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Hedieh Mirahmadi Headshot

Our Nation's Religious Quandary

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In a special counter-terrorism training seminar in 2010, FBI agents were shown a chart that measures the three Abrahamic faiths and their propensity for violence. Illustrated shooting crescents and stars indicated that Muslims were on the most dangerous upward trajectory. When the training materials were leaked by whistle-blowers to the press last September, the FBI came under heavy criticism for providing its field agents an unbalanced and inaccurate understanding of Islam.

Wired.com's eye-opening article, "FBI Teaches Agents, 'Mainstream' Muslims are Violent, Radical," asserts that training material on Islam made no effort to differentiate Islam from the violent ideologies espoused by radical Islamists. In the controversial briefings, William Gawthrop, (a counter terrorism expert who still works for the FBI, but is no longer providing training to agents) portrayed mainstream Muslims as "agents of aggression," that were motivated by Sharia law to wage jihad.

Muslim American organizations and civil liberties groups immediately spoke out and requested that the FBI conduct a full review of their training curriculum. Within days, the FBI hosted a "Community Partner Conference Call" to address these issues. Officials recognized and apologized that anti-Muslim material was being used, and stated that they would immediately reexamine all of their training materials to ensure that they provide a balanced and accurate understanding of Islam.

Weeks later, several of us were invited to FBI Headquarters for a briefing about the review process. Having combed through over 150,000 pages of training material, the FBI determined a small fraction, approximately 700 pages, were either 1) factual errors, 2) in poor taste, 3) stereotypical, or 4) lacked precision and have since been removed.

When the review was completed, and the provocative material removed, Muslim community and interfaith civil liberties groups were invited once again to discuss the findings. This time FBI Director Robert Mueller attended the meeting and confirmed that the FBI has undertaken all of the remedial steps necessary to prevent this problem from happening again. It does not appear, however, that some Muslim advocacy organizations will allow these steps to suffice. Other meeting attendees signed a joint statement calling for continued transparency and oversight into this training process, as well as an advisory committee to review training material going forward.

Having participated in the meetings, I found the FBI's attention to this debacle quite impressive. They acted swiftly and decisively. Yet, questions still remain about how the Bureau will determine guidelines for identifying experts on Islam and the vetting processes for approving briefings and training materials.

It is also important to consider how the reluctance of some communities to acknowledge the roots of radicalization and educate law enforcement about the extreme interpretations of Islam used by terrorists has contributed to this problem.

The real big question, however, is given America's trepidation to mix church and state, how will federal agencies like the FBI determine the appropriate pedagogical approach to defining Islam?

The controversy over training has also gotten the attention of Congress. Sixteen members of Congress wrote a public letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary Leon Panetta asking for details about "their counter terrorism review process" and what non-governmental organizations or individuals were involved in the review process.

Law enforcement agents and public officials should be educated in a balanced manner. Sen. Lieberman put it best when he said:

Proper training about violent Islamist extremism is absolutely essential... Part of this training must be an understanding of the clear and profound difference between Islamist extremism, which is a totalitarian political ideology that is at war with us, and Islam, which is a religion practiced by more than a billion people around the world, including millions of law-abiding and loyal Americans.

Failure to make this distinction as Sen. Lieberman suggests, will result in false generalizations that risk alienating the vast majority of Muslim Americans that reject violent extremism.

At the end of the day, with all of the public scrutiny on this issue, our efforts to remain politically correct should not prevent law enforcement agents from receiving valuable information in the fight against terrorism. Unfortunately, there are signs that this has already happened. Several Agents and analysts voiced strong objections to some of the material being removed without their input or any consideration to the context within which it was presented. Others resent having their training material "pre-screened" by anonymous subject matter experts who require substantive changes to the briefing content.

Finally, it is important to note that the Muslim American community is a critical part of the strategy to thwart acts of terror on American soil but they are also the severest critics of how law enforcement defines the threat. Herein lays the paradox: On one hand, our nation's greatest enemies are manipulating the religion of Islam to recruit followers into acts of violence. However, if we over-sanitize the training material, and remove any reference to Islam and Muslims, how will we identify the warning signs of that recruitment process? Ultimately we should not have to choose between national security and the respect for civil rights in this country, but achieving the right balance will remain our greatest challenge.

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