Can Extreme Vetting Work?

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The San Bernardino attackers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Malik's extremist social media posts were not part of the vetting process when she was allowed to enter the U.S.
The San Bernardino attackers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Authorities were not allowed to look at Malik’s social media posts as part of her vetting process.

Days before the deadly October 31 Manhattan terror attack by Sayfullo Saipov,  Middle East Forum Washington Project Director Clifford Smith gave a conference call briefing on “extreme vetting.” The following a summary of his remarks compiled by Marilyn Stern, communications coordinator for the Middle East Forum.

In a December 2015 article, Daniel Pipes criticized Donald Trump’s proposed blanket ban on the entry of Muslims to the United States as unconstitutional and strategically unsound.

Instead, he suggested that the ban be only applied to Islamists, the estimated 10-15% of Muslims worldwide who believe in theocratic government and the supremacy of sharia (Islamic law) over national laws. In January 2017, as Trump was about to take office, Dr. Pipes proposed a string of specific measures aimed at “Smoking Out Islamists Via Extreme Vetting.”

In an apparent shift in this direction, President Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order sought to prevent the entry of foreign terrorists into the United States by distinguishing between bona fide Muslim migrants and those placing violent ideologies over American law.

Yet, while offering a healthy antidote to the Obama administration’s aloofness to Islamist terrorism, the executive order’s vetting process seems wanting in a number of key respects.

To begin with, the questioning of prospective Muslim immigrants should not focus on their religion, as many Muslims ascribe to interpretations of Islam that are not theocratic and totalitarian. Rather the questioning should rather take a holistic approach regarding the applicant’s ideology.

Through a series of questions posed in different ways and in different situations, officials can gain insights into the person’s general worldview and the extent of his/her subscription to the fundamental precepts underpinning the American way of life.

Accompanied by close scrutiny of applicants’ social media accounts and other public writings, as well as more specific questions aimed at revealing beliefs that run counter to American values, norms and practices (e.g., equal rights, freedom of religion, etc.), this questioning can provide a more conclusive method to distinguish between moderates and radicals.

By way of institutionalizing these vetting methods, the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project, in consultation with both members of Congress, their staffs, and administration officials, developed and introduced new legislation incorporating MEF’s recommendations into a bill, one which safeguards the security of all Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim.

These ideas have been enthusiastically received by White House officials tasked with homeland security and judicial issues.

This article appeared originally on Middle East Forum.



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