials from across the country so they can share those kinds of best practices with leaders in other communities.”
But critics say the topic is so general and the issues so complex that it will be difficult to come up with effective programs to address the causes of extremism.
Security analyst Philip Lohaus of the American Enterprise Institute said a discussion on Islamic extremism would eventually be necessary.
“It’s important to keep a very particular focus here," he said. "I would agree they need to make sure they’re focusing specifically on mechanisms and reasons why people would be involved in Islamic extremism, for example, rather than extremism at large, but I do think it’s a good first step, and perhaps there can be some follow-on conversations that are more targeted toward Islamic extremism specifically.”
The summit will be the first of its kind, and perhaps the start of an important conversation.