Steps the FBI Must Take to Remedy Misinformation Campaign about Arabs and Muslims
There are times when I see a really hideous looking building and I think "that monstrosity didn't just happen. Someone designed it. Someone approved it. It went before a board that signed off on funding it. And a construction company was then hired to build it.” In other words, many people, not just one architect, are to blame.
That's how I feel we must approach the continuing disturbing revelations of biased material about Islam and Arabs that have been found in instructional manuals and other resources used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to prepare agents for their work in dealing with America's Arab and Muslim communities.
The steady flow of leaks about these materials has established that they contain shocking misinformation about Islam and depictions of the religion and culture of Arabs and Muslims that can only be characterized as bigoted. A few examples will suffice:
• "Accommodation and compromise between [Islam and the West] are impermissible and fighting [for Muslims] is obligatory"
• "There may not be a 'radical' threat as much as it is simply a normal assertion of the orthodox ideology...the strategic themes animating these values are not fringe; they are mainstream"
• Zakat is characterized as "a funding mechanism for combat"
• "Never attempt to shake hands with an Asian... Never stare at an Asian"
• While the "Western mind" is "even keel" and "outbursts are exceptional" among Arabs "outbursts and loss of control [can be] expected.” They can have "Jekyll and Hyde temper tantrums.”
There is much more in the training manuals. Reporters have found equally troubling material in the FBI's resource library and on the agency's internal website. In an interview with a law enforcement official who had prepared some of this offensive material, he is quoted as saying "there is evidence to support the contention that sources of terrorism in Islam may reside within the strategic themes of Islam" and "Mohammed's mindset is a source for terrorism.”
After a year or so of these revelations, the FBI has announced that following an internal review they had removed offensive material from their programs saying that they were in "factual error...poor taste...lacked precision.” They were, however, also quick to add that in their review of over 160,000 pages of material they found only 900 pages that were problematic. Finally, they announced a new set of "guiding principles" that will henceforth govern their work in this area. This is in addition to an earlier announcement that they had "reassigned" one individual who had been responsible for one of the more anti-Islam training programs.
These initial steps to correct course are important. But I have seen nothing so far that convinces me that the highest law enforcement agency in the country understands the depth of the problem or is prepared to take the appropriate measures required to fully address this situation. It is deeper than the one individual who designed one of the programs. And it cannot simply be remedied by excising 900 pages of materials found to be "inaccurate" or in "poor taste.”
Referring back to my original point—there must have been a committee that approved the program, the leadership must have signed off on it, and, from all we know, hundreds or even thousands of law enforcement officials were trained with this material.
Given all this, serious questions must be raised about the efficacy of the "internal review.” Who conducted it and how can we believe that it was not done by the very same leadership group that had approved the offensive material in the first place? And is it sufficient to simply tell those agents who were trained with the program that they are now simply to ignore 900 pages? And what of the other 159,000 pages? Can we trust that they are not equally offensive, or maybe that they are just "mildly offensive?”
It is for these reasons, and more, that the Arab American Institute has said that this entire affair will not be closed until four conditions have been met.
First, there must be transparency and a full public disclosure of all training materials pertaining to the Arab and Muslim communities. This material should not be treated as "secret.” It is about us and we want to know what is being taught about our history, culture, and religion.
There must be accountability. How this program was approved and who approved it is important for there to be real change. More than one person was at fault here and more individuals who were responsible for this situation need to be sanctioned and reassigned or removed from their posts.
Next, it is vitally important that those who were trained now be retrained. For lost trust to be rebuilt, it is critical that new cultural sensitivity programs be put in place. Agents whose attitudes have been shaped by exposure to the hurtful and wrong-headed training programs of the past need to know how to challenge the misinformation campaign to which they were subjected.
And finally there must be an acknowledgment of the wrong that was done to our communities and to our country's ability to respectfully engage with Arabs and Muslims. This is vital to our future as Americans and to our ability to develop the ties that will be needed to foster trust and understanding.
I can only imagine if in a different era we had discovered similar programs about African American, Latinos, or Jews. The outcry would have been deafening and the demands for an apology, accountability, transparency, and retraining would be heard. In this instance, our demand for a full and appropriate response must be no less. Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby, author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters, a book that brings into stark relief the myths, assumptions, and biases that hold us back from understanding the people of the Arab world.
The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute. We invite you to share your views on the topics addressed within Dr. Zogby's weekly Washington Watch by emailing email@example.com.